John has many years of writing experience in poetry, short fiction and text for children's books. Basically, he just loves to write.
Titles are very hard. Sometimes a title
comes before I start to write the book, but
often I finish the book, and I still don't have
a title. I have to go through the book again,
and then sometimes I hope a title jumps out
at me from what I've written.
— Eve Bunting
A Book by Any Other Name
Do you realise that your book’s title is the most important marketing strategy you have? It doesn’t matter that you’ve nailed the first line or paragraph of your novel, it doesn’t even matter if you’ve written a killer story, it doesn’t matter if you have gone with a traditional publisher, or self-published. Well, it may eventually, but not at first.
Your book’s title comes first, closely followed by the cover design - so make that attractive as well.
Your book’s title is the bait that lures readers to your story despite any other obstacle in their way. The price tag and the fact that you’re an unknown author may have some affect on attracting readers but if you have taken the time to craft the perfect title your chances of success are greatly multiplied.
Many readers decide whether or not to pick up a book by title and cover alone. I know I’ve done that.
How can you not be drawn to a title like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, or To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee? These titles immediately hook you and won’t let go.
Even if it’s not in the genre that you normally read, the right title may cause you to reconsider. You may ponder “What is this story about?“ Then, you to pick up the book, open to the first page, and who knows….perhaps you can’t put it down.
Writers (no matter how famous) have always struggled with getting the title right. The following are some examples, that ask the question, “Would a best-selling book be as successful if it had been published under any other name?”
15 Famous Book Titles and What They Could Have Been
1. Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens (1844)
Dickens was one of the most guilty of changing the names of the titles of his stories, many of which began as serials in magazines. He wrote this particular story after returning from a visit to the USA in 1842, calling it first ‘Martin Sweetledew,‘ then ‘Martin Chuzzletow‘ before deciding on the final title. It seems he had as much trouble naming his characters as his titles.
2. Mein Kampf (My Struggle) by Adolf Hitler (1925)
This was written dictated by Hitler (to Rudolph Hess) while he was serving nine months imprisonment in Landsberg Jail in Germany. It may have disappeared without trace bar for the authors' unexpected rise to power and a change of name from the original ‘Four Years of Struggle Against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice.’
3. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949)
The title of this classic novel, about a scientifically perfected servile state, looked certain to be ‘The Last Man in Europe’ until just before publishing. Orwell suddenly had second thoughts and decided to reverse the last two numbers of the year 1948 when he wrote it and publish it as ‘1984.’
4. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck (1937)
In this, one of the most revered novels of the 20th Century, Steinbeck created two unforgettable characters in Lennie and George. He was unhappy with the early title he had chosen ‘Something That Happened,’ but fortunately found the perfect phrase that summarised his plot in the poem by Robert Burns ‘Of Mice and Men.’
5. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin (1813)
Jane Austin’s writing ranged from satires on popular Gothic fiction to deep studies of human behaviour. The perfect title for one of her most endearing novels alluded her at first, however, and appeared destined to be called ‘First Impressions’ until she had a much better idea for a name - ‘Pride and Prejudice.’
6. Roots by Alex Haley (1977)
This epic story by a black author, Haley, traced his origins back to Africa before focussing on the plight of his people in America. The title began as ‘Before This Anger’ and went through many changes before being published as simply ‘Roots.’
7. Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy (1891)
As part of Hardy’s popular series of Wessex novels this powerful story of one of his doomed heroines endured several title changes including ‘Too Late, Beloved’ and ‘Tess of the Hardys.’
8. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
Fitzgerald encountered problems naming a number of his books, but this, his most acclaimed, caused him perhaps the most headaches. His publishers could not agree on previous titles he submitted such as ‘The High-bouncing Lover’ and ‘Gold-Batted Gatsby’ until the final name was chosen - ‘The Great Gatsby.’
9. The Postman Always Ring Twice by James M Cain (1934)
James Cain was a newspaper reporter and political columnist until he wrote this novel about a young drifter’s attraction to the wife of a cafe owner. Almost overnight he became a legend in crime fiction. It was fortunate he didn’t stick with his first choice for a title ‘Bar B-Q.’
10. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (1883)
Stevenson spurned his family’s traditional profession as an engineer to travel and write essays and tales of his adventures. His fame reached an all-time high after he published this swashbuckling tale about a search for a pirate’s treasure. The original title ‘The Sea-Cook’ just appears to have lacked the necessary appeal.
11. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer (2005)
The manuscript teenage love (and lust) story between vampire Edward and Bella, with the working title ‘Forks’ (after the rainiest town in the USA), was surprisingly accepted by a literary agent and Meyer’s career as an author skyrocketed. However ‘Forks’ was considered unsuitable for a tale of forbidden desire…hence ‘Twilight’ came to be.
12. Under Milkwood by Dylan Thomas (1954)
Thomas was a Welsh poet and short story writer whose lifestyle many people found scandalous. He initially called this work ‘Quite Early One Morning,’ but his irreverent sense of humour caused him to that of Llareggub (read it backwards) until he was finally persuaded to use the more socially acceptable ‘Under Milkwood.’
13. Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann (1968)
This novel about sex and drugs in the swinging sixties by an American journalist would undoubtedly never have achieved its millions of sales under Susann’s original preferred title of ‘They Don’t Build Statues to Businessmen.’
14. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (1864)
Tolstoy’s experiences in the Crimean War deeply affected him and culminated in this Russian novelist and philosopher to write, what has been described as, the greatest book ever written. He originally chose the simple ‘1805’ as the title before changing it to ‘All’s Well That Ends Well.’ Eventually, he realised that the story would not have a happy ending so settled for what we now know as - 'War and Peace.'
15. Where Angels Fear to Tread by E. M. Forster (1905)
Forster was famous for stories of English middle-class life with special emphasis on public schools, the church and civil service. This first novel, however, was set in Italy and submitted for publication as a serial titled ‘Monteriano.’ It was soon renamed ‘From a Sense of Duty’ and finally published under the ultimate title ‘Where Angels Fear to Tread.’
Old books that we have known but not possessed cross our path and invite themselves over. New books try to seduce us daily with tempting titles and tantalizing covers.
— Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night
In Conclusion: Raymond Chandler
British-American novelist and screenwriter, Raymond Chandler published countless short stories and seven novels in his lifetime. At least three of his novels Farewell, My Lovely, The Little Sister, and The Long Goodbye are regarded as masterpieces and all but one of his novels have been made into motion pictures.
Chandler was always seeking to perfect the titles of his stories and always had a notebook on his person to jot down any ideas that came to him. After his untimely death, it was revealed the book contained dozens of wonderful titles that he had never got around to using. These included Lament, But No Tears, The Man With the Shredded Ear, and The Corps Came in Person.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 John Hansen