Lately I’ve been interested in learning about how books are titled. My manuscript began with the working title An Antique Murder. Later, on the advice of an agent, I changed it to The Secret of Lanark Island, first in the proposed Antique Murder series. I might change it again. Hey—if a publisher has a better idea, I’m in!
I’ve noticed that agents or publishers often change the original book title chosen by the author. They do this, presumably, because they have marketing experts who follow the trends. After all, the title of a book, along with an attractive book jacket, is meant to tempt you to pick it up and buy it.
There are theories about naming books. Book titles should stick in the mind. They should describe what the book is about. Alexander McCall Smith, author of the best-selling No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series set it Botswana, said—in jest—that the proposed marriage of his main character Mma Precious Ramotswe to Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni was dragged out for so many books that his publisher insisted he call the next one The Wedding to remind him to make it happen (the book was actually entitled The Full Cupboard of Life). Sometimes books are given different titles in different countries. Agatha Christie’s 4.50 from Paddington in the UK, for example, became What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw! in the US.
Modern book titles tend to be short—many say, the shorter the better. The New York Times Best Seller list is a case in point. Of the top fifteen works of fiction (as of March 2013), one book has a one-word title, eight have two-word titles, four have three-word titles, and two have four-word titles. The non-fiction list is the same.
My main interest is the mystery genre. Often, when a book is meant to be part of a series, the titles have a correspondence or follow a pattern. This requires gumption—or confidence. Think of Sue Grafton’s ABC mysteries (she committed herself to twenty-six books) or Ann Purser’s Lois Meade mysteries, which started with the days of the week and are currently working their way around the clock. Sometimes a word or a phrase is repeated (for example, Katherine Hall Page’s series, The Body in the…).
I admire the titles chosen by Agatha Award-winning author Julia Spencer-Fleming for her series set in the small Adirondack town of Millers Kill, featuring the Rev. Clare Fergusson of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church and Police Chief Russ Van Alstyne. Ms. Spencer-Fleming calls her books “novels of faith and murder for readers of literary suspense.” Although her titles tend to be a tad longer than today’s norm, they so beautifully reflect her themes of faith and suspense: In the Bleak Midwinter (2002), A Fountain Filled with Blood (2003), Out of the Deep I Cry (2004), To Darkness and To Death (2005), All Mortal Flesh (2006), I Shall Not Want (2008), One Was a Soldier (2011).
I look forward to reading In the Bleak Midwinter very soon. I wonder if she considered naming it just Bleak Midwinter? I’m glad she didn’t.