This Year’s Hottest Novel Is [Untitled]


A book never sells on its title alone, but a good one can really help. The mass-market success of the rudimentary thriller The Girl on the Train is down to its perfect title, two nouns and a clear image, destined to be bought by every girl who ever caught a train.

Titles are probably more important to authors than readers; they help keep us focussed during the writing of the book. Titles go through fashions. Once it was popular to use symbols in titles; The Sandpiper, To Kill A Mockingbird (its original title was Atticus), The Glass Menagerie and so on. In the 60s books started touting psychedelic titles like Tom Wolfe’s Kandy-kolored Tangerine-flake Streamline Baby. Now unironic nouns are popular; The Woman in the Window, The Woman in the Lake etc.

This is an anglicisation of an old Eastern technique. In SE Asia film titles are more descriptive of contents. In Malaysia (due to censorship restrictions) The Spy Who Shagged Me to become Austin Powers: The Spy Who Behaved Very Nicely Around Me. And in China The Sixth Sense became He’s a A Ghost! which somewhat defeated the point of the film. The Full Monty became Six Naked Pigs. Nixon was Big Liar, and my favourite – Pretty Woman became I Will Marry a Prostitute to Save Money.

Unlike films, book titles tend to change in the authors’ hands long before publication rather than being transformed just prior to launches. Even the classics were not immune to change; Orwell’s first title for 1984 was The Last Man in Europe, while War and Peace had an earlier title; All’s Well that Ends Well. I wonder when Tolstoy realised that had been used.

At the humbler end of the scale from Tolstoy, when I was working on my LK Fox novel, the title went from There’s Some I Haven’t Told You to Little Boy Found, which was chosen by my editor. The follow-up has been through four titles so far and still hasn’t settled on one.  But it’s not the title that has to change – it’s the contents. If a book’s denouement occurs on a railway platform, you can call it Platform 13. If it occurs in an ordinary house you tend to end up looking for phrases that describe situations and relationships – soft phrases.

Girl on a Train could have been legitimately called The Corkscrew or Drunk Woman In Garden. That it wasn’t is down to the perspicacious marketing minds who know readers need something with which to identify.

12 comments on “This Year’s Hottest Novel Is [Untitled]”

  1. Susanna Carroll says:

    Lifting a line, or phrase, from a poem, from Shakespeare, or the Bible, used to be popular (perhaps it still is) although a lot of the good ones have been used.

  2. Ken Mann says:

    My favourite old thriller cover was a picture of an old-fashioned leather football with blood seeping out through the seams and the title “Death Penalty”. I classified it under “too good to read – the book in my head can’t possibly be matched by the actual book”.

  3. John DLC says:

    I don’t wish to unfairly demean our trans -Atlantic cousins but wasn’t ‘Liicence Revoked’ renamed ‘ Licence to Kill’ because so few of them knew what revoked meant?

  4. John DLC says:

    And then I spell Licence with two i’s!

  5. admin says:

    That argument went for the change of title in ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’. I think it’s more a case of the publisher being nervous than the public.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    There doesn’t seem to be any law copyrighting titles so I wonder if we could have a totally different Woman on the Train or Goldfinger some day. Perhaps that would be a good exercise. What title would be even better with a different plot? Expand.

  7. Ken Mann says:

    I think this already happens when films that aren’t faithful to their source novel get novelised. The fact that this happens at all is an implicit criticism of the films.

  8. Wayne Mook says:

    Hollow Man by Dan Simmons was bought for the title, the film is nothing at all to do with the book.

    The film is less interesting.

    I still like the Les Dawson book title, ‘Come Back With the Wind.’ I didn’t even know it was catching.


  9. Ian Luck says:

    Never ask the public to help name your next magnum opus. It’ll be unanimous: ‘Booky book McBookface’, or some such pipdribble.

  10. Ian Luck says:

    Lovely droll Les Dawson. A man with ‘funny bones’. He could make one laugh simply by looking at the camera. I loved his monologues, sometimes full of startlingly beautiful and poetic imagery, derailed by an hilarious last line, such as the one with a dazzling accurate and beautiful description of the night sky, which ends with something on the lines of: “And as I watched this endless display of stars, disappearing into the infinite void, I was struck by a sudden thought – I really must get the hole in the roof of my outside toilet repaired.” His disparaging observations on his ‘In-laws’ always made me laugh, even if they weren’t PC (as if that would have bothered Les). His sister in-law’s wedding is my all time favourite: “I wouldn’t say she was a large girl, but when she came down the aisle in her white wedding dress, she resembled a sight screen being pulled on the pitch at Lords…” And the terrible piano playing – he was actually a concert grade pianist, who knew that you have to be able to play very well to be able to play so very badly.

  11. Jo W says:

    Les Dawson, don’t have to see his face looking at the camera,I just read or hear his name and I’m smiling. See I’m doing it now. 🙂

  12. Ian Luck says:

    A Les Dawson character was one of the very few things frowned on by my parents – his lecherous misfit Cosmo Smallpiece. It was his catchphrase, mimicked by my little brother that annoyed them, as hearing “Knickers, Knackers, Knockers!” shouted out by a three year old child definitely would.

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