Sunday, February 19, 2017

A Book By Any Other Name

Back in 1994, Andre Bernard, then an executive editor at the Book of the Month Club, penned her follow-up to Rotten Rejections:  A Literary Companion, with the release of Now All We Need is a Title:  Famous Book Titles and How They Got That Way.

Bernard researched the stories behind more than 100 of the most famous titles in the English language, producing a nicely, packaged volume rich in publishing lore, literary anecdote, and a ledger of historical second-guessing.

Around the time this book was published (I only came upon a copy of it while browsing the shelves of Strand bookstore in New York City, the best bookstore in America), I was working as an editor and publicist for a mid-size publisher in Florida, Lifetime Books, now defunct.  I had the pleasure of helping the publisher and authors determine what their book title and sub-title should be.

It appears Rule No. 1 in fiction title-naming today is it must have “girl” in it.  So many books use it.  Are there no women, ladies, or females anymore?

What does a title mean for the sales success of a book – or the media attention and critical acclaim it hopes to garner?  Who is to say what any book should be called?

So how did the famous book, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) by James M. Cain get its name?  Bernard writes:  “Cain said that his mailman would ring twice whenever he was delivering, a manuscript of Cain’s that had been rejected by a publisher and returned to the author. Can was rejected so often he came to expect the mailman to ring twice every day.  One day he range only once.  Alfred Knopf had taken his book on for publication.  To celebrate, Cain named his novel for his days of struggle.”

The book tells how titles such as Gone with the Wind, Alice in Wonderland, Catch-22, Brave New World, The Grapes of Wrath, Treasure Island, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, War and Peace, The Hobbit, and The Maltese Falcon came to be.  In case you were wondering, Bernard shares how George Orwell came to name his dystopian novel, 1984:

“Novelist Orwell began his frightening portrayal of life in a future totalitarian state in 1943, when World War II had entered its darkest hour. He didn’t complete it until after the Allied victory, but even with the war’s conclusion, the world was still facing grave dangers.  The Cold War had begun in earnest.  Physically and morally Europe was in a shambles, and Orwell’s choice for a title for his grim vision reflected that despair, The Last Man in Europe.  It seemed too bleak though, and in an effort to postpone the reality of his fictional world he decided to call in 1984, which was both far enough away to seem unlikely and a simple reversal of numbers of the year in which he finished writing his book.”

Today, a lot of marketing analysis goes into a title.  Is it a title that:

·         Is too long?
·         Not easily understood?
·         Gets your attention?
·         Exploits a popular book, event, personality, or place?
·         Seems unique?
·         Could create controversy?
·         Conjures up alluring images?

For some, a title is just a necessity.  A book needs to be called something just for the purposes of identifying it.  Or the title comes from something meaningful or personal to the author.  Or the title purposely sounds generic, in hopes of being confused with 20 other best-selling ones.

Some titles just write themselves, but however they came about, they’ll only be remembered if the book sold well.

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Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog 2017©. Born and raised in Brooklyn, now resides in Westchester. Named one of the best book marketing blogs by Book Baby 

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