The art of the elusive book title

One of the harder parts of writing a book is getting a good title. The criteria are tight; two or three apposite words that sum up the contents and make people want to read it. But that’s not an easy row to hoe. Some of the titles just float in, settle on the cover – and there they are.

Others have to be drawn. kicking and screaming, from the quicksands of good intentions and truly awful mixed metaphors (like this one). Another complication, certainly for my books, is that I like bad puns.

There are reasons why this is so difficult, of course. Titles have to do contradictory things; they have to be sharp, marketable and fully descriptive, all at once. Very difficult to achieve. And one thing that readers and critics sometimes don’t realise is that – certainly for commercially published books – the title is not the author’s decision. By contract it’s the publisher’s prerogative, and with good reason. Publishers know what sells, and how to make titles work.

Take my book Convicts – New Zealand’s Hidden Criminal Past, for instance. (Well, actually I’d rather you buy it…ahem…)

I came up with that title in discussion with my editor at Penguin. Now, in a literal sense, that past has never been secret – the whole preamble of the Treaty of Waitangi of 1840, for instance, was given over to the fact that it was intended to squash the bad behaviour of local Europeans. Many were ex-convicts from the prison colony across the Tasman. Some of their stories have been digitised for download, which is fairly public.

So why call it ‘hidden’? Because for all intents and purposes today, New Zealand’s convict past was. Not conspiriatorially, but by popular mythology and the inertia of old thinking. It was a social thing. Early European colonists after 1840 were very eager indeed to show that their new colony was a fine, upstanding example of British values, law and order. That meant drawing a line in the sand – sweeping the proclivities of their immediate predecessors under the table. And so the story of ‘old New Zealand’ became a side of New Zealand’s history we haven’t liked to talk about much. Most historians know it happened, most question the trope that early Europeans were actually lawless. But it’s had little general attention. Hence ‘hidden’ from our immediate consciousness.

Until now. (Shameless self-promotion alert). It’s being published by Penguin on Monday, in print in Australia and New Zealand, and as an e-book in Canada – which means it is available for purchase in hard copy and by download worldwide. (‘Woohoo!)

How do you work up your titles? Do they arrive easily – or is it long, involved and painful? I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

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10 comments on “The art of the elusive book title

  1. Lemuel says:

    My experience with conjuring up title ideas is in the television industry and not in publishing but I imagine there are many similarities. Whole television shows are sometimes sold to broadcasters based on the strength of the title, so it is important to get it right before a pitch. That said – like in the publishing industry the publisher/broadcaster reserves the right to change it. They sometimes take it a step further and give the show a different title in different territories, something that happens occasionally in the publishing world but is more common in television.

    I hate having to force a title idea, it is easier if one simply evolves during the development process. What I often do is keep a list of words, quotes or phrases that pop into my head while writing a pitch and if no obvious title jumps at me then I’ll refer to that list and try to marry up some of the ideas or words to form the working title. Also I don’t think there is any shame in asking others for their ideas.

    Looking forward to the upcoming book release!

    • This sounds incredibly similar – I guess, for much the same reasons; grabbing that audience in a few words. And, I am sure, just as hard to nail down for all parties.

      Thanks for your thoughts on the book! Should mention that I’ve got a (by phone) radio interview on it scheduled down your way. Radio Dunedin, 6 July around 8.40 am.

  2. My novel about USAAF pursuit pilots in New Guinea was originally titled The Sluggers and the Palookas, but no one got the boxing reference, although it did refer to the plot, the metamorphosis of young untried pilots (palookas) into experienced pursuit (fighter) pilots (sluggers). Then I thought, OK: I Wanted Wings, from the song the pilots sang. But no one liked that, either, even though it applied to all the pilots in the story, literally. Finally I settled on Boxcar Red Leader; Boxcar being the call sign of the squadron the pilots belong to, and the metamorphosis involved in becoming Boxcar Red Leader.

    Everyone liked that and it fit the story.

    So sometimes it’s evolution.

    • It’s all good. Some authors keep tweaking the title even up to the moment of publication – and with good result. That sounds like a remarkable subject! One very much to heart in New Zealand (and Australia) because of the close ties we had with US forces (and experiences) of the era.

  3. ljclayton says:

    I think anything with the word ‘criminal’ in it sells well. Hope so.

    • Thank you. I do too! I realised during a radio interview yesterday that most Kiwis don;t know about this rather dark side of our history – hopefully this will spark some interest..

  4. First of all, congrats!
    Second, a timely post, M.
    Just one week ago, my editor, agent and I brainstormed a new title. What I had pitched as “Get That Train Off Your Penis: Things I Never Thought I’d Say As a Parent” has become “Don’t Lick the Minivan: [same subtitle…so far].
    It was an interesting process.
    Glad your book is available in Canada (and I love reading on my Kindle!)

    • Thank you! I have already had the first radio interview in which nobody knew pre-Crown Colony NZ was riddled with convicts escaping from Sydney. And congrats on your own book – excellent stuff. Those main title words are inevitably the tricky ones.

  5. I’m terrible at coming up with titles. My developmental editor just sent my mss back to me saying there’s not enough in the book to merit the reference to “Paris” in the title. (“Life After Paris.”) I was confident that the word “Paris” would market well so, admittedly, I liked it, mostly, for that reason. Now I either have to significantly rewrite to justify the title or come up with a new title. Blecch!
    BTW congrats on your new release…AND its great title. :-)

  6. Thanks! That title wasn’t too difficult, I must admit – the word ‘Convicts’ was always going to be in there and only the subtitle needed a bit of work.

    I know what you mean about a great title & trying to match to the content. I’ve had a few title adventures of that ilk myself over the years – two stick out. One was when my publisher managed to impose a title which, it turned out, was exactly the same as a competing book on the market. The other was when my publisher imposed a slightly ambiguous subtitle which needed a qualifying word to match the content. It didn’t get it – with the result that a competing author, commissioned to write a review of the book, was able to tell readers about my huge ‘omissions’, thus proving my worthlessness in his private territory. The speciouusness was obvious, but it didn’t stop him doing it.

    That ‘Paris’ issue, I guess! Good luck with your re-write/re-title. ‘Paris’ does have a great ring to it!

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