Thursday, July 24, 2008

Book Titles

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 U.S. publisher of Agatha Christie’s murder mystery THE MIRROR CRACK’D changed the title.)

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?


  1. Titles don't really play into my impulse book-buying, that I've noticed. Cover art and blurbs from authors I love are a much larger factor, as is the back cover copy.

  2. I think my title "Forced Mate" hurt sales because some readers assumed that it was a violent book, or even --gasp-- a "bodice ripper"!

    Now that I have four titles out and they are all chess terms, I think readers see the connection.

  3. Anonymous5:28 PM EDT

    I think a really bad title can put off some readers--but enough to dent sales? I'm not sure. E.g. recent Harlequin titles like The Billionaire's Virgin Mistress's Baby would stop me from buying, no matter how fabulous the blurb. OTOH those titles work for some readers. (Jennifer Crusie theorizes that those titles have the appeal of a tabloid headline.)

    That kind of bizarre title isn't confined to Harlequin. I have a feeling many publishers think an attention-getting title is worth some mockery. A few months ago I collected a few examples of bizarre book titles, and it's not only in romance--the early Harlequin shockers (not romances) did it, and today's nonfiction and literary fiction are given to strange titles.

  4. I love a good title, but they never spur me into an impulse buy. I discover good books via word of mouth and reviews, and a stylish title is basically icing on the cake.

    Your post made me wonder if Stephanie Meyers' TWILIGHT would have done as well if the publisher had kept the original title FORK (or was it FORKS?). On the other hand, even with that title she got the attention of an agent.

    A friend of mine told me an anecdote about her title. She said she submitted a query for a project to her now-agent and was promptly rejected.

    Several months later she changed the title--and only the title--and requeried the same agent. It was a much more salacious title (and I'm not going to mention the key word for discretion's sake), but the agent requested a partial, then a full, and then offered representation.

    I guess the title shouldn't *always* matter, but sometimes it does.

    Rowena, I think that's unfortunate that readers made an assumption about the book because of the title. When I first heard about it, I didn't think anything of it.

    Sometimes I feel dismayed by titles if they sound like the publisher is trying too hard, like using it as a marketing ploy. But regardless I still check out the pitch and first few pages before deciding.

  5. Oh my goodness, Heather,

    I am so glad that Stephanie Meyers didn't keep her Fork! My next chess-titled romance "Knight's Fork" might have looked like a me-too title.

    My next series (a spin off) is intended to be the "forking" books, however, I do ask myself whether "Family Fork" would come across as in the best possible taste.

    Yes, it is a chess term.

  6. My post for today, Tuesday July 29, is about TITLES in response to this discussion. It's long so it's a two-parter -- and with luck, Rowena will post Part 2 next Tuesday when I'm gone for WorldCon.

    Live Long and Prosper,
    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  7. My book buying method is a very similar to yours, but occasionally a bad title or cover will put me off a book. I would not buy a book titled I’M THE VAMPIRE, THAT’S WHY because "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." I don't read suburban mother or that kind of funny. Even from a favorite author that title would be an uphill battle.

    I used to read more Harlequin novels than I do now, and I do think part of the reason is the crazy titles. They've gotten more and more bizarre to the point where they all sound alike. The older book titles gave a better description of the atmosphere of the books. To me, the new titles give the books kind of a camp quality, and I don't read camp very often.

    It took me ages to get past the cover and title for Moira Moore 's Resenting the Hero. Only after numerous positive recommendations did I buy it, and it's really a good book.