Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

"Title" Insurance

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By Dennis McCloskey

Hah! Fooled you! I bet you thought this was going to be a boring blog about the importance of buying the kind of indemnity insurance that protects against financial loss from defects in title to real property....yawn...zzzzzzzz.

It IS a blog (hopefully not boring) about book titles and how important it is to ensure you’ve got a good, catchy one; one that will stand the test of time long after you are sucking daisy roots. A good title is not guaranteed insurance that your book will sell, but sometimes you can tell a book by its cover. You may help create buzz for your book with a catchy title that people will remember for a long time. Like the one I saw in 1989. It was written by Kathleen Meyer and published by Ten Speed Press in Berkley, California. It’s no more than 100 pages and it is a serious and candid guide for hikers, campers, hunters, and naturalists who find themselves in the great outdoors and need to answer the call of nature. Meyer’s book is titled “How to Shit in the Woods.” I don’t know how many copies it sold (maybe it was a real stinker and went out of print after the first edition!) but 20 years later, I sure do remember the title!

As a kid, I used to enjoy making up silly book titles with my friends. We’d come up with nonsensical names like “Falling Over a Cliff” by Eileen Dover; or “The Smashed Window” by Eva Brick. If youngsters play the same game today, they are probably coming up with names like “Eating Disorders” by Anna Rexia. It’s a silly game, I know, but authors have been known to tack on pretty silly titles to their books in order to move units out the door. Naming a book is a marketing ploy, and if a goofy name works, what the hay? In fact, the publishing industry encourages it: The Diagram Prize is awarded each year at the Frankfurt Book Fair to the oddest title submitted in a particular year. There was once a book for wood workers called “Fancy Coffins to Make Yourself” and another book about scaffolding mishaps titled “The Executioner Always Chops Twice.” I think if I were writing a “fun” book, I’d choose a whimsical title that would stand out among the 100,000 books in an Indigo-Chapters store, something like: “Pick Me! Pick Me!” or maybe even ‘The Greatest Novel in the History of the World.”

One of the best books I’ve read in recent years is a novel by Ian McEwan that tells of a magnificent deception by a 13-year old English girl, Briony Tallis, who is a budding writer. I was talking to a friend about it yesterday and neither one of us could remember the title! It was infuriating, because he and I and our wives saw the movie last year and it had the same name. We didn’t want to ask our wives (it’s a guy thing) so we talked about it in the hopes the title would come to us. “The 13-year-old girl misunderstands a series of events that she sees on a summer day in the 1930s...yah, yah...that’s it...and she tells a lie that ruins the lives of her older sister...what was her name?...Celia!...and ruins the life of Celia’s lover. What was the name of that book?

It finally came to us (“Atonement”) but I think McEwan or his publisher could have come up with a better name for the book. You would think I could remember it because I was in the Miami airport a few years ago and I saw an acquaintance from London, Ontario. I stopped to chat and noticed that she was reading “Atonement.” When I remarked that it’s a book I’d been meaning to read, she explained that she had to have it finished in a few days when her book club was meeting to discuss it. Two weeks later, a package arrived in the mail. Inside was her copy of “Atonement” along with a note: “Hi Dennis. We had our book club meeting. I don’t need the book anymore. Enjoy!”

Sometimes an author has no choice in the matter. In the case of my latest nonfiction book, “My Favorite American” I was in an airplane a few years ago thinking about a young, inspirational woman I had written about in a corporate newsletter and later in a national magazine. Valen Cover lives in York, Pennsylvania, and as I was flying over that state I was listening to Bruce Springsteen on my iPod, singing “Born in the USA.” I’m Canadian but I got thinking of all the Americans I know, love and admire, and because of the incredibly positive influence that Valen has on people who meet her, I told myself this courageous woman is my favorite American. I went further and made a silent vow to myself, that if I ever wrote her life story, I’d call it “My Favorite American.” When I saw her next, I boldly told her of my plan that I had hatched in mid-air, and we had a chuckle over it. Several months later, I got serious about it and asked her if I could write her biography and have it published in a book. (I was being self-serving: at least a half dozen people told me I should write it because if I didn’t, someone else would!) Valen said she’d be happy to cooperate in such a project, and a year later her authorized biography was published by General Store Publishing House. A promise made is a promise kept. I kinda like the title.

Of all my favorite writers, I like the titles of Hemingway’s books and stories best, like “A Farewell to Arms” and “The Old Man and the Sea.” Here’s a list of my Top Ten favorite book titles that I have no trouble remembering:

The Snows of Kilimanjaro
The Sun Also Rises
To Kill a Mockingbird
The Catcher in the Rye
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
Gone With the Wind
The Grapes of Wrath
Go Tell it on a Mountain
The Great Gatsby
...oh, there’s another one...darn, what was it called? Leo Tolstoy. It was about war.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Dennis McCloskey

Dennis McCloskey is a journalist and editor and the author of numerous books. Several hundred of his human interest and business articles have appeared in over sixty-five newspapers, magazines and corporate newsletters in Canada, the US and Europe. His latest book, My Favorite American, is published by General Store Publishing House.

Go to Dennis McCloskey ’s Author Page