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Jo-Anne Richards

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Random musing around titles

“Can you go on TV quickly? The crew want an author and you’re the only one I can find.”

I had just arrived at the launch of Exclusive Books Homebru list, and was thrust, sweaty-palmed, into the booms and mics of a small TV crew.

“Okay, this won’t take long,” the young woman told me. “Name?”

“Jo-Anne Richards.”

“Title?”

“Ms.”

“What?”

“Ms. You know, like, M-S.”

“Okay, rolling. Good afternoon. We’re here at the Homebru launch, and we’re talking to author, Jo-Anne Richards. Jo-Anne, tell us a little about your new book, Ms.”

Naturally I still feel like a total idiot. But I work at a university where people are touchy about titles. I thought she meant professor, doctor, whatever … (And, I suppose, silly me, I thought she might already have looked up what we’d all written.)

My new book is actually called My Brother’s Book, and I chose it because it seemed to suit the story. The first line reads: “I was born on page 23 of my brother’s book. On page 52, before the whole world, I betrayed him.”

I could only hope it would be intriguing enough to tempt readers to pluck it from a shelf. You can never tell what will entice, and what will just end up irritating.

Naturally, it did spawn a few poor attempts at humour: “But if it’s your brother’s book, why did you say it was yours …?”

And a few misunderstandings. “Whose book is this, then?”

The publicist for Picador wrote an email to the proprietor of a local book store, headed My Brother’s Book, and was surprised when it was ignored, even after resending. Later, she discovered the poor man thought she was trying to importune him to read a manuscript by her real-life brother.

Titles are tricky things. Sometimes they jump out at you, and sometimes you cast about in vain, searching for something that resonates.

My first title, The Innocence of Roast Chicken leapt from a phrase in the book, and it did prove to be a good title. Few people forget it, even if people often say:

“Oh yes, aren’t you that Chicken woman? Or, didn’t you write The smell of Roast Chicken / that Chicken Soup book / The Soul of the Roast Chicken”?

I thought my second title Touching the Lighthouse, suited the story and, for those who know South Africa, it refers to Mouille Point lighthouse in Cape Town.

When I first suggested it, I asked my publishers, Headline in London, whether it wasn’t perhaps a little too Virginia Woolf. They scoffed at the idea.

“Oh go on, dear,” they said. “No one could accuse you of trying to be Virginia Woolf.” (I wasn’t sure whether to be insulted or pleased.)

But true to form, however, one of my first reviews spent much of 500 words trying to prove how unlike Woolf I was, no matter how much I was vainly trying to be.

When my third book was due, I was told by a bookshop executive that it was bad luck to have the word “Sad” in a title. It did worry me a little, (I’m pathetically superstitious about books) but I went ahead and named it Sad at the Edges.

It was originally supposed to be “Karma City”, which is what one of my characters called Jo’burg – the place where your karma hunts you down, no matter how you try to avoid it.

I was persuaded that it sounded a little new-agey, and I went along with the decision although I do think it’s perhaps a little … sad.

I know titles are important but since I’ve been in the business of titles, I’ve also become a great believer in the Law of the Unintended Reader.

The Innocence of Roast Chicken really did end up on quite a few cookery shelves. (In fact, I’m told it very nearly made it onto the Myrna Rosen list of approved kosher cookbooks.) And it ended up selling well enough.

Lighthouse was a story of the wild 1980s – full of sex, drugs and politics – but I once found it in a Christian shelf of a local bookshop. There’s just something about lighthouses, I suppose …

And a friend once found Sad in the Psychology and Self Help section, probably rubbing shoulders with Deepak Chopra.

I told the person who saw it just to leave it there. He sells a hell of a lot more books than I do.

 

Recent comments:

  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    July 16th, 2008 @15:16 #
     
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    I feel you, Jo-Anne. Writers would be well advised to say their proprosed title fifty times aloud into the mirror. Try that with "The Beggars' Signwriters" and you'll have tongue-cramp and a saliva-coated mirror. Not to mention friends and relatives who can't understand what you are trying to say and where the hell to put the apostrophe and a range of misspellings in the media which made it hard to consolidate the few sales.

    I thought more carefully the next time but still failed to interest a publisher in my ensuing novel with the one-word, snappy title.

    The NEXT one will be a sure-fire Da Vinci Code, rolling memorably off the tongue in ready-to-buy cadences, just you wait.

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  • <a href="http://joannerichards.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Jo-Anne</a>
    Jo-Anne
    July 16th, 2008 @17:13 #
     
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    So what WAS the one word, snappy title?

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  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    July 16th, 2008 @19:49 #
     
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    I'm too superstitious to say until I've exhausted all avenues.

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  • <a href="http://www.sapartridge.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sally</a>
    Sally
    July 16th, 2008 @20:38 #
     
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    When it comes up in conversation that I've penned a novel and I'm asked the title, the next question is almost inextricably "You mean like the Goblet of Fire?"

    Every time.

    I thought that the title of My Brother's Book was very clever. Beggars Signwriters too for that matter.

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  • <a href="http://www.moxyland.com" rel="nofollow">Lauren Beukes</a>
    Lauren Beukes
    July 16th, 2008 @21:23 #
     
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    Wonderful, hilarious post, Jo-Anne. Finding your sense of en-title-ment is horrible, horrible work.

    Interestingly, Louis, you'll be pleased to know that The Beggar's Signwriters has a 69% chance of being a best-seller according to The Lulu Titlescorer: http://www.lulu.com/titlescorer/.

    While My Brother's Book (which is an excellent and intriguing title in my book) scores only 61%. But then I'm probably mucking up my prepositions with my suppositions, so advise you check it again yourselves.

    (Moxyland gets 67%)

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  • <a href="http://sveneick.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sven</a>
    Sven
    July 17th, 2008 @11:11 #
     
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    Under no circumstances should anyone who scored less than 70% for English in Matric attempt to use that site.

    Apetown held form at 35%, while the sequel is set to scorch bookshevles at 34%.

    I will have to hire a dedicated team of experts to produce a scientifically perfect title for my next novel. Hopefully if the title is good enough I can just leave the pages blank.

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  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    July 17th, 2008 @11:24 #
     
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    Wow - just goes to show where thinking gets you. My snappy one-word title has/d a 31.7% chance.

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  • <a href="http://sveneick.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sven</a>
    Sven
    July 17th, 2008 @11:31 #
     
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    Louis, take consolation in the fact that War and Peace scored a whopping 26% (taking into account the fact that I got a C for English in matric and probably filled out the forms incorrectly).

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  • <a href="http://rustumkozain.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Rustum Kozain</a>
    Rustum Kozain
    July 17th, 2008 @11:38 #
     
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    Hah hah, what fun. Although, it has no field marked "Relative Pronouns". Imagining my book was fiction, I came out at 22%, beating Apetown and War and Peace. Working title for follow-up came in at 66% though.

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  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    July 17th, 2008 @11:47 #
     
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    I know, Sven, that form is a killer. Literal? Fugurative? Abstract or concrete? It sets the quest for artificial intelligence back a few years. The Da Vinci Code scored 35.9%.

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  • <a href="http://sveneick.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sven</a>
    Sven
    July 17th, 2008 @11:54 #
     
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    I challenge someone to try get a score on Zhoozsh.

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  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    July 17th, 2008 @12:00 #
     
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    PS - Sven, back to your old post:"I will have to hire a dedicated team of experts to produce a scientifically perfect title for my next novel. Hopefully if the title is good enough I can just leave the pages blank."

    This was the exact formula of The Secret.

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  • <a href="http://sveneick.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sven</a>
    Sven
    July 17th, 2008 @12:06 #
     
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    Louis, you were meant to visualise, imagine and believe with all your heart in something profound and life changing being on those pages. The law of attraction would have led to a suitably profound life message being revealed to you, along with a cheque for a million dollars.

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  • <a href="http://liesljobson.bookslive.co.za" rel="nofollow">Liesl</a>
    Liesl
    July 17th, 2008 @13:42 #
     
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    Fabulous and funny post, JoAnne.

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