Book titles matter and getting them right is a key task for any author.

They are also fascinating because they provide a social history of printed literature from its beginnings to the present.

There are fashions in books titles which you can trace in the same way as you can trends in clothes.

At the moment every ‘on it’ book is wearing a girl on its dust-sheet.

It may have started with Stieg Larsson and his ‘Millennium’ trilogy, The Girl With etc but has now mutated to ‘Gone Girl,’ ‘Girl on a Train,’ ‘Girl in the Window’ and others.

Perhaps the internet has much to answer for here. Readers who loved ‘Gone Girl’ may well then look kindly on another title that promises more of the same.

Searching on-line brings up another title and suddenly a sub-genre is born or at least lots of books with similar sounding titles.

Before the world wide web arrived the brilliant humorist, Alan Coren, saw this and explained that his title du jour should ideally reference the three best-selling subject matters of the moment.

At the time these were cats, golf and Nazis. His book was called ‘Golfing for Cats’ and featured a golf club swinging cat wearing a swastika armband on its front cover.

At the moment the animals to get into your titles appear to be wolves and tigers – Kipling pitching to his publisher today would probably be told; ‘Sorry Rudyard but ‘The Jungle Books, really?

“What about ‘Wolf Boy in the land of the Tiger King”?

Early authors in English often found their works became known purely by a name.

‘Tom Jones, the history of a foundling’ became just ‘Tom Jones’.

‘Pamela, or virtue rewarded’ ‘Pamela’.

Easier to fit on the spine and easier to remember.

So, ‘Joseph Andrews, ‘ ‘Tristram Shandy,’ ‘ Moll Flanders,’ ‘ Humphrey Clinker.’

But who remembers the sub headings?

In later examples, especially in novels about women, even the patronymic vanishes.

‘Emma,’ ‘ Evelina,’ ‘ Shirley,’ ‘Villette’ are examples. Still I suppose if ‘Emma’ had been called ‘Emma Knightley’ it might have been a bit of a spoiler.

Shakespeare, the Bible and the people who used to be known as The Poets have provided inspiration throughout the ages when authors have been scratching around for a catchy title.

Agatha Christie visited Macbeth for ‘By the Pricking of My Thumbs”,

PG Wodehouse, as he often did, dipped into the Old Testament for ‘Joy in the Morning”, and more recently that fine thriller and spy writer Jon Lawton gave us the biblical ‘A Lily of the Field”.

Milton’s ‘Lycidas’ provided Thomas Wolfe with ‘Look Homeward Angel’ and Wordsworth gave Flora Thompson ‘Still Glides the Stream’.

‘A Confederacy of Dunces’ was lifted though not as written, from Swift by John Kennedy Toole and Christie again with ‘The Mirror Cracked’ had been remembering Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shalott’.

Matching your title to the work is some challenge, sometimes a suitably atmospheric place name will answer, ‘Wuthering Heights” , ‘Gormanghast’ or even ‘Bleak House”.

Some would not work today. Would anyone really suggest the title ‘Little Women’ now or
‘Black Beauty’ ? and Joseph Conrad would have had some thinking to do as well.

Of course, genre matters as well and slightly longer, narrative titles seem to suit certain works rather than others. ‘Elizabeth Oliphant is Completely Fine’ does not sound like a spy story and it isn’t.

And you would not expect Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Blood Meridian’ to be a modern book of self-discovery and humorous whimsy.

Getting it right then really matters.

Some of my favourites from recent years have been Hilary Mantel’s chilling ‘Bring Up the Bodies’ and ‘Wolf Hall’ of course had a wolf so all good there then.

‘The Essex Serpent’ struck me as perfect for its subject matter and Amor Towles simple but cleverly judged ‘A Gentleman in Moscow’ spoke elegantly of other times and places.

As usual we would love to hear from you if you have favourite titles or an opinion you would like to share.