Saturday, August 7, 2010

Don't and Do's For Book Titles

When I'm not practicing my craft, I am reading and reviewing books.  My acquisitions and requests come from a variety of sources including authors and publishers.  However, when I do have the chance to choose my read, I'm no different than most consumers in my approach to browsing and buying.  I tend to gravitate towards a favorite genre, and from there what ends up in my hand and possibly in my shopping bag, depends on several factors.  The first item on my mental check list is book title. 


First impressions begin with cover art and book title.  The cover may catch a consumer's eye, but the title determines whether they will pick it up and turn the book over to read the synopsis.  First on my reject list is the "one-word" title.  As a writer I have given much thought as to why these one-word creatures cause me to twitch in the bookstore aisle.  


The ONE Word Title


It is difficult to truly find one word that sums up the content of a book.  Some authors make the mistake of thinking a single word creates mystery, but in my opinion, the vagueness sends an ambiguous message and communicates a lack of creativity.  If words are power, then a single word is fairly weak and cannot possibly convey what the reader should expect.  In contrast, a one-word title may mislead a consumer to assuming they already know where the book is going and therefore, don't need to bother with the pages between.  In addition, one-word titles are simply overused.  A quick search on Amazon or at Barnes & Noble will support this conclusion.  If you want your hard work to get buried somewhere on the 40th page, give it a one-word title.  In my research I discovered that the most popular one-word titles stem from either an emotion, action or color.  For example here are just a few:  "Alone, Revenge, Redemption, Courage (11,000), Seduction, Betrayal, Black (170,000) and Blue (200,000)."


Of course, there is always an exception to every rule.  If you're set on using a one-word title, then first do your homework.  Take the time to do a search at popular bookstores and see how many other published authors thought it was also a great idea.  An example of a successful author who uses one-word titles is Chuck Palahnuik.  His collection includes books titled:  Choke, Rant, Diary, and Lullaby.  However, Fight Club was widely popular and the name probably piqued readers interest.  Once Palahnuik established his style and created a loyal following, his titles became less important.  Still, he chooses to use less common and cliche one-word titles that are more concrete in definition and veer away from the abstract or interpretative realm.  


The Wordy Title


Perhaps I have an unusual attention span, but after about 4 or 5 words my mind strays somewhere else or towards shinier objects in the room.  Besides, I only have so much space in my brain and I cannot be expected to commit a wordy book title to memory.  Likely, I'll just end up shortening it or giving it a nickname anyways.  To test this theory, I encourage every writer to do this experiment.  Gather your friends and rattle off a string of numbers (more than 5) and have them repeat the sequence back to you.   Most people can remember 3-4 number combinations, but if greater than 5, many will forget or get it wrong.  If a reader is performing a search either online or in a bookstore you want them to remember and get the title correct.  Otherwise, they may become frustrated or buy another book altogether.  This happens if a book is 'recommended' and the buyer is not familiar with the cover art.  In addition, don't depend on subtitles to explain the title.  Some authors use a one-word title, but then include an obnoxious subtitle that no one can or bothers to memorize.  I like to call this title diarrhea.  It suggests that the author is also having trouble putting into words exactly what the book is about.  This can indicate two things:   The content is going to be equally long-winded, confusing, and likely to waste a readers time, or that the subject matter is going to be too generalized to be meaningful because there is no way the author could possibly fit everything that they promised into the book.  Often, these types of books get reviews that state information was more of a 'summary' than a resource or provided new insight on a topic.  


What Makes A Good Title:
  • Provokes intrigue, but yet is clear.
  • There is not another hundred works with the exact same title, or heaven forbid, another famous/popular work with the same title.
  • Between 2-5 words.
  • A sentence that sums up the content.  Does not have to be obvious, or a complete sentence.  A clever play on words or metaphor is interesting as long as it relates to the content.  
  • Conveys the content.  Is it a good representation of what is inside and does it fit or apply to the genre?
  • A creative writer should be able to provide a creative title.  Catchy, but not cliche.
  • Memorable and interesting.

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