I’m thinking of books such as Consider Phlebas by Banks. The book was big in sci-fi and launched a ten-book series, but you would never know what the heck the title is about. How is that allowed to happen and was the author just lucky to be successful with such a title?

Edited: Just to say that there might be perfectly objective answers to my question in terms of marketing science, sociology, psychology, known editorial standards, practices and customs, and from other points of view.

  • 3
    I would hazard that inscrutablilty can pique the interest of some readers. There are many other reasons. Consider Phlebas is a reference to Eliot's The Waste Land, indicating to readers in the know that this is a more "literary" sci fi than the average space opera. Look to Windward also references the same poem. Perhaps if you were able to focus the question a bit more we could offer some specific answers for you?
    – Matt Thrower
    Mar 24 at 19:05
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    I’m voting to close this question because we can't possibly answer such a general query about the internal motivations of publishers.
    – bobble
    Mar 24 at 19:23
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    Consider Phlebas doesn't strike me as a particularly inscrutable title. If it's inscrutable to you, you could revise your question to ask what it means and why the book is called that. But as asked, the question seems both too broad and too ill-founded to admit of an answer.
    – verbose
    Mar 24 at 19:29
  • No one googles all the titles when at the bookstore.
    – user354948
    Mar 24 at 22:39
  • Or read the back? Or ask someone who works there?
    – cmw
    Mar 24 at 22:42

1 Answer 1


The general question is impossible to answer, but in the specific case of Consider Phlebas I can make some guesses why the publisher did not insist on renaming it Mask of the Changer or Quest for the Lost Mind or some similarly pulpy title.

First, Consider Phlebas was published in the UK. For whatever reason, publishers in the UK seem to have a higher tolerance for allusive or quirky titles. In this answer I looked at detective novels with different titles in the UK and the USA, and there was a consistent pattern of UK titles being changed by the US publisher in ways that clarified the genre of the book. For example, Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (alluding to the nursery rhyme) was renamed Murder in Retrospect in the US, and John Dickson Carr’s The Seat of the Scornful (alluding to Psalm 1:1) was renamed Death Turns the Tables in the US.

Second, Consider Phlebas was published in the UK by Macmillan, which at that time (mid-1980s) did not have a line of mass market science fiction novels. They published some Russian science fiction in translation, but translated works are an up-market segment in English-speaking countries. So Banks’ editor at Macmillan probably did not feel under any pressure to ensure that the novel was marketable to science fiction fans.

Third, by the time Consider Phlebas was published in 1987, Iain Banks had already had considerable success with three mainstream novels, The Wasp Factory (1984), Walking on Glass (1985) and The Bridge (1986). All three have substantial genre elements (Wasp Factory horror; Walking on Glass science fiction; and The Bridge fantasy) but they were marketed as mainstream novels and attracted a substantial audience as such. Banks’ editor at Macmillan could be confident, based on the complexity of Banks’ work, that this audience would not be put off by a title alluding to a very well-known line from The Waste Land.

  • I vote for Quest for the Lost Mind.
    – user354948
    Mar 24 at 22:39
  • "Mainstream" novels have genres, too, as nearly everything does (let us here not dwell on the proportion of book purchases that are actually fantasy or mystery, for instance!) Novel is a genre, as are tragedy, American literature, non-fiction, Bildungsromans, and so forth. The term "genre fiction" to me seems conceptually similar to "ethnic food": a socially dominant category implicitly declared as not being a category at all, as simply being the default. Only those books have genres, somewhat as only those foods are associated with an ethnicity.
    – Obie 2.0
    Mar 26 at 4:31

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