What’s in a name

By   Hannah Bickerton 2 min read

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I was reading a book by Dorothy Whipple on holiday. You may not have heard of Dorothy Whipple. She falls into the category of writers read and admired during their lifetime (in her case, particularly between the world wars when she was hailed by J. B. Priestley as the ‘Jane Austen of the twentieth century’) but who for many and varied reasons end up falling out of fashion and favour with the reading public. She was picked up and published by Persephone in the early 2000s and a process of re-evaluation has been taking place ever since. (An aside to the publisher. These books should have blurbs, not just quotes from the text on the dust jacket. The assumption you are making is I will buy this and other books under the same imprint because it has been curated and published under the umbrella ‘brand’. No one does that, not even when the books are carrying a publishing logo real people may have heard of like Penguin).

The book was called Because of the Lockwoods and I was drawn to a comment in the foreword by novelist Harriet Evans (who, for full disclosure, was a colleague of mine in a previous life when she was an editor at the aforementioned Penguin):

‘Dorothy Whipple suffers because the titles of her novels, while more than serviceable, are not especially memorable. You may cluck and say it doesn’t matter, and I wish it didn’t. But Love In a Cold Climate, Excellent Women, Brideshead Revisited, each one published in the era in which she wrote, are all instantly memorable because of their titles… And with my commercial hat still on, I wonder if the name Whipple doesn’t help the cause… “Dorothy Whipple” doesn’t match the books she writes. It’s faintly drab and slightly silly. It shouldn’t matter, but again, subconsciously, there is a good deal of snob in the British reader.’

I think she really has a point. Particularly about memorable titles. Harriet’s comments immediately made me think of the brilliant Gillian McAllister and her most recent, genre-defying novel, the truly wonderful Wrong Place, Wrong Time. Which sounds, if you are recommending it to anyone else, like a generic Jennifer Aniston vehicle rom-com from the late noughties missing only an exclamation point.

Publishers historically have, albeit rarely, decided to change titles between format releases. Successfully when Love in Black and White later morphed into the multimillion-selling book and film The Bridges of Madison County. Less so when Mark Mills’s debut thriller Amagansett was relaunched as The Whaleboat House in paperback. Imagine if Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice had kept its prosaic working title of First Impressions?

Nothing so creatively subjective can ever be an exact science. But if changing your name and creating a pseudonym as a writer is a little dramatic, there’s always value in taking the time to brainstorm and sweat that title. It’s a seemingly small part of a successful publishing process but something that really does matter.

Hannah Bickerton
Hannah Bickerton
Hannah has worked in marketing for nine years, specialising in strategy development for start-ups and EdTech companies. Having recently jumped across industries to join the Whitefox team, Hannah isn’t a complete stranger to the publishing world with previous employment at Macmillan and TES Global. She is now dedicated to ensuring that anyone who has something interesting to say knows all about whitefox.