Choosing the perfect title for a book is an art form unto itself. Many readers assume that the choice is the author’s prerogative, but when you work in publishing you soon learn that the editorial staff and the publisher also have a strong—and sometimes definitive—hand in the decision-making process. That’s especially true when, like us, you work primarily with nonfiction books, which tend to carry subtitles (more words to juggle) and whose titles need to convey a set amount of information in a short space (less allowance for obliquity and ambiguity).
Many an Abbeville production meeting has been lengthened—and occasionally enlivened—by a debate over titles, and many of our titles have gone through three or more working permutations before the final version was selected. Most of the time, we think we and our authors make the right decision, and sometimes we even hit on a gem. It’s probably no coincidence that Armin Brott’s The Expectant Father is one of our bestselling books, since Brott’s clever, gender-bending title (makes us think of LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness: “The king was pregnant”) is among the best in our catalog. We’re also proud of the rhythm and flow of our new children’s book title, Everett The Incredibly Helpful Helper. We think it’s fun to say aloud, and we hope kids and parents will agree. On the other hand, sometimes we make more questionable choices: the title of Whisk(e)y may be eye-catching, but it was decided on in 1997, just before Google (to say nothing of Whiskipedia) came along and made it impossible to find as a search result.
Just for fun, and to inspire fellow editors as well as ourselves, we’ve put together a brief list of exceptional titles from various genres. Some are compact and clever, others lyrical and evocative. Our secret favorite is probably the Robert Graves, with its perfect balance of sentimentality and cynicism. We don’t pretend to like all of these works, or even to have read all of them; we are including them on the basis of title alone. Feel free to tell us your own favorites in the Comments section!
- Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
- Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit, Nicholas Nickleby, Barnaby Rudge, and the other “name titles”
- Wallace Stevens, “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour”
- Dr. Seuss, One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish
- Edward Albee, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
- Katherine Paterson, Bridge to Terebithia
- Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (biggest-ever gap between quality of title and quality of book)
- Eugene O’Neill, A Moon for the Misbegotten
- Philip K. Dick, Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said
- Raymond Carver, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
- Edward Lear, Complete Nonsense (title of collected poems)
- George Orwell, “Such, Such Were the Joys”
- Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That
- Hunter S. Thompson, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved”
- Peter Bowler, The Superior Person’s Book of Words
- Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others