…would smell as sweet. Yet Shakespeare’s rule may not apply to books. After all, who these days would write a play called Henry IV Part II?
The late Anthony Blond was a brilliant publisher. In the Seventies he found himself stuck with a rather dull-sounding book by an Austrian academic on the subject of intermediate technology in the developing world. Blond thought up a clever new title. It sold millions.
When I wrote The Gunpowder Gardens: Travels in India and China in Search of Tea, I thought the title rather marvellous. The gunpowder referred to a type of green tea, and also to the legacy of the tea trade in the Opium Wars and the imperial project in British India. The gardens in question were tea plantations. My father-in-law, himself a publisher, referred to it as a canting title, by which he meant it explained nothing to anybody. I think, after all, that he was right. My next book was called unambiguously On Foot to the Golden Horn. The subtitle repeated the main title in a form anyone might understand: A Walk to Istanbul.
Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire was inspired by an inscription on a mosque in Bursa, placed there by an early sultan who described himself as ‘Lord of the Horizons, Burgrave of the Whole World.’ It seemed to sum up the Ottoman project nicely.
The titles of my Yashim novels, thrillers or mystery stories dealing with an investigator in 19th century Istanbul, have had a mixed run. The Janissary Tree was, I think, rather brilliant. Everyone knows what a tree is, but almost nobody recognised the word janissary, so their curiosity was piqued. The publishers were less enthusiastic. In Dutch, the book was called Istanbul Fire; and in Norway, where the term janissary is actually still used – applied to some sort of school choir, I believe – they thought it would cause confusion.
The title of the second book still irritates me. The Snake Stone was meant to be called The Serpent Column: like the Janissary Tree, the Serpent Column is a feature of modern Istanbul. In the event, the publishers won – but I still don’t know why they preferred one over the other. The third novel, about the search for a lost Bellini portrait, is called The Bellini Card in, I think, the sense of playing a card, or taking a chance. Some people tell me it’s their favourite book in the Yashim pack, but I have to admit the title stinks.
Book Four deals with intrigue and superstition in the sultan’s harem. I called it An Evil Eye. Strictly speaking it should have been The Evil Eye, to match the others in the series: but then it ran the risk of sounding like a history of malocculation. Later I was told that books with the definite article always sell better than books with the indefinite article. The trumps a every time. (Reminding me of my friend the scientist Rupert Sheldrake, who regrets doing the research for his superb book Dogs that Know when their Owners are Coming Home. Cat books, he assures me, outsell dog books five to one).
The latest Yashim novel, out next Spring, has the provisional title The Latin Reader. The publishers on both sides of the Atlantic hate it. It runs a serious risk, they say, of ending up among the Dead Languages section of the bookshop. It involves a group of hapless Italian revolutionaries who have fled to Istanbul to avoid prosecution in the Papal States. Polish ambassador Palewski, who admires their youthful idealism but doubts their staying power, has an affectionate but slightly contemptuous nickname for them. So, as I edited the final manuscript, a new title sprang out at me.
The Baklava Club.