August 4, 2016
Don’t judge a book by its… title?
by Nikki Griffiths
We’ve all heard the old cliché “don’t judge a book by its cover.” But how about judging a book by its title?
As publishers, we spend long, agonising meetings brainstorming title ideas (“I know… let’s include the word ‘girl!’”). And book titles do seem to rise and fall in waves, as noted by Emily St. John Mandel in The Millions:
There was a time a few years back when it seemed like vast numbers of books were being published on the subject of secret lives, as in The Secret Life of Bees, The Secret Lives of Buildings, The Secret Lives of Words, etc…
But no trend that I’ve ever noticed has seemed quite so pervasive as the daughter phenomenon. Seriously, once you start noticing them, they’re everywhere… The Hummingbird’s Daughter, The Baker’s Daughter, The Calligrapher’s Daughter and The Murderer’s Daughter, and those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head.
And today’s trend, as we’ve written, really has to be ‘girl.’ (I’m looking at you, The Girl on the Train.)
But our perennial favourites, the classics of old, they got it right… right? Eventually yes, but Jonker’s rare books has recently put together a handy visual listing, explaining the reasons for title changes by books from Frances Hodgson Burnett to George Orwell.
Here’s a list of my top ten favourites, with a bit of help from the Huffington Post.
- Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita was originally titled The Kingdom by the Sea.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t remember this book for its picturesque seaside settings.
- Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was originally titled First Impressions.
Sounds a bit like a self-help manual.
- Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace was originally titled All’s Well That Ends Well.
Ummm… is this describing a different book?
- Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was originally titled just Alice.
Let’s not miss out on her adventures! They’re the whole point!
- John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men was originally titled Something That Happened.
The possible title for literally ANY book.
- Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden was originally titled Mistress Mary.
A new career twist for Mary.
- Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint was originally going to be The Jewboy, Wacking Off, or A Jewish Patient Begins His Analysis.
Many. Things. Wrong.
- William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was originally titled Strangers From Within.
Not terrible, but not as menacing.
- Bram Stoker’s Dracula was once called The Dead Un-Dead.
An accurate description I guess.
- F. Scott Fitzergerald’s The Great Gatsby could have been called Trimalchio in West Egg.
So remember to think carefully when naming your new book! And check out Melville’s The Girl in the Red Coat — it’s a good ‘girl.’
(Thought for new novel: The Secret Girl’s Daughter…)
Nikki Griffiths is the managing director of Melville House UK.