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The Unsavoury Business of Choosing a Book Title.

I have little doubt that the title of a book influences the decision to read or buy it, but how much time do we give consciously to thinking about the titles of books? Simple book titles are, I think, going out of fashion. Titles like David Copperfield, Moby Dick, or the The Hobbit, for example, are old hat. A look at the best seller lists shows a tendency towards titles such as The Bullet That Missed, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, even Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The Harry Potter series is an interesting one, there were several books about Sherlock Holmes and although some included his name, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes for example, other did not; A Study in Scarlet, His Last Bow. The Hound of the Baskervilles, although it would fit with the modern trend was not Sherlock Holmes and the Hound of the Baskervilles.


Had it been written in 2022, Oliver Twist would likely be titled the Boy Thief of Bow, or even transported to a more exotic location to become the Urchin of Ulan Bator. Likewise Thérèse Raquin would likely be The Haberdasher, Her Husband and His Murderer, or perhaps re-conceived as the more exotically placed and titled The Adulteress of Ahmedabad.


When I started writing The Death of a Smoker, I gave little thought to a suitable title. Stealing a line from Monty Python’s Life of Brian, I named the original file Blessed are the Cheesemakers. Those who have read the book will understand the link, but I always knew it could not be the final title. For a while it existed as Ghosts in the Machine; spooks and spies in the machinery of state. It wasn’t original, something similar having been used by the philosopher Gilbert Ryle to describe Descartes’ concept of mind body dualism, before Arthur Koestler applied the concept to mankind’s tendency to self-destruction. All good highbrow, intellectual connections but the question was would the title resonate with the general public and entice them to buy the novel? I suspected not, it said remarkably little about the plot. In the end I chose The Death of a Smoker, which did, at least, describe the trigger event in the book and, I thought, added a hint of mystery and intrigue to arouse the curiosity of the bookshop browser. Better still when you type it into Amazon UK, the book comes up top of the list, though, of course, I didn’t know that before the book was released for sale.


Needless to say, at no point did I think Harry Nevile would be a suitable title. It just seems odd in this modern world.

Was The Death of a Smoker a good choice? Only time will tell, but it has its drawbacks. Search on-line for The Death of a Smoker, and, unless you specify books or novels, Google will return half a dozen pages of assorted articles on smoking related deaths before you stumble across the book. Yahoo does much better, and although not top of the list, half of the entries on the first results page link to the book. Even so, for those many people who use Google as their default search engine, they would have a hard time finding the book, all too easily missed in pages of depressing, but sadly true, articles on the very real dangers of smoking.

When I was thinking about writing a sequel to The Death of a Smoker, I started searching for food poisoning incidents and animal transmitted diseases upon which I could base a plot. I quickly came across the Jack in the Box E coli outbreak of about 30 years ago, which gave me an idea for an element of the plot, an opening chapter, a title and a design for the book’s cover. I thought no more about the matter, even though by that time I was aware of the search engine downside of using The Death of a Smoker as a title. It wasn’t until after the sequel’s manuscript had undergone its first round of editorial review that I thought, perhaps, I ought to check how easy a book titled Jack in the Box could be found by searching on-line. I had little expectation of a general search for Jack in the Box, but was very surprised when I searched for books with a related title. A search under books with Amazon UK turned up a dozen publications with titles of Jack in the Box or very similar. The Book Depository website turned up even more. Clearly Jack in the Box was not a great title, at least not from a marketing perspective. It had to change.

Across the course of a weekend, I brain stormed possible new titles and had worked my way through over 40 possibilities before I came up with Unsavoury Business. A simple Google search, perhaps not unsurprisingly, turned up all kinds of related items but it only managed a page and a half of ‘unsavoury business’ links before the list started to get diluted with more general ‘unsavoury’ or ‘business’ related links. It seemed hopeful. A search for books with the title Unsavoury Business revealed no other books with such a title, or anything similar. I had my new title, though, no doubt, it will give the cover design team more of a challenge than Jack in the Box. Unsavoury Business will be coming your way in 2023, but the question is will the new title entice people to pick it up off the bookshelf, or click a website link to get more information?

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