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What’s in a name? On choosing the title of a book

Does the title of your book matter? Yes, it most certainly does. But is the author the person best qualified to choose it? Not in my experience.

I gave my first novel a series of titles. The first was ‘The Refugees’ but my family soon persuaded me that this made the book sound like an academic tome. So I replaced it by ‘The Reffoes’ and beavered on. Weeks later I inserted into the text of the novel (set in the shire of Wilba Wilba) one of those signs you see as you drive through the countryside: ‘Welcome to Wilba Wilba’. Loving the irony of that word ‘welcome’, I changed the title to what was on this sign.

But this was not to stay.

In due course my agent sent the manuscript to Random House Australia. My contract with them was for two books: ‘Welcome to Wilba Wilba’ and a second book with the sexy title of ‘Untitled Book 2’.

After I signed the contract, the to-ing and fro-ing on titles began. The publisher and I started poles apart – but we converged quickly to Stillwater Creek. And I learned something, and it is this: publishers have an excellent feel for titles and it makes sense to take note of what they suggest.

This manner of doing things was a stark contrast to what happens in academia. I work in a field where journal articles are the norm, and no editor has ever retitled any of my pieces. My ‘entitling’ experience with publishing a novel was closer to the labelling of the op-ed pieces I’ve contributed to various newspapers. For these, I simply provide a descriptive title knowing full well that the editor is far more likely than me to come up with something punchy

The naming of my second novel was straightforward. Although it began its life as ‘Untitled Book 2’, I changed it to ‘Jingera Revisited’ while I was working on it. When I handed the completed manuscript over to my lovely publisher, she quickly and tactfully ushered the title ‘Jingera Revisited’ out the door. She and I then agreed on the new title – The Indigo Sky – and also on the book’s cover.

Then came the third novel, the last in the Jingera Trilogy. The contract for this simply stated ‘Jingera Book 3’. Again I didn't spend much time thinking about the title, although I did want a tree on the cover. A strangler fig features in the narrative (think of one of those fig trees you see in pictures of the Cambodian jungle). Again my publisher and I easily agreed, this time on The Memory Tree. We checked if this title was in use and it wasn’t. So it went forward and was approved, and the cover was designed.

Then shock, horror! A matter of days before the book was to be printed someone at Random House publishers saw, on the Allen and Unwin website, another about-to-be released novel of the same name, by Tess Evans. (This sort of coincidence is by no means uncommon.) The publisher and I spent a day flicking email suggestions back and forth and we agreed by the late afternoon on A Distant Land. In the end we decided that this suits the novel better, but we got there by a series of accidents.

From these experiences I have drawn three pieces of advice.

First, don't spend too much time on the title. When you get a publisher you will get good suggestions.

Second, always make sure you are consulted. Before signing, check the clauses in your contract for something like "the publisher agrees to consult with the author…". It is your work, after all. And a novel is not like a newspaper op-ed. You should be entitled to veto your novel’s title if you hate it.

Third, make sure you keep searching the web for about-to-be released titles. Think how awful it would be if your book were to be released immediately after publication of another book with the same title.

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