Book Titles

by Kieran Healy on February 1, 2004

Coming up with a good title for your book is a tricky business. There was an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education a few weeks ago about the convention of “Vague General Title: More accurate but perhaps less interesting subtitle.” Sadly, the working title of my own draft book falls squarely into this mode. It’s hard to avoid it while also staying away from the grandiose, the misleading, the glib or the overly cheesy. Not all disciplines face this problem to the same degree. My other half is an old fashioned analytic metaphysician, for instance, and when you are developing a new property mereology to solve problems in ontology then you can get away with a book title like Objects, which might in other respects seem rather general.

One persistent trend is books titled “American [Whatever].” American Dynasty, American Skin, , American Terrorist, American Nightmare, American Empire … Those are just the ones I knew off the top of my head. Are there any other countries where authors or publishers have this habit? Maybe it happens because the adjective “American” scans easily in a way that, say, “French” or “Azerbaijani” doesn’t. So we should expect, say, _Namibian Psycho_ but not _Welsh Skin_.

Given the prevalence of this kind of title, maybe I should re-name my own book — which is about blood and organ donation in the U.S. and Europe — to American Kidneys.



Miriam 02.01.04 at 2:57 am

Ah, but you’re presuming that the publisher will let you keep your title/subtitle. Mine first requested a change in the title, then decided that the subtitle by itself would be even better. So my colon went the way of all punctuation marks.


Cryptic Ned 02.01.04 at 3:29 am

How about

American Spleen: Kidney Donation In Europe And Otherwhere


P. B. Almeida 02.01.04 at 3:33 am

How ’bout simply naming your book “Blood and Organ Donation in the U.S. and Europe”?

I’m only half joking.

I thought I was the only one who had grown weary of the non-fiction book naming convention that is so prevalent today. It would be refreshing, I reckon, to see the occassional book titled using 1950’s style rules (though maybe awfully uncommercial).

The “Vague general title etc.” book naming convention does seem to work well. There’s no other way to do it that I can think of. But BOY OH BOY is it unoriginal.


Dedman 02.01.04 at 3:43 am

Wasn’t “American Skin” the name of a novel published in the UK by an American novelist a few years back?


degustibus 02.01.04 at 3:59 am

I thought the title thing had been decided long ago:

Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog

nuff said


Mr Ripley 02.01.04 at 4:42 am

From the Chronicle‘s “New Scholarly Books”, I find that Kim Evans’ celebrated dissertation, “Call Me Queequeg”, has been adapted into a book for the University of Minnesota Press simply titled, Whale! So I wonder whether the coming trend is one-word titles with exclamation marks, like in musicals. Transplant! or some such. Think of how many titles could have been improved by this method.


Bryan 02.01.04 at 5:47 am

Atlantic Transplants


poopypants 02.01.04 at 6:05 am

Dying to Live


Dan Simon 02.01.04 at 7:37 am

Glands Across the Water
Can We Have Your Liver, Then?
Two Nations Divided By a Common Lung Wish


Kieran Healy 02.01.04 at 8:39 am

Two Nations Divided By a Common Lung Wish



Chris Bertram 02.01.04 at 8:57 am

When I worked in publishing there was (at least at my firm) a rash of titles of the form “Between X and Y”, sometimes varied to “From X to Y”. Scans well, includes the words you want and leaves the contents open. BTW, I think _Welsh Skin_ sounds rather good, though I can’t decide whether the genre is porno, murder-mystery, or celebrity autobiography (Catherine Zeta-Jones?).


John Kozak 02.01.04 at 10:02 am

> Welsh Skin

The confessions of Dai the Boot?


Jolyon 02.01.04 at 10:44 am

On principle, I never buy a book bearing the imprint of the “Vague Grandiose Title: slightly less vague subtitle” formula, especially if the author has a middle initial.

Still, if you must, how about: “Get Organ-ized: How to spill your guts and make a million”? But I prefer “Venting Spleen“, which would play nicely on the Romance language connotations of ‘selling’ (vendre etc) and ‘bellies’ (ventre etc), as well as conjuring visions of innards being ‘vented’ from one’s cavities (hey, I’m warming to the subject). And presumably your book will be mildly critical of someone, somewhere so the title will also have its usual English connotations.


Abiola Lapite 02.01.04 at 10:56 am

“American Organs” – for that special double-entendre appeal.


Matt 02.01.04 at 2:35 pm

I’ve always been fond of the “Rocky and Bullwinkel” form of titles- for the most simple version, just drop the colon (no pun intended, given it’s about organs!) and put in an “or”. But, it’s better if you can make the first part serious, the second a bit funny. Another under-used style today is the long baroque title- try putting as much of the introduction or preface as you can in the tile, seems to be the style.


Skinny 02.01.04 at 5:56 pm

“Jigsaw Men”, in allusion to the similarly titled Larry Niven story.


Steve Carr 02.01.04 at 6:21 pm

Where does this idea that vague grandiose titles are a recent phenomenon come from? The fifties, which P.B. Almeida suggests was a less commercial time, was the heyday of these titles (and these kinds of books): “The Lonely Crowd,” “The Organization Man,” “The Last Landscape,” “American Dilemma” (well, that was the forties), “The Image,” etc.


Mats 02.01.04 at 10:16 pm

Bret Easton Ellis, “American Psyco”


Another Damned Medievalist 02.02.04 at 4:49 pm

My dissertation title has no colon and no subtitle. Several people in the department (history) told me in a patronizing tone that it was “charming” and “old-fashioned.” Me — I thought it was just clear. However, a couple colleagues in English recently told me that their advisors had expressed the opinion that a clever title (of the type in question, vague:subtitle) was every bit as important as the content. WTF?


tina 02.02.04 at 5:42 pm

Of Blood and Guts


Doug 02.02.04 at 6:11 pm

The Kidneys: A Euro-American Dynasty, From Humble Beginnings to Power in Massachusetts and the Nation


PG 02.02.04 at 10:20 pm

My first thought in response to “American Skin” was, Oh yes, the Bruce Springsteen song.

As for the book on blood and organ donation in the U.S. and Europe, perhaps it would be interesting to play off the fact that while these nations are technologically advanced, there are some things for which they still haven’t been able to make good artificial substitutes.

“Accepting No Substitutes: Blood and Organ Donation in the United States and Europe.”

There’s already a book on the subject called “life from death,” another called “twice dead,” a “raising the dead.” Any title about getting life from death ignores that blood donors are alive and increasing numbers of organ donors are as well.
“Spare Parts,” “Courage to Fail.”

If the title is to be taken from something unrelated, I like “Organs Across Bodies.”


John Quiggin 02.03.04 at 11:01 am

Why don’t you and LA collaborate on a book and call it Parts?

It seems to me that the mereological properties of organ transplants would pose enough problems to fill a big thick book.


RLB 02.05.04 at 5:19 am

Hmm… Perhaps I should stop visiting websites randomly.

I have no idea where I am. Sure, I could simply raise my head to look at the name of this place, but I don’t want to, because that would be logical; that is not my way.

If there’s someone actually reading this, then you leave me no options other than to shake my head in digust.

I mean, what I’m talking about has nothing to do with whatever is going on in here. I’d know what’s going on “in here” but I still don’t want to look up. I might, go blind or something along those lines.

If I were to go blind, then I wouldn’t be able to use my computer to randomly post comments at websites I know nothing about any longer.

And that would be just WRONG.

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