This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

How Important Is a Book Title?

            My friend and sometime marketing guru John Bakalian was visiting us a few weeks ago, and the topic of discussion turned to book titles. John suggested that perhaps for my next mystery novel, I should research the bestseller lists to find out what words appear most frequently in the titles. Then, he said, I should come up with a title that uses the most common words, regardless of whether or not it has anything to do with the book.
            The problem with that, I countered, is that James Patterson could call one of his books Scrubbing Linoleum Floors, and it would sell a million copies. Authors and books sell books — not titles and covers, though they can help at the margins.
            (On an impulse, I decided to try out John’s theory by coming up with a title that would meet his criteria, Death Lust for Sex, and doing a search for it on Amazon. Nothing turned up, and I won’t be using it myself, so feel free to appropriate it if you’re so inclined.)

Part of the Filtering Process

            Ideally, of course, a title should be catchy and memorable and capture the spirit of the book. Three good examples would be Gone With The Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird, and A Farewell to Arms. On the other hand, you have to remember that The Great Gatsby was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s worst title, but his best book.
            In the mystery genre, in which I work, a book title is probably first of all the beginning of the potential reader’s filtering process. Mystery readers tend to favor certain subgroups of books, and titles can help them sort things out. A book called Dead Meat, with a cover illustration of a meat cleaver dripping blood, is probably going to appeal to the hard-boiled action crowd, while The Ellsmere Manor Murders, with a pastoral image on the cover, would likely appeal to readers of classic British mysteries.
            When I’m browsing, either in a bookstore or online, a title that catches my eye (and not many do) will likely lead me to look at the cover, then the dust-jacket blurb. Those three things, along with a glance at the first page to check for fundamental writing competence, will typically lead me to a decision. The title, then, is part of the filtering process, not the deal clincher.

Which Comes First?

            Another interesting question — and the answer varies from author to author — is which comes first, the title or the book? In the case of my first two mysteries, I had a title in place before I started writing.
            Book one, The McHenry Inheritance, had a title that suggests a legal conflict and characters of considerable wealth. Since my mysteries are more traditional than hard-boiled, I felt that was a good choice.
            The second book, Wash Her Guilt Away, takes its name from a famous Oliver Goldsmith Poem. I’d like to believe it suggests a quest for redemption, a strong female character, and an emphasis on personal moral responsibility, rather than corporate or organized crime.
            With the third book, it’s different. I’m well into writing it now, but haven’t yet decided on the right title. I’ve come up with four candidates, and at the moment I’m liking the fourth one. They’re all good titles, in my view, but each conveys a different feel, and there’s the problem.
            At times like this, I envy Sue Grafton. All she has to do is come up with one word to match a letter of the alphabet. Maybe that’s why she picked that title format.