When I published my India memoir, THE BOATMAN, in 2014, I received an email from a reader in Australia who enjoyed the book but felt deceived by my choice of title. He was a very talented artist, who had spent many years painting exquisite pictures of the lithesome and sinewy bodies of India’s magnificent boatmen. He said he felt betrayed when, near the end of my memoir, he discovered that the book had nothing to do with his revered subjects.

My choice of title came from a joke that one of my colleagues made about my habit of disappearing in evenings when I was working in Calcutta. He was aware of my recent sexual awakenment as a gay man, but couldn’t conjure up the word “cruising”. The best he could come up with was “boating” and henceforth I was known as “the boatman”. When trying to settle on a title to my memoir 30 years later, I was reminded of this incident and thought “the boatman” was a perfect fit. But as I discovered, not everyone did.

[A reader] said he felt betrayed when he discovered the book had nothing to do with his revered subjects.

After publishing a number of books I’ve learned how critical the choice of title and subtitle can be. I’ve wrestled with this issue each time and only occasionally did I feel I’d hit the nail on the head. It’s worth involving others in the process but ultimately the choice comes down to the author. Dare Me!, the title of my biography of Australian author Gerald Glaskin, came to me early one morning on a walk. I was searching for something that got to the heart of this man and his work, especially his provocative nature and his willingness to push the boundaries of acceptability in his writing. Dare Me! seem to do that job nicely.

Subtitles are often just as critical as titles, especially if the title is obscure or ambiguous. With non-fiction works in particular, subtitles play a key role. The book I edited on civil society, Beyond Prince and Merchant, is a case in point. As poignant as it is, the title gives away little about the contents, but when you add “Citizen participation and the Rise of Civil Society”, all is revealed. I’d come across the title in an article written by another writer and loved it at first sight. But the subtitle kept eluding me, until a colleague suggested it. I thought it was an excellent solution to what had become an agonizing mental exercise. Why hadn’t I thought of it earlier? A little input from others can be a big help.  

Two final comments about titles. First, where possible, keep them short. Two words are better than three, and one word is better than two. Less is definitely more. Subtitles can be longer, but don’t let them go too far. Just far enough to make clear the essence of the book. Second, given that we google almost everything today, it’s worth googling your title just to see how many others may have used it already. Invariably someone has, but this doesn’t mean you can’t. If you’re convinced you absolutely must have it, go ahead and use it. But if alternatives seem equally possible, then you might want to rethink.

To see more of Robert’s artwork, go to: https://bluethumb.com.au/rob-davis