Woodworking again: Book titles

By Dave Wood
Posted 3/13/24

“The best laid plans of Mice and Men aft gang agley”—Robert Burns

You got that right, Bobby, m’lad, especially when it comes to figuring out how to create a title for …

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Woodworking again: Book titles


“The best laid plans of Mice and Men aft gang agley”—Robert Burns

You got that right, Bobby, m’lad, especially when it comes to figuring out how to create a title for your latest literary creation, whatever. Authors almost always grapple with the very important process of creating a book title.

A recent gift from a friend shifted my memory into high gear: “I think you’ll resonate with this novel, Dave, because it resembles some of you own work,” Jane said as she handed over a book by Jim Guhl titled “South of Luck.”

It turns out the “Luck” is a small town in rural Wisconsin inhabited by an innocent kid who has touching boyhood adventures, an exercise in sentimental nostalgia. I immediately fell into its hominess and was happy to accept Jane’s opinion that it resembled some of my literary efforts over the years.

But the title, that’s what stung, because it worked so well.

It brought back not so proud memories of finding a title for my first book published in 1988 by Waldman House Press. Ned Waldman’s willingness to publish it was a stroke of good luck, because he was the guy who published Tom Hegg’s “A Cup of Christmas Tea,” another homey book that sold thousands and thousands of copies over a duration of at least a couple of decades. Readers, you may very well have a copy of your own and read it every Christmas to your children and grandchildren.

Would a good title serve me the same level of success? Another briskly selling title at the time was Minnesotan novelist Jon Hassler’s “North of Hope,” so I suggested to Waldman the title “North of Eden.”  “Well,” replied the canny publisher, “I don’t know about that reference to Eden. Might it offend Christian readers?” and added that he was an orphaned Jew raised by a Christian family, and he didn’t want to stir up the slightest of offense.

Wanna-be-published writer that I was, I quickly withdrew the suggestion, with an “Oh, sure, of course,” and went home to ponder a less challengeable title. And, to lift my spirits, I put on one of my favorite comedy LP’s, Alan Sherman’s “My Mother the Folksinger.”

This title set off a spark in my weary mind. My Waldman House book was a series of, I hoped, humorous sketches, including one in which my mother continued to chat on the phone while the kerosene lantern set her kitchen curtains ablaze. I imagined a cover illustration that showed me pulling on my mother’s skirt as the curtain burst into flames.

Next day I approached Waldman with this idea: “We could call the book ‘My Mother the Arsonist and Other Toasty Tales.”

Ned, probably as tired as I was of the struggle to name the book, replied “Fine, we’ll give it a try and even hire a publicist and try to persuade Sen. Dave Durenberger to read a part of it into the Congressional Record!”

The night that the book received its grand opening at Gayle See’s Bookstore in Wayzata, and given that pre-sales publicity had been grand as well, I went to bed with visions of literary triumph in my head.

The morning dawned, as did the rest of my literary career. For days, weeks, I waited and waited to get an accounting of the sales receipts. Nil, Nada, Nothing. Well, a few mail orders and fewer on-site sales. Finally, Ned’s publicist called every one of the many bookstores in the Twin Cities to ask, “Do you carry Dave Wood’s new book?’

 The Answer: “Yes.”

“How are sales?”


“Do you recommend it to your customers?”

“Well, not a lot of readers are into horror stories, especially when the villains are female.”

So much for the brilliant title! So much for my brilliant career as a best-selling author. Boxes and boxes of the remaindered “Arsonist” collect mildew in my damp garage.

And, yes, I’m a little envious of Guhl’s good title, but it’s not that that makes “South of Luck” worth reading. It’s a very good book!

novel, My Mother the Arsonist and Other Toasty Tales, publishing, Dave Wood, column