The Worst Book Titles of All Time

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Vivienne Woodward


Vivienne Woodward lives in Philly and works as the events coordinator for an indie bookstore. She can often be found drinking too much coffee in the sunny spot on her couch and over-identifying with fictional characters. She enjoys collecting hobbies, dancing to radio pop, and rearranging the book stacks on her side tables.

Let’s start here: what makes a great book title? There is no exact formula, but like a good cover, you know it when you see it. The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois, A Confederacy of Dunces, Women Talking — great titles, great books. I think, perhaps, what makes a great book title is foremost that it is not a bad book title, and it is much easier to define a bad book title. Stupid. Annoying. An ugly word. Like when deciding what to eat for dinner, it’s easier to run through the things that are wrong before we find the thing that is right. Here, I will explore a few things that I find to be, well, wrong, in the realm of book titles. Perhaps by the end we will discover what might be right and then we will have solved publishing and literature in general. Shall we proceed?

I have nothing against simplicity. Let’s take the title Giovanni’s Room. That’s a great title. Who is Giovanni and what happens in his room? Why is his room so central that it’s the title of the book? I find this simple and indeed quite literal title to be very effective. I do not find certain overly descriptive or literal titles to be so good. The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Besides the obviously insensitive use of the word “hunchback” (not very respectful in 1831, were we Victor), the title gives you nothing to ponder. Ok, so this book is about a person. So are most books. Next. The Old Man and the Sea suffers from the same problem. Okay, so this book is about a person and a substance that covers 71% of the Earth. And??? Why do you think that these very literal descriptions of your main character are giving me intrigue? They are giving me basic.

The subcategory of this is titles that are only their protagonist’s name: Rebecca. But I would argue that these do have their time and place. Like, what is more haunting than just “Carrie”? In fact, I think The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Old Man and the Sea would have benefited from using their characters’ names and not a reductive description. Quasimodo of Notre Dame, Santiago and the Sea. Now I want to know what is up with Quasimodo and why is he “of Notre Dame” and why is Santiago so into the sea??? It’s all about intrigue, people!

Something else I don’t care for in a book title is when there are spoilers. Like hello, what am I reading for?? Treasure Island. Okay, so I guess they are going to find treasure??? The book should be called I Wonder What’s On That Island!!! It would have sold like fifty billion copies and become an instant classic! Another example: And Then There Were None. Agatha, this, I simply can’t forgive. Everyone loves a good killed-off-one-by-one story! But I would like to at least get through the first chapter before I realize that that is what is happening here! That book should have been called How Many Will Be Left? No idea!! Let me read and find out! Last example: The Winter of Our Discontent. Listen, John, everyone is discontent in the winter. It’s cold, it gets dark at 2pm, and I have to listen to my steam heating system clanking on and off every five seconds. But couldn’t you at least have let us wonder whether they’re going to be content or discontent? We probably could have figured it out! Show, don’t tell, right??

There is one more category of book title that I think is not the best and that is titles that are just…I don’t know, je ne sais quoi…obvious? Close your eyes, imagine what sounds like the most obvious book title you can imagine. The book is taking you on a voyage, you are traveling through the plot, the hero’s journey…I know! On The Road! Revolutionary Road! The Road! No disrespect, these are obviously great books, but I just feel like I do not need roads in my book titles.

There you have it. A few of the things that are wrong in the arena of book titles: too simple and literal, spoiler-y, and too obvious/containing the word “road.” I think, from where we stand now, everything else is fair game. I feel like if you can get a strong “K” word in your title, you are probably doing something right. Kindred, Kafka on the Shore, Killers of the Flower Moon. At the end of the day, the key to a good book title, I think we can all agree, is that it is not a bad book title. Hope that helps!