What's In A Name?

John Brennan talks about the prison at Guantanamo Bay at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on August 6, 2009.
Have you read any of these?

"Something That Happened." "The Last Man In Europe." "Barbeque."

You probably have. In fact, some may be on your bookshelves right now. But you know them as "Of Mice And Men," "1984" and "The Postman Always Rings Twice."

For writers, reports CBS Sunday Morning anchor Charles Osgood, deciding on a title is a maddening work in progress. Never satisfied, F. Scott Fitzgerald even tried to rename "The Great Gatsby" after it went to press.

"This is something Fitzgerald shared with Hemingway and other artists like Dickens," says British newspaper columnist Gary Dexter. "They would make huge lists. They would go through them all, eliminating them all, possibly right down to the last one, and then drawing up another list of titles."

Dexter has compiled the stories behind 50 famous titles in a book he calls "Why Not Catch-21?" One of his favorites is the story behind "Winnie the Pooh."

"The Winnie comes from the name of a real bear at the London Zoo," he says. "This bear was known to A.A. Milne's young son, Christopher Robin. And Pooh is the name of a swan on a pond at a holiday cottage that Christopher Robin also made friends with. So, what Christopher Robin did was, he grafted two names together and came up with Winnie the Pooh."

Inspiration for a book title can come from the most unlikely places. Edward Albee used "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" after seeing those words scribbled on a mirror in a New York City bar.

P.G. Wodehouse named "Jeeves" after a British cricket player. And William Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury" came from the fifth act of Shakespeare's "Macbeth."

The story behind how the iconic novel "Catch-22" got its now famous number is one for the books.

"It was four numbers lower," says Dexter. "It was Catch-18."

Legendary editor Robert Gottlieb can explain why it was changed. After all, he edited "Catch-22."

"We saw in Publisher's Weekly, the new novel by Leon Uris, who's "Exodus" had just been a gigantic bestseller, was going to be called "Mila 18," Gottlieb recalls. "He had stolen our number, except he didn't know it. So, everybody panicked and was in despair, which is always the case in publishing."

With no choice but to change the title, Gottlieb and then unknown author Joseph Heller tried almost every combination of numbers, with no luck.

"I was, in fact, so distressed that I was lying in bed brooding about it one night unable to sleep," Gottlieb says. "And the number 22 occurred to me. So, I called him in the morning and I said, 'I've got it. I've got it. It's Catch-22. It's funnier than 18.' He said, 'Fine.' He would have said fine to anything. He was a lot more sensible than I was."

Why did he think 22 was funnier?

"Who knows? It just sounds funnier," says Gottlieb.

Of course, now, the expression is part of the American lexicon.

Asked if the number made a difference, Gottlieb responds, "You mean 22 as opposed to 18? Not a copy's worth of difference. It made a difference to us."

Still, a title is no small matter because most readers really do judge a book by its cover.

It's estimated that about 300,000 books will be published in the United States this year alone. And shoppers give a book just two seconds to make an impression before moving on.

"A title is critically important," says Jamie Raab, who runs Grand Central Publishing in New York. "It's the first thing you see. You see the cover and you see the title when you go into a store."

Asks Osgood: "If you were trying to name a book, would you go through the contents to see what in that book suggests a title? Or do you just look at the world and see if some words come together?"

Replies Raab: "I would probably start with the book itself. Then, as I got more and more desperate, I would start pulling out my thesaurus. I would pull out the Bible. I would pull out Bartlett's." He says Bartlett's is "a good trigger for titles."

Some authors prefer the tried and true. For example, mystery writer Sue Grafton is going through the letters of the alphabet for her titles. James Patterson uses nursery rhymes and Mary Higgins Clark uses songs.

"Titles are like the Supreme Court's definition of pornography," says bestselling author Brad Meltzer. "You know it when you see it."

And now Meltzer is trying to start his own titling trend. "I've spent 400 pages telling you this story," he says. "To possibly sum it up in four words seems silly. That's why I'm bad at it."

Fortunately, he's getting a little help from Jamie Raab. His upcoming novel, "The Book of Lies" plays off of his recent thriller, "The Book of Fate." Meltzer says they also considered calling his novel "The Book of Truth" but they decided readers prefer the scandal of lies to the innocence of truth.

Publishers have brought out books with different covers and different colors, why not different titles? Maybe that will be the future.

It turns out, choosing a title is almost always a back-and-forth process.

"You don't wanna shove a title down an author's throat because they're the ones whose name is on the cover," says Raab.

Which brings us to the case of author J.D. Salinger, who when asked to change the name of his classic book, replied, "Holden Caulfield wouldn't like that."

Adds Raab, "If someone came to me and said, 'Oh, I titled my book 'Catcher in the Rye,' chances are as the editor, I might say, 'What does that mean?' But, now, it sounds like a wonderful title."