Catchy Titles are Crucial

Original Illustration by ColinThompson - find out more at

Original Illustration by ColinThompson – find out more at

What is it about a catchy book title?  What makes us pick up this book, instead of that one?  I don’t think it’s just the title but it’s not nothing, either.

Off the top of my head, some of my favourite Australian titles (not my favourite books, just the titles) include:

  • Monkey Grip (surely the best title in the history of the world?)
  • The Tyranny of Distance
  • Possum Magic
  • Tomorrow, When the War Began
  • Power Without Glory
  • Cloudstreet (Why not Cloud Street, I wonder?)

But it’s difficult to judge the title independently, once you know the book.

Different kinds of titles seem to go in and out of fashion.  On the Australian fiction shelf in the last few years we’ve had:

  • What Was Left
  • What Came Before
  • What Alice Forgot

Then there is the fashion for titles with randomly juxtaposed words.  Intriguing or just silly?

  • The Ravenous Hyenas and the Wounded Sun
  • Out of the Loud Hound of Darkness:  A Dictionarrative (No, of course I don’t know what a dictionarrative is. Neither does anyone else.  That’s probably why there is a book about it.)
  • Wild Ducks Flying Backward
  • So Long and Thanks For All the Fish  (Proving that once they become best sellers, these sorts of titles in fact make perfect sense.)

Fluabert’s Parrot launched a fashion for apostrophised titles (a trend lampooned in Bridget Jones’s Diary when she attends the launch of Kafka’s Motorbike):

  • Foucault’s Pendulum,
  • Lempriere’s Dictionary
  • Captain Corelli’s Mandolin
  • Nathaniel’s Nutmeg
  • Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow
  • Stalin’s Nose
  • Voltaire’s Coconuts
  • The Pope’s Rhinoceros

Non-fiction titles seem to need a title plus an explanatory strap line:

  • True North: the story of Mary and Elizabeth Durack
  • The Floating Brothel: The extraordinary story of the Lady Julian and its cargo of female convicts bound for Botany Bay
  • Far From a Still Life: Margaret Olley
  • Georgiana: a biography of Georgiana McCrae, painter, diarist, pioneer

Unless, of course, the subject matter is self-evident:

  • Kokoda
  • The Joy of Sex
  • How to be a Woman

In that vein, I’d quite like to call my book Elizabeth Macarthur, and simply leave it at that.  But people who know more about these things have suggested that I need to do better.  So I compiled the following list (and I might have had some fun with it along the way)

  • Elizabeth Macarthur: A life at the edge of the world.
  • A Woman Alone: the real story of Elizabeth Macarthur.  Which implies there might be a fake story somewhere, so best hurry out to buy this one if you want the real deal…
  • Elizabeth Macarthur: the real life Jane Austen heroine who married unwisely, sailed to Botany Bay and made her family’s fortune. See how I’m cunningly cashing in on the Jane Austen fans with this one?  Subtle, I know.
  • Merino Queen: how Elizabeth Macarthur overcame her husband’s wilder gaffes and made a fortune in the wilderness.  I did toy with the idea of Sheep and Shitfights but Merino Queen is way classier.  Am I right?
  • Elizabeth Macarthur: More than a farmer’s wife.  But not too much more.

Think you can do better? Any and all suggestions gratefully received!

And, if you’re up for a laugh, try this list of the 15 most ridiculous titles ever from the Huffington Post.  They’re not wrong!


2018-03-25T00:50:04+00:00 September 20th, 2015|Work in Progress, Writing|0 Comments

No Comments

  1. wadholloway September 21, 2015 at 12:02 am - Reply

    Firstly, if the bare ‘Elizabeth Macarthur’ is available grab it and own it. If your publisher still insists on a subtitle then I guess you’ll want something that reflects your main argument. So maybe not “Dutiful wife of the merino guy” then, nor even “An interesting colonial. For a woman”.
    But how about “The real founder of Australia’s wool industry”, nothing like a controversy to generate sales.

    • Michelle Scott Tucker September 21, 2015 at 12:02 pm - Reply

      Fun Fact from the latest HARDCOPY workshops: titles are not (and cannot be) covered by copyright. So every title is available to everyone. Apparently, though, it gets a little murkier when the the title is also a line in a poem or a song. Interesting, no?

  2. whisperinggums September 21, 2015 at 8:27 pm - Reply

    Great post Michelle. You’ve gone above and beyond what I was hoping for! I think a subtitle for Elizabeth Macarthur would be good, but I do think starting with the name of your subject is great. You know how bookshops and libraries usually, and sensibly, organise biographies under the name of the subject, not the writer? Well it’s really hard when you are searching the M area, say, for Elizabeth Macarthur and you have to look carefully at every spine for every book that doesn’t clearly commence with the name to see if it’s the person you’re looking for. Very trying I find. But then, if there are two of three for that person, a subtitle might give you a sense of what this particular one is about. That means of course you shouldn’t do Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life or Elizabeth Macarthur: A Biography!

    As for other titles. One title that always makes me smile is Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Extremely loud and incredibly close”. A reading friend always had trouble with it, saying on one occasion, ““Foer’s Amazingly and Suddenly (I’m sorry I can’t keep that title straight)” I think this fits with your randomly juxtaposed words! I don’t think they are wise.

    Did you know that Jill Ker Conway titled her second memoir, True north? I wasn’t impressed with Niall using it for the Duracks, though it makes complete sense for them.

    And here I’d better stop as I can talk forever about titles.

    • Michelle Scott Tucker September 21, 2015 at 9:17 pm - Reply

      I feel your frustration about searching in vain for titles in bookshops. I once went searching for a biography of Anna Leonowen (the real life Anna from ‘The King and I’). The book is called Bombay Anna. A sales assistant e-v-e-n-t-u-a-l-l-y found it for me in the travel section. Filed under Bombay, of course. Doh!

  3. Gail Rehbein September 22, 2015 at 10:01 am - Reply

    Great post Michelle! I enjoyed contemplating the different styles of titles. Great researching and categorising too – it’s quite funny how there are trends in titles.

    It’s a complex thing, choosing a title. I’m onto about the fourth title for my manuscript.

    Of your five options for your manuscript, I was immediately drawn to the first. I like it’s clarity and elegance. I also like its imagery with “life at the edge of the world”. You could relax any concerns about searching for it in the bookshop shelves too.

    • Michelle Scott Tucker September 22, 2015 at 11:19 am - Reply

      Thanks Gail, that’s a really helpful response. The first one is the current working title but I’m leaning towards somehow incorporating ‘A Woman Alone.’ But really it’s all just procrastination at this stage – even assuming a mere author will be allowed to choose the title of their book anyway!

  4. learnearnandreturn September 22, 2015 at 1:35 pm - Reply

    A problem with biography is that people can confuse the name of the subject with the name of the author, which makes plain ‘Elizabeth Macarthur’ a bit problematic if you don’t want it catalogued under M. I like A Woman Alone. I also like the idea of the Jane Austen parallels, though I think the title you suggest is too long (and gives the game away). Maybe something along the lines of His Pride and how it Prejudiced Her? 🙂

    • Michelle Scott Tucker September 22, 2015 at 2:25 pm - Reply

      His Pride and how it Prejudiced Her. Oh, you ARE good! And other useful suggestions too, thanks!
      Just because it’s interesting – one of EM’s good friends uses the phrase ‘sense and sensibility’ in a letter to EM dated 1799. The friend was speaking about John Macarthur and notes “how fortunate for you, that you met with a man possessed of good sense and sensibility.” Of course the Austen novel Sense and Sensibility wasn’t published until 1811 but I’m not suggesting plagiarism… I’m just saying. 😉

  5. […] and the title? We’ve discussed it here before, in a post called Catchy Titles are Crucial. It will be Elizabeth Macarthur: A life at the edge of the world. Unless you can think of anything […]

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