Steinbeck stuck on the title page

Book Titles – What’s In a Name?

Steinbeck’s pain is my pain 

I love that cartoon, not only because it makes me laugh, but because I can feel Steinbeck’s pain. It’s exactly what I’ve been going through for the last few months as I was writing my novella – I could not for the life of me come up with a title for it. It was saved on my computer as a document called ‘Novella’ and when talking about it I referred to it as ‘my novella.’ It felt and sounded strange and impersonal, as if it didn’t have an identity, like having a six month old baby called Baby.

While it didn’t worry me at first, I became more frustrated as I was nearing completion, because I wanted to start promoting it, which is difficult when it doesn’t have a title.

Why are titles important?

Authors have to put a great deal of consideration into their book titles - along with the cover, it’s the most important determinant of whether someone will buy your book. An effective title not only indicates what the book’s about, but what genre it is. One thing an author can pretty well count on if published by traditional publishers is having their book title changed, usually to make the book more marketable.

Often the title is enough on its own to attract consumers. Take the movie Snakes on a Plane. Samuel L. Jackson is quoted as saying, ‘All I needed to hear was the title and I knew I wanted to be in this film.’ I’m sure that those cinema goers who don’t suffer from ophidiophobia thought the same, as there can be no doubt about the subject matter of the movie.

However, I’m one person who remains unimpressed by that title. I have never seen this movie, because the moment I step on an aircraft, my mind decides to conjure up every air disaster movie I’ve ever seen, starting from Airport in 1970, and play them on a loop throughout the flight. I refuse to add any more fuel to the fire of my imagination.

Famous book titles that almost weren’t

There are many instances where famous books have started off with unprepossessing titles. The Great Gatsby was originally called Trimalchio in West Egg. It’s not hard to see why F Scott Fitzgerald’s publishers quickly asked him to change it. Margaret Mitchell was considering Tote The Weary Load, Not In Our Stars and Bugles Sang True before settling for Gone with the Wind.

War and Peace was originally called All’s Well That Ends Well and maybe John Steinbeck really did have a problem with titles, as his novel Of Mice and Men started off with the very unimaginative title Something That Happened. You’d have to agree that in all the above instances the revised title was far better.

Weird book titles

And if you want some ideas about what not to call your novel, type ‘weird book titles’ into Google and you’ll be entertained for hours. Here’s just a small sample: (these are real books).

Bombproof Your Horse

How to Dissappear Completely And Never Be Found (complete with misspelling)

Dating For Under A Dollar – 301 Ideas (This was written 10 years ago when a dollar was really worth – well, a dollar)

Teach Your Wife To Be A Widow – which may result in her being one sooner than you thought.

How to Avoid Huge Ships.

One reviewer wrote, ‘I was jogging around the block when all of a sudden I was almost struck by a huge ship! Thankfully I had read How to Avoid Huge Ships. I have lived to tell the tale and now I only hope future generations read this lifesaver.’

Annual odd title award

There’s even an annual award, run by The Bookseller, a British trade magazine for the publishing industry, for the oddest book title. In 2014 a self-published book won for the first time – Strangers Have the Best Candy.(Thankfully this is not a children’s book).

Previous winners of the Award include:

Managing A Dental Practice –The Genghis Khan Way

If You Want Closure In Your Relationship Start With Your Legs

Cooking With Poo (the chef’s name is Khun Poo)

People Who Don’t Know They’re Dead – How They Attach Themselves To Unsuspecting Bystanders And What To Do About It.

I was delighted to read that one of my favourite Australian authors Kaz Cooke won the award in 2002 for her book Living with Crazy Buttocks. It’s a collection of essays about contemporary life, including female body image, and is hilarious – I’d highly recommend it. You can buy it as a print book on Amazon.

My problem is solved

But enough diversions. Let’s get back to my problem of not having a title for my romantic suspense novella. I brainstormed with my partner, I stopped thinking about it to let my subconscious do the work, I swore, pigged out on chocolate. Nothing worked. I came up with a couple of titles (one of which was A Dangerous Affair) but when I typed them into the search engines of Amazon and Goodreads, I found at least a dozen other books with exactly the same title.

Then it happened. A flash of inspiration just after I’d eaten lunch, when my brain and stomach were in sync. A Dangerous Affair was out, but what about An Affair with Danger?

I searched for the title on Amazon and Goodreads and bingo! Nothing! So An Affair With Danger is now the title, proving to myself yet again that we often ignore the simplest solution to a problem (in this case, just switching the words around) which is right under our nose.

My Novella – An Affair With Danger

An Affair with Danger is still with my beta readers, so will undergo further re-writing and editing, but here’s a brief synopsis:

Corporate lawyer Will McPherson is the victim of an armed hold-up and when he meets the perpetrator’s girlfriend Frankie Slater in court, he is instantly smitten. Their liaison puts them both in danger, and ultimately becomes a matter of life or death.

If you want to know more about novellas and why I decided to write one, you can read my previous post The Novella - Don't Sell It Short.

P.S. If you happen to know of a book with that title that has somehow escaped my attention, please leave me in my blissful ignorance.

PPS John Steinbeck’s wife Carol Henning came up with the title The Grapes of Wrath, taken directly from a line in the anthem The Battle Hymn of the Republic, thereby saving him from further fruity metaphors.

​Have you come across any weird or misleading book titles? Or had any book title dilemmas yourself?  I'd love to read your comments in the box below.

Cartoon courtesy of cartoon stock. ​

About the Author Robin Storey

Robin Storey is an Australian author from the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia. She is a certified book nerd and has no weird hobbies or unusual pets.

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6 comments
David Vernon says November 9, 2015

For a long time now I have had a policy of naming Stringybark Short Story anthologies after the winning story. Regretfully this could have led to having some very bizarre names for the anthologies such as “A funny story,” and thus I have had to ask the writer of the winning tale to come up with a new title. Sometimes this has been quite traumatic. I sympathise Robin on your efforts to find a good title for your novella. I do like an ‘An Affair with Danger’!

Reply
    Robin Storey says November 9, 2015

    Thanks for your comment, David – ‘traumatic’ is a good word to describe it!

    Reply
Maggie Dana says November 30, 2015

Great article, but just one nitpick. If you were a horse person, you would know that “Bombproof Your Horse” is a valid title and perfectly understandable to anyone who’s ever worked with horses.

Reply
    Robin Storey says November 30, 2015

    Hi Maggie
    Thanks for your comment, which intrigued me. I did further investigation to find out that bombproofing your horse, according to one site I visited, is old horseman’s slang for determining the safety of your horse. ie how it reacts to unexpected stimuli. It does conjure up a rather amusing image, though!

    Reply
Luisa says December 27, 2015

I simply called my first story: two brown bears. The she-bear’s name is Babe (like baby or Babe Paley – I like her name) but the Brown Bear thinks her name is Pooh because the she-bear’s was making that sound trying to swallow her emotions of falling in love.
PS: this book is a trilogy
My second book is also a trilogy. It is about a girl Alicia (the name popped in my head when I was sleeping). Because I wrote some other ideas that didn’t connect well. The story goes like this: Alicia is a runaway because she is tired of how her mom was treating her with disrespect. She takes a train without knowing where it actually goes: to Fairyland. And so on… Chapters are named after the world’s. and planted she visited. In this trilogy I want to collect best part of movies, books, video games, documentaries. Hard but not impossible.
The third book: Ethel, named after an other dimensional character I discovered in Simon Green’s Secret History series. And no, my Ethel has nothing to do with that Ethel. I am re-writing an old soap opera “Esmeralda”. Ethel is… The cat woman, eli and daredevil and Morpheus of the matrix: all in one. The fourth book is about how people may become lazy and how they died doing nothing to save themselves only because they have found a planet… Well… Like the paradise in the Bible (except the aple is not there). My last book is the vice versa of this fourth book.
As you see I didn’t focus on titles or finishing my book(s) but instead I waited for the right time and inspiration. Art takes patience.

Reply
    Robin Storey says December 28, 2015

    Hi Luisa – yes I agree. When the title doesn’t magically present itself to you, time and patience is the key! And because the title is so important, you can’t hurry the process. That’s the lesson I’ve learnt from this novella.

    Reply
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