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.