Last Sunday’s paper contained an article about the effect of titles on book sales. The premise seemed to be that the right or wrong title can make or break a book’s market performance. I have some doubts on that point, from my own practices as a reader. I do my book buying from a list (organized by release months) that I carry in my purse all the time. The list comes mainly from two sources: (1) scheduled releases from authors I regularly read—by far the greatest number; (2) books whose reviews have sparked my interest. The third main source is other readers’ recommendations. Titles affect my choices only in case of the very rare impulse purchases. If a provocative title or cover illustration catches my eye, I might pick up the book and read the blurb.
Assuming many buyers are more impulse-oriented than I am, though, what makes a title attract them? I favor titles that give useful information or at least a strong hint of the book’s content. I have a hard time choosing titles for my own work— I seldom come up with one until the book is at least outlined in detail. I struggle with the attempt to balance the three ideal elements—an intriguing phrase, a clue to the story, and an indication of the book’s genre. The last two elements can clash; e.g., a clearly vampire-related title is apt to sound a lot like many of the other vampire novels on the shelf. A thought-provoking title, perhaps containing a literary allusion, may not give the reader any idea what the book is about. (Maybe that’s why the
SILENCE OF THE LAMBS—would that phrase normally bring serial killers to mind? GONE WITH THE WIND incorporates a powerful metaphor but doesn’t instantly suggest the Civil War. HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER is both evocative and informative. DRACULA sounds suitably ominous, much creepier than Stoker’s original choice, THE UN-DEAD, but on first publication nobody could have deduced vampirism from the villain’s name. Diana Gabaldon’s time travel epic OUTLANDER was called CROSS STITCH in its British edition. While the British title is a nice metaphor for time travel, I think OUTLANDER is both more resonant and more informative. Michele Bardsley’s I’M THE VAMPIRE, THAT’S WHY, especially in the context of the book’s cheerful cartoon-style cover, suggests that the novel will (1) focus on a suburban mother’s adjustment to vampire existence, and (2) be funny. In fact, the “motherhood” dimension of the story soon becomes subordinated to other plot elements, and while there are some humorous moments, “funny” isn’t the dominant tone. (I can’t help wondering whether the publisher dictated the title as well as the cover art.)
How much do titles influence your reading choices? Can a title really “make or break” a book? Does this dynamic work differently for fiction and nonfiction?