Friday, April 29, 2011


By Russel D McLean

Yes, this post is late today - - Russel's internet gave out for a few hours last night. But he's back up and running this morning.

Interesting story heard from an author recently about titles. The author in question had submitted a book his publisher loved. It had a great title, too. But the publisher nixed the title for something pretty generic and standard (something that could be the title of any one of fifty thrillers and that was so literal, my teeth ached from laughing about it). However, as the author pointed out, if the title sold the book, he was all for it. Even if he thought it was a bloody dull title himself.

Which does bring into question the idea of titles. Effective titles, too. They’re tough, perhaps one of the toughest parts of a book. You can tell a good title instantly. And you can smell a hurried or bad one a mile away.

A good title has to act as a book’s first impression. It’s the first time you’re laying eyes on this potential next read. You’re eyeing them up. You’re looking for a reason to accept or reject. A title can do this easily. And for so many reasons. Different titles work for different people. One of the questions I have been asked by people is why titles change for the US market so frequently. For example Stuart MacBride’s BROKEN SKIN became BLOODSHOT for the US market. Why? God only knows, but I bet there was a reason behind it to do with culture. And it has to be better than the reason Ian Rankin’s FLESHMARKET CLOSE (the name of a real street) became FLESHMARKET ALLEY.

But of course such things are often out of an author’s control. While certain online reviews in certain online bookshops may bemoan “why do authors do this?” because they’ve bought the same book twice because of different titles, they’d do well to bear in mind that its often a publisher’s decision and that often its not taken lightly.

I remember Michael Robotham’s THE DROWNING MAN came out under the title LOST back in the mists of time. Why change the title? Well, as soon as the book came out, a television show started airing that was sweeping the world like an almighty juggernaut. It was called LOST and it could not have been more different than Robotham’s brilliant thriller. The decision for the change was obvious and necessary. In the bookstore I was working in at the time, I remember fielding a lot of questions about “is that , like, the book of the TV show?”

I’ve only been subject to a proposed change in title once (well, twice, but adding the word “The”
to a book that was called LOST SISTER was not that much of a trauma). It was a short story called JIMMY’S WAY. Not the greatest title, I have to admit now. And I have to admit that the editors at Thrilling Detective were spot on retitling the story A MATTER OF HONOUR.

Titles are vital, I believe. And they’re tough, too. An ideal title is original, memorable and should forever be associated with that story. Of course, it doesn’t always work that way. Multiple authors sometimes end up with the same title. Sometimes a title doesn’t reflect the work. Sometimes they fail to attract the right readership. They’re a balancing act.

But when they’re right, they can really help a book’s chances of being picked up, cracked open and read.


John McFetridge said...

This seems to happen to Canadian books a lot. Louise Penny has had novels published with different titles in Canada, the US and the UK. iles Blunt has had different titles in the UK and Canada and I've had a title chsnged by a US publisher. It was a disaster (but maybe it;s just a bad book).

Maybe this is something that will change as more books get sold online and at the same time everywhere in the world.

Peter Rozovsky said...

"And it has to be better than the reason Ian Rankin’s FLESHMARKET CLOSE (the name of a real street) became FLESHMARKET ALLEY."

That one always comes up in discussions of titles (and I've made a number of posts about title changes and reasons for them). The Edinburgh street is Fleshmarket Close, pronounced, as far as I know, klohs, with a hissing s-sound. Trouble is, an American reader is likely to pronounce it kloze, and the U.K. title would conjure all sorts of misleasing associations with the verb to close. Ordinarily I'd roll my eyes at dumbing down of vocabulary; I like to learn new words from beyond borders. But in this case the American publishers may have made the right decision.

A few years ago I thought I spotted a trend in which U.K. publishers went for generic thriller titles of the form (The)+adjective+noun. The Åsa Larsson novel called Sun Storm in the U.S., for instance (a literal translation of its Swedish title), was called Savage Altar in the U.K. In this case, the U.S. title was far more evocative, to my mind. (The French title, Horreur boréale, is a play on aurore boréale, French for aurora borealis, or Northern lights, which are the sun storm of the Swedish and American titles. Consider that the h is silent in French, and you have one of the cleverer changes in book titledom.)

Oddest U.K./U.S. title difference for me is in the English-language editions of Andrea Camilleri's L'odore della notte. It was The Smell of the Night in the U.S., The Scent of the Night in the U.K. Cripes, you guys are delicate.
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