Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Book Titles that Grab

Following my recent blog about the Image on a book cover, I thought I'd look at Titles.

The title of a book, (backed up by the image on the cover), gives us our first impression of the novel. Those two or three seconds when a reader’s eyes fall on the cover are crucial – the title needs to grab our attention, generate intrigue and compel us to take a closer look.

The Lord of the Flies by William Golding was initially entitled Strangers from Within and was rejected by at least ten publishers before it was finally accepted for publication in 1954, by the young editor Charles Monteith at Faber and Faber.

The editor's note (below, in green pen) says 'Rubbish and dull. Pointless'.
Golding's original rejection letter - Faber Books on flickr

Monteith spotted the potential of the novel and initiated the change of title, and in my opinion, I think the new one is a stroke of genius; it’s instantly visual, striking and sinister to boot. It is said to be a reference to the Hebrew name Beelzebub, literally meaning "Lord of Flies", a name often used as a synonym for Satan. It may also be a reference to a line from King Lear - "As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods — They kill us for their sport". (King Lear Act IV, Scene 1). Personally, I think the earlier cover version for it (below) is far better than the current one.

As a writer, finding a title early in the writing process gives me an instant focus. Strangely, it makes me feel that the book already exists on some level and merely needs to be brought out into the light. My titles are often changed later and that’s fine by me – at times the original words may have personal meaning for me, but insufficient ‘global’ resonance.

Penny Hancock, author of the psychological thriller, Tideline, told me the title came via her husband. ‘He’s an artist and quite poetic and thinks in terms of images, so he took the idea of the Thames tide coming in and out and the lines that are crossed in the book and came up with ‘Tidemark’ which sounded a bit grubby somehow!! Another friend suggested ‘Tideline’.’

Paula Daly, author of Just what Kind of Mother are You? considered Stripped Bare and No Milk Today for her book. In my view, the title she chose has much more direct impact.

Titles often change considerably in translations: My debut psychological thriller, The Evil Beneath, (which I originally called 'Body under the Bridge') became Ressac Mortel ('Deadly Undertow') at the French bookclub, France Loisirs, then Les Noyees de la Tamise ('The Drowned Women of the Thames') with the publisher, Editions les Escales. In Germany, Random House chose Todesdunkel, which translates as 'The Darkness of Death'. I think they all give strong, but slightly different, visual impressions.

Titles can change even between English speaking countries, reflecting cultural differences. This is often a pitfall for the reader who can be fooled into thinking a different title is a new book. Agatha Christie’s Sparkling Cyanide in the UK is published as Remembered Death in the US, for example. One, Two, Buckle my Shoe in the UK was turned into The Patriotic Murders (US) - which sounds poles apart.
Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo originally had the Swedish title Män som hatar kvinnor - literally meaning, 'Men who Hate Women'. I think changing it to the one we all know was a good move!

This post originally appeared in the Crime Readers' Association when I was Featured Author in March.
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AJ Waines is the author of Psychological Thrillers:  The Evil Beneath and Girl on a Train. Both books hit the Number One spot in 'Murder' and 'Psychological Thrillers' in the UK Kindle charts.