Judging a Book by its Cover

‘What’s in a name?’ wrote Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet. ‘That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.’ George Eliot complimented this with ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’ in The Mill on the Floss. All well and good but, as I discovered when choosing titles for my planned series of novels, first impressions still count for an awful lot.

During a frank 1-2-1 session at the Winchester Writers’ Festival, the agent critiquing my novel stated his preference for simple titles and covers that conveyed the content in words and pictures. He pulled out an old paperback copy of The Guns of Navarone by Alistair Maclean that he’d found in a second-hand bookshop. The cover depicted a soldier climbing a rope up a cliff face above waves crashing on rocks. The agent said this told us the story was a World War 2 adventure about special guns in a place called Navarone, probably on a coast or island, most likely involving extreme threat and peril.

I’m sure we can all recall titles and covers with no relevance to the story indicated by the back cover blurb but others have deeper meanings not apparent at first sight. For example, Val McDermid introduces profiler Tony Hill and cop Carol Jordan in The Mermaids Singing, a title taken from the poem Song by John Donne. Standing in Another Man’s Grave, Ian Rankin’s gritty Edinburgh crime novel starring DI John Rebus, is a mondegreen – the mishearing of lyrics – from the song Another Man’s Rain by Jackie Leven. Anthony Burgess reportedly took the title of A Clockwork Orange from a Cockney expression, ‘as queer as a clockwork orange,’ that he had overheard.

For every simple title and cover there is one more complex and multi-layered, even obscure. This is confusing for unpublished novelists seeking a title that is interesting, relevant, meaningful and likely to hook an agent. One consolation is that a working title is not the be all and end all. Good writing and a captivating story are most important, while clever titles and fanciful ideas of cover designs can (and probably will) be changed en route to publication.

The original title for my current Work in Progress came from a quote by a historical figure. I thought it worked on several levels while being most relevant to the central story, but my conviction was not shared by others so it had to go. That’s not to say the suggested alternatives were any better, ranging from those sounding more like a 1960s Carry On film, through ‘cosy crime’ and pun titles, to some more akin to second rate horror. Not even the best of them seemed to complement my story or convey its underlying darkness.

The perfect title remains elusive. For the moment, I have settled on one that I least consider acceptable, if not satisfying. No doubt it will change again.