(from The New York Public Library collection. We were not involved with changing the titles on any of these books.)
Sometimes when authors send us books, they are like, ‘the title is Arglefraster!‘ and we say ‘um, no.’ Here are some reasons why.
(P.S.: We would totally say no to the title ‘Arglefraster!’ because the reference is too obscure. It’s not a reference, you say? Then it is confusing for the people who have gotten the reference.)
1. The title you’ve proposed is the same as another book.
Book titles aren’t copyrighted, so we technically CAN publish a graphic novel about WWII sentries called Watchmen and we wouldn’t be in any legal trouble, but it seems like it would be confusing for people. Is the title an allusion to the superhero graphic novel? Are we trying to buy this WWII graphic novel and we seem to have ended up with this superhero graphic novel instead! How can this be?
Since there have been a lot of books published in the past several centuries, we’re not super-obsessive about this — if your book has the same proposed title as a book published in 1910 that no one has ever heard of because it had a print run of 150 copies and it’s never been reprinted and it’s not a seminal cultural text, great! However, trying to name your book The Book of Kells (where the main character, Kells, is this dude who goes on a road trip in 21st-century America and tries local cuisine from the 50 states while finding himself in the art of macrame) is just going to be confusing for everyone.
2. The title you’ve proposed is very similar to another book.
We’re crazy strict about titles, okay?
But think about this: one of the Boston Globe Horn Book Honor Award titles this year is called Code Name Verity. It’s a great book! A lot of people are reading it. Because it’s a Boston Globe Horn Book title, lots of teachers and librarians have purchased it for their libraries and have some familiarity with it. Now next year, we come out with a (completely unrelated) book called Code Verity (which we wouldn’t, because it’s a terrible title, but for this example!). What are the odds that people are going to be confused and buy the wrong book, or not buy this book thinking they bought the book already?
They are pretty good.
3. The title you’ve proposed has profanity in it.
We enjoy well-placed profanity as much as the next person.
However, we find that teachers, librarians, and booksellers — pretty much anyone who’s not an internet bookseller who doesn’t have to go through a physical intermediary first — have some difficulty with carrying books that have profanity in the title. That’s because many people in the world are not as much fans of profanity as we are. For those people, having a book with swearing in the title in their library causes them to be unhappy and lodge a complaint with the library (which is tedious and time-consuming and may result in the book getting pulled off the shelves anyways) or refuse to shop at the bookstore (which loses the bookstore business).
So many bookstores and libraries and classrooms will just not buy a book with profanity in the title, because really — so many books are published each year; they have so many choices! Why not go for the equally good other book that won’t get them into trouble?
4. Your proposed title doesn’t make any sense for the book you’ve written.
Interview with the Vampire is a completely reasonable title, but if your book is about a city girl moving to the country and finding love and also learning how to make delicious pie, it probably is not the best title for that book, okay? Even if it is a clever allusion!
5. Your proposed title wasn’t very good.
Left to my own devices, I would be forced to name all our books terrible things, as I am wretched at coming up with titles. So I have great sympathy for any authors who have the same problem.
However, it turns out that titles are an important part of what sells a book (this is why you don’t see books being called things like Mr. Snortwrigle’s Happy Day; it might be the best book in the world, but everyone would be too embarrassed to speak of it ever), so title-deaf authors must soldier boldly on past this grave disability and recruit family, friends, random people on the internet, and your publisher into coming up with a title that sounds melodious and that people will not be ashamed to utter in public.