The Agent: THE AGENT'S DOG Just Doesn't Have the Same Ring To It

Erin Hosier muses on the importance of a memorable book title.

Titles are my life. I spend a lot of time thinking them up, judging other people's, debating them with colleagues, and ripping them off from song lyrics, catch phrases or some other piece of pop culture. The fact that you can't copyright them is very exciting to me. Sometimes you get a feeling as an agent that if you have the perfect title you just can't possibly go wrong with a submission. Of course, this has been proven to be shockingly false, but that won't stop me from obsessing.

Every year since 1978, Bookseller Magazine, a trade rag out of England, awards the Diagram Prize to the oddest titled book of the year. 2009's winner is CROCHETING ADVENTURES WITH HYPERBOLIC PLANES by Daina Taimina. Though this sounds like it could be a short story collection published by Viking, this book is actually an arty tribute to geometry.

Glancing yesterday at The New York Times' bestseller lists while eating a box of just-stale-enough Peeps, I made note of the titles that most stuck out to me.

In Hardcover Fiction, #5 right now is BITE ME by Christopher Moore. The one-sentence plot description allows it's about "Saving San Francisco from a vampyre cat." Awesome.

In Hardcover Nonfiction, hanging in at #8 after 8 weeks on the list is THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS.The story of the woman whose cancer cells were cultured without her permission in 1951, this bestseller is one of those hard-won successes.The editor of this unique book by Rebecca Skloot, told me that this was an especially tough title to come up with because the subject and story were little-known and not exactly easy to explain. In the end, in lieu of a subtitle, Crown's cover includes a 26-word description below the title in which they incorporate both italics and a serif font.

A little further down the list sits IF YOU HAVE TO CRY, GO OUTSIDE by Kelly Cutrone, everyone's favorite NY fashion publicist. I love the free advice included right there in the title. If you want to find out what to do on those days when you have to wail aloud while watching yourself in the mirror, you'll have to buy the book.

Scanning the memoirs, it looks like celebs these days try not to take themselves too seriously. (I mean I think that's what they're not doing.) See sTORI TELLING by Tori Spelling (dumb yet affable), I AM OZZY by Ozzy Osborne (succinct), and talk show host Chesea Handler's CHELSEA CHELSEA BANG BANG (took me a sec, but okay).

In Paperback Fiction I'm happy to see the wonderful Robert Goolrick's at #5 with A RELIABLE WIFE. I wonder if Algonquin had to twist his arm to put "Wife" in the title. This wife has a descriptive adjective, but I'd be remiss not to mention the recent trend of wives of Others... THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE, AHAB'S WIFE, THE PILOT'S WIFE, and THE SENATOR'S WIFE. Oh, and lets not forget the daughters: THE MEMORY KEEPER'S DAUGHTER, THE ABORTIONIST'S DAUGHTER, THE HERETIC'S DAUGHTER, THE BONESETTER'S DAUGHTER, THE CONCUBINE'S DAUGHTER... Those are off the top of my head.

Here's a throwback, but for some reason WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN by Lionel Shriver struck me as the most hilarious title I'd ever seen on the cover of a (very serious) manuscript. For months after I heard it I abused it mercilessly in e-mails. WNTTAK became synonymous with "We Need to Meet for Many Beers After Work." The book of course went on to be became a critical and commercial success.

What are your favorite recent titles, for better or for worse?

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Comment by monica dobos garg on April 8, 2010 at 9:21pm
Comment by Rebecca Rasmussen on April 8, 2010 at 8:41pm
It's not recent, but Lorrie Moore's "You're Ugly, Too." If that doesn't make people want to pick up a book I don't know what will :)
Comment by Eileen Granfors on April 7, 2010 at 9:13am
Hilarious and true. I am a big fan of Amanda Eyre Ward's titles: How to Be Lost, Forgive Me. Another one that I loved by Wildgen, "You're Not You." WNTTAK seemed so wordy, but loved the book. Maybe all I need to do to sell my ms. is retitle it?
Comment by Ginger B. Collins on April 7, 2010 at 8:23am
Erin, you've already mentioned many of my favorite recent titles. I'm always drawn to the double-meaning, like Alice Munro's two short story collections, Who Do You Think You Are? and Things I've Been Meaning to Tell You. They leave so much to the imagination.

Really enjoy your column!
Ginger B.
Comment by Erin Hosier on April 6, 2010 at 8:05pm
Oh, Jenne. I can assure you I will not be compiling my blog posts any time soon, but I sure do like you a lot for saying that. Peeps with Impunity!


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