“Thank goodness you’re here. Can you go on TV? The crew want an author and you’re the only one I can find.”

I had just arrived at the launch of Exclusive Books Homebru list, and was thrust, sweaty-palmed, into the booms and mics of a small TV crew.

“Okay, this won’t take long,” the young woman told me. “Name?”

“Jo-Anne Richards.”

“Title?”

“Ms.”

“What?”

“Ms. You know, like, M-S.”

“Okay, rolling. Good afternoon. We’re here at the Homebru launch, and we’re talking to author, Jo-Anne Richards. Jo-Anne, tell us a little about your new book, Ms.”

Naturally I still feel like a total idiot. But I work at a university where people are touchy about titles. I thought she meant professor, doctor, whatever …

My new book is actually called My Brother’s Book, and I chose it because it seemed to suit the story. The first line reads: “I was born on page 23 of my brother’s book. On page 52, before the whole world, I betrayed him.”

I could only hope it would be intriguing enough to tempt readers to pluck it from a shelf. You can never tell what will entice, and what will just end up irritating.

Naturally, it did spawn a few poor attempts at humour: “But if it’s your brother’s book, why did you say it was yours …?”
And a few misunderstandings. “Whose book is this, then?”

The publicist for Picador wrote an email to the proprietor of a local book store, headed My Brother’s Book, and was surprised when it was ignored, even after resending. Later, she discovered the poor man thought she was trying to importune him to read a manuscript by her real-life brother.

Titles are tricky things. Sometimes they jump out at you, and sometimes you cast about in vain, searching for something that resonates.

My first title, The Innocence of Roast Chicken leapt from a phrase in the book, and it did prove to be a good title, despite the few people who hated it with a passion. Few people forget it, even if people often say:

“Oh yes, aren’t you the Chicken woman? Or, didn’t you write The smell of Roast Chicken / that Chicken Soup book / The Soul of the Roast Chicken”?

I thought my second title Touching the Lighthouse, suited the story and, for those who know South Africa, it refers to Mouille Point lighthouse in Cape Town.

When I first suggested it, I asked my publishers, Headline in London, whether it wasn’t perhaps a little too Virginia Woolf. They scoffed at the idea.

True to form, however, one of my first reviews spent much of 500 words trying to prove how unlike Woolf I was, no matter how much I thought I was or was vainly trying to be.

When my third book was due, I was told by a bookshop executive that it was bad luck to have the word “Sad” in a title.

It did worry me a little, (I’m pathetically superstitious about books) but I went ahead and named it Sad at the Edges.

It was originally supposed to be “Karma City”, which is what one of my characters called Jo’burg – the place where your karma hunts you down, no matter how you try to avoid it.

But I was persuaded that it sounded a little new-agey, and I went along with the decision although I do think it’s perhaps a little … sad.

I do think titles are important. But since I’ve been in the business of titles, I’ve also become a great believer in the Law of the Unintended Reader.

The Innocence of Roast Chicken really did end up on quite a few cookery shelves. (In fact, I’m told it very nearly made it onto the Myrna Rosen list of approved kosher cookbooks.) And it ended up selling well enough.

Lighthouse was a story of the wild 1980s – full of sex, drugs and politics – but I once found it in a Christian shelf of a local bookshop. There’s just something about lighthouses, I suppose …

And a friend once found Sad in the Psychology and Self Help section, probably rubbing shoulders with Deepak Chopra.

I told the person who saw it just to leave it there. He sells a hell of a lot more books than I do.