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A Book By Any Other Name

Book titles are like book covers in that everyone would say you shouldn’t judge by them, but everybody does.
| Jul 6, 2016 | 8 comments |

The first book on my reading list this summer was Imbeciles. I was defensive about this. People would ask me what I was reading, and I would say, “Imbeciles, a book about the historic 1927 Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell. In the Supreme Court’s ruling, Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, ‘Three generations of imbeciles are enough.’ Hence the title.”

In other words, I gave brief historical discourses in order to assure people that although I was reading a book called Imbeciles, it wasn’t what it sounded like.

Book titles are like book covers in that everyone would say you shouldn’t judge by book stacksthem, but everybody does. There are titles that evoke a strong, instinctive reaction in the prospective reader, a reaction best summed up by the words, “Ah, no.” There are titles that are too pretentious, titles that are too long, titles that try too hard, titles that make you laugh for exactly the wrong reason. Most of all, there are titles that are almost overwhelmingly blah.

When book titles fail, it’s usually by being bland or silly. Keep in mind, though, that what makes titles bland or silly can be very subjective, varying on individuals’ associations, frame of mind, and reading preferences. Fiction genres tend to develop their own distinctive style of titles, which are then in perennial danger of being found ridiculous by rival-genre readers. If you think cozy mystery titles like Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder are too cute, and romance titles like Prairie Princess are too much, you should ask mystery and romance readers what they think of sci-ti titles like Synthetic Men of Mars. Or even The Stainless Steel Rat’s Revenge.

Some book titles make a virtue of being bland. This is unusual, and found mainly in very serious, and very long, history books. You will notice that people who have somehow gained status as real historians title their biographies very straightforwardly, with names like Eisenhower and Alexander Hamilton: A Life and (when they’re feeling feisty) John Tyler: A Presidency Reconsidered. Journalists, by contrast, have to come up with actual titles when they write biographies. Perhaps it’s some kind of union rule.

More commonly, book titles try to make a virtue of being silly. This easily goes wrong, especially because of those varying associations and frames of mind. My favorite example of this is On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, by Andrew Peterson. When I first heard of this novel, obviously named by the Department of Redundancy Dept., I decided to take a pass. Later I picked it up, but only because I’d been given a copy of the sequel and I’d already learned the downside of reading a fantasy series out of order.

On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness is the first book of the Wingfeather Saga, which is now one of my favorite book series. It was the later books that really secured it that place, but if I had gone purely by the judgment I formed based on the title, I would never have begun the series.

What about you? Have you ever been misled by a book’s title? What are the worst book titles you’ve encountered, and did the books live up to them?

Shannon McDermott is the author of the fantasy novel The Valley of Decision, as well as the futuristic The Last Heir and the Sons of Tryas series. To learn more about her and her work, visit her website, ShannonMcDermott.com.

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Kat Vinson

What’s funny is it was the redundant title that made me pick up On The Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness. I thought it really set the tone of the uniqueness of the book. 😀

Parker J. Cole

I have been misled by titles but I tend to not like one word titles for some reason. It kinda irritates me. I’ve no solid reason as I WHY it irritates.

But I’ve read the books regardless if it’s a one word title or not. A good book is a good book regardless of the title. I haven’t written long enough to say I won’t use a one word title in any of my stories.

The Association was a horror book I read back in the day that I thoroughly disliked. Could have been better but the title intrigued me.

Then there was a title called Biohazard: Moonseed. I never finish the book because you had to be a rocket scientist to read it…literally.

Battlefield:Earth is probably one of the best stories I’ve ever read in my life as a science fiction story. That definitely delivered. Don’t watch the movie.

I’m reading an ARC book now called Body by Blood, a near future take on the Transhumanism movement but the title so far doesn’t seem to be linking me to the story but it’s early days yet.

Then of course, I read a lot of romances so some of those titles are great! And what I mean by great is that they’re specific to the relationship to the story. The Greek Tycoon’s Inexperienced Mistress, The Italian Billionaire’s Defiant Bride, The Oil Magnate’s Virgin Mistress, stuff like that. With titles like those, you know what you’re getting into.

I could go on but there’s my take.

Audie Thacker

I tend to be the opposite, I like shorter titles.

It helps if there’s something clever or even mysterious about the title. For a few years, I was intrigued by the anime series “Darker Then Black”, one reason being because of it’s strange and mysterious name.

There are exceptions. Terry Pratchett usual gave his books short titles, but “The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents” was an exception and also one of his best books.

But as far as long and grandiose titles go, few top the name “The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies”, though I would only suggest watching the MST3K version. For some movies, you just need the help of Servo, Crow, and Joel/MIke to get through.


Journalists would be used to titling according to journalism rules, which encourages actually summarizing what’s in the article. Associated Press style guidelines become second nature.

But I’m curious what stance your Imbeciles book takes on forcible sterilization. Are they doing something different than showing “eugenics” being code for racism and ableism and pretty much every other -ism also, too?

Steve Taylor
Steve Taylor

And we can’t leave out Amish Vampires in Space by Kerry Nietz. That’s a title that gets noticed like a train wreck.

I agree with you on On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness. It fit the book however, as good as the series is, the humor of the first book died out as the quadrilogy progressed. I would have liked to have it continue throughout.

Yaasha Moriah

My biggest pet peeve is making the main character’s name the title of the book. I don’t know why it bugs me. Perhaps because it strikes me as unimaginative. Yet I’ve liked some books that broke that rule. For example, “Taran Wanderer” (Lloyd Alexander) works because the addition “wanderer” engenders questions. Okay, I made an exception for my own interactive series Jack & Tollers *because* (1) it’s a series so I needed something to give it continuity, (2) the names are literarily significant, and (3) every new adventure in the series has a subtitle, like the current one: “A Festival of Heroes.”

“On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness” actually made me want to take a look, because I sensed the spoof in it and I like spoofs. I have yet to read it though… Sigh. My growing TBR list is starting to scare me.

Honestly, I hate list titles too. “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” is a unique enough combination of disparate things to attract attention, but if it weren’t a classic and by an author I love, I probably never would have read it because of that title.

Well, shucks. I’ve just given evidence that I have “title prejudice.” At least I’m not alone! 🙂


Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians! I almost didn’t read it because of that crazy title. It sounds like a silly kids’ book, and it IS a silly kids’ book, but it’s also incredibly brilliant and clever. And it was responsible for introducing me to Brandon Sanderson – for that alone I’m in its eternal debt.

Lela Markham

I don’t really have any issues with titles, but I can attest to how hard they are to come up with. It’s similar to headline writing. That is an art form that drives tabloid marketing, but often regular news publications give it short shrift. It used to be relegated to something the guys in the print shop did based on how much room was left in the type pan before going to press. Some printers were great at headlines and some …. Now reporters write their own headlines and some of them are great and some ….

It’s the same with book titles. Some authors perhaps should ask someone else to name their books for them. Others are amazing for different reasons. Some take cues from quoting older literature. Some go for an ironic twist. Some are laugh out loud funny. Some make you pause and go “huh?” (which is a good thing).

I’d have thought the referenced title was a sign of laziness by the author. If it had a smack awesome cover, I might have opened it and judged by a review of the contents, but the title … were I to run across it on Amazon, say … would probably have gotten a pass.

So titles are an important marketing tool. Writers should spend at least as much time thinking about the title as we do on the back cover blurb.