Monday, May 4, 2009

What's in a Title?

Lately, I've been pondering the importance of titles on novels. Did you know that most of the titles on the books you read are developed by a group of people in the publishing house? And believe me, it's no easy task! We have to consider author's wishes, content of the story, the market (what will resonate, what won't), marketing angles, design elements, if the title's been used before, and on and on. Sometimes all that comes together and the title is magic. Other times...

Not so much.

The best thing is when an author comes to us with the perfect title. I love it when that happens. But usually we have to wrestle for awhile, sometimes even against each other. Mostly because, like any reader, we all see different things in the story. And whatever strikes us is what we want emphasized.

So here's what I'm wondering. How much impact does a novel's title have on you and your decision to purchase it? Can you name some novels that, when you read the title, your reaction was, "Wow!" or "How cool!"? Are there novels you've read and loved that you felt the title didn't fit or didn't do it justice?

This is your chance to let a publisher know just how much importance that perfect title really has.




Pam Halter said...

Well, the title is usually the first thing we see, because most books are spine out. Unless it's a book we already know about and are looking for, the title MUST grab our attention.

The hard part is knowing what will grab the majority of readers. Since we are all so different, we may not be grabbed by the same thing.

Guess that doesn't really help, huh? But I think titles are pretty important, second only to the cover art.

Lynn Squire said...

Titles catch my eye. Especially short, catchy ones. While the title might cause me to take a closer look, what draws me in will be the back cover and a quick flip through the book.

A title evokes an image in my mind. If that image is repulsive, I won't pick it up. If an image is bland, I won't pick it up. If the image is interesting - well of course I'll take a closer look.

"A Bride Most Begrudging" drew my attention because I had been contemplating what it would be like to be in an arranged marriage. Unfortunately the book disappointed me.

"Riven" didn't capture my interest. But I'm told it is good, so some day I'll probably read it.

"Sanctuary" immediately caught me. I think the title produced a good image of what the novel is about.

Teri Dawn Smith said...

Well, what Christian could resist a book called "Left Behind"? (Apparently by the sales numbers, not many.)

But I've been impressed by how many one word titles there are to not only novels, but also movies and TV shows. Fireproof, Lost, Bones, Riven, Shade, Powers, and a whole list from Karen Kingsbury.

Is short and sweet the way to go?

How unusual is it for publishers to keep the author's original title?

Nicole said...

Titles are mucho important to me and must mesh with the cover design somehow. I enjoy all kinds of titles, but they can deter my interests if I don't care for them. I work hard on my own titles (i.e. The Famous One has multiple meanings to the story).
Let me give you an example. I read a book for the CFBA tour this last year without seeing the cover, and it was a substitute for one I'd chosen but they couldn't deliver on time. I took one look at the cover and the back cover copy and thought I should've passed. However, the story was good, well-written, with meaningful characters. The cover and copy made me think the story would be chick-lit which I don't read. I never would've picked up this novel to buy.

Lori Benton said...

The perfect title is icing on the cake... and I usually won't realize how perfect it is until I've finished the book.

An intriguing title might make me pick up a book I know nothing about, but it's rare that I go book browsing with no target in mind. Normally I'm on a much more targeted hunt for a book someone has recommended. An intriguing or lyrical or unusual title is just another hook for me in these cases, working in conjunction with jacket copy and the first page (the writer's style or an intriguing story hook), to make me want to buy the book.

I agree titling is hard. I borrowed my WIP title, Kindred, from a previously published book, because it was so perfect for the story I am telling. I'd be willing to give it up, but all my efforts in five years to come up with another title that is both original and as applicable to the story have been fruitless.

I like a title that works on two levels (story and theme). I've only ever come up with one title that did that.

angela said...

I was just looking at ABA titles last night at Fred Meyer. I like the ones that are a play on words like: Barbie and the Beast. Another one that attracted my attention lately was Cool Beans about a barrista. I hate sappy titles. And some titles are misleading--like Hazardous Duty by Christy Barritt. The book was a lot of fun, so I thought the title should have more attitude. My critique partner just had the title of her novel Undiscovered changed to The Familiar Stranger. Very fitting.

Karen B. said...

Good comments! Keep 'em coming.

It's fairly common for a publisher to change the title the author chooses for the book. Often--and I say this as an author myself--authors are too close to the story to choose a truly effective title. But it does happen that the author's title is perfect. Sometimes.

At B&H, of the 13 titles we're releasing in '09, 4 are with the titles the authors chose. So roughly a third. That's pretty good, I think.

Mostly I love brainstorming with the author. They know the story better than anyone else, and they can give the team great guidance. And often something they say in the discussion will spark an idea. Love it when that happens.

Colleen Coble said...

I find out more and more how important titles really are. It's the first thing I see. Then the back cover copy has to be intriguing. The cover telegraphs genre to me so that's important or I won't even look at the back cover. The whole package just has to work. What a tall order!

Janet said...

Ray Bradbury had a gift for titles. Something Wicked This Way Comes, I Sing the Body Electric, Fahrenheit 451: they grab at you.

Still, the author's name is more important than the title, but if I don't know the author, a good title is the next best thing. Cover art, on the other hand, rarely sells a book to me, but it will often turn me away.

Janet Ann Collins said...

I love plays on words too, and catchy titles may get my attention. But the blurbs are what make me decide if I want to buy a book or not. Of course if the author is someone I know personally I'm much more likely to buy it, but that wouldn't be a factor for most people.

Rel said...

I think I like short, snappy titles too. Long ones like The Confidential Life of Eugenia Cooper are too unwieldy.

I also enjoy ones that link directly with the book, especially from a quote in the book and has deep meaning - The Moment Between, Veiled Freedom, Chop Shop!

That being said, I don't buy books for their titles and a dodgy one wouldn't put me off if I knew the author or liked the storyline.

Gina Conroy said...

I think the title should fit the genre. I like short titles for suspense like Scream and longer ones for more thought provoking reads like The Passion of Mary Margaret.

Karen, can you give us examples of titles (old or to be released) that you kept and ones that were changed? And what are your tips for writing the perfect title?

Lori Benton said...

Just popping back in to add, a few minutes ago I finished a book, the title of which I didn't understand, or see the applicability of, until very near the end of the book. When I did, I burst into tears, for how deep and wrenching the symbolism went, and for the utter perfection of the title. It made me look back with a sweeping glance over the story and see it in a clearer light, and made the strength and hope and pain and loss of one character stand out as sharply as... an eclipse.

That's when a title really matters to me. When something like this happens because of it.

Karen B. said...

From the B&H 2008 list, the following are the author's titles we kept:

Ruby's Slippers. PERFECT fit for story, both content and tone. The story is a sort of retelling of The Wizard of Oz, so we wanted to capture that feel right off the bat. This title--and the OUTSTANDING cover (check it out at draw readers right away.

Double Jeopardy. Again, perfect fit for story content and tone. This is a military suspense novel, co-written by Capt. Jeff Streuker and Al Gansky. The cover and title let you know from the get-go that it's going to be a ride!

Double Cross. Great title and double meaning for a suspense novel (by James David Jordan).

Powers. This is the title of John Olson's upcoming thriller. It followed the one-word title pattern set with shade and, combined with the cover art, gives the perfect spooky feel.

Tips for strong titles, huh? Well, what do you all think? What would you say are the top five things an author should keep in mind when titling his or her novel?


Peg Brantley said...

Title is king . . . or almost (after author). Have you noticed when you get the emails from CBA you don't know who the author is? I hate that.

And more . . . there's an ABA author I know on another loop who constantly has to apologize for the title of her novel. When people actually read it, they say it's fantastic and to not let the title stop you from buying it--the title and the story don't even match. The title? Something along the lines of The Sex Club. Talk about some fool throwing another hurdle out there. Sheesh.

Cathi-Lyn Dyck said...

I've been mulling over this myself today.

Examples of great ones, IMHO: "Good Will Hunting," "Levi's Will," (not trying to theme here, it's just that those came to mind first) or anything that communicates something about the human struggle of the story. Those are the ones I remember long after reading. Double entendres very much click for me, but not if merely based on flipping a cliche for cuteness. That annoys me.

@Colleen Coble re: cover design, our local library shelves CBA and ABA side by side. I can universally pick out CBA, even in the suspense section, by the cover design on the spine, even if I don't recognize the author. CBA cover designs seem to be more feminized and also more similar to YA covers. Just a side thought about first impressions.

PatriciaW said...

Either the title (font and color) will catch my eye or the cover art in a store. If it's online, the title will likely grab me first.

A good title will pique interest because it will (1) speak to a commonly held thought or emotion; (2) invite a question; or (3) simply intrigue.

Of course, the reader doesn't really know if it's a good title, or maybe a great one, until the story is read. Because if the title turns out to be in left-field, so obscure that it's difficult to tie it to the story or it underscores some minor point in the tale, it falls flat, taking away satisfaction points.

Julie Carobini said...

I've been able to title my first three books (Chocolate Beach, Truffles by the Sea, Sweet Waters) and we'll see on the
4th--right, Karen? :)) One note: the 2nd book started out with a different title, the pub wanted it changed, and they ended up accepting my revision.

Here are a few things I consider when thinking up titles: strong imagery, alliteration (how does it sound saying it aloud?), short, has something to do with the book ;), not sappy--as someone else said or typical, and NO Christianeze.

Some titles I remember: Surrender Bay, Love Starts with Elle, Hot Tropics & Cold Feet, Queen of Sleepy Eye...

Unknown said...

For me, the cover art draws me in. I can tell a suspense cover from three rows over, and I gravitate toward it. Then I look at the title. Even if I'm not thrilled with the title, if the cover art really catches my attention, I find I'm picking the book up to read the back cover. This is with authors I don't know, btw. And then I cheat and read the first page. If I'm hooked, I walk to the cash register. :D

Unknown said...

As an author, I learned never to be "married" to a title. Even if you come up with a perfect title and others agree, as it incorporates both literal and figurative meanings, sometimes, titles just must be changed. So titles, while great, aren't what grab me the most--it's the cover art. :D

Peg Brantley said...

One of my personal Top Five for the year has both a horrible title and an awful cover.

What made me even agree to review it was that the author put the first chapter or so online, and it stuck with me for months and months. I REMEMBERED the few pages I had read (I rarely remember anything) and jumped at the chance to read more.

Story Rules.

Deborah said...

I go for the cover picture first and then the title. I'm a more visual person. Usually the cover will tell me what time frame and if I'm in the mood for that time frame, I then pick it up.

One title that we did, that I never really understood the title, was Walk Back the Cat. I loved the story...but the title did nothing for me.

Karen B. said...

So, Peg, as a consumer, would you have picked that book up off the shelf?

Peg Brantley said...

Not a chance. Not without having sampled the book online. Unless of course, I'd read all the whopping good stuff on the loops about this book ever since. (I'm proud to say, I was one of the first.) I enjoy the author as a person (he's as funny as all get-out) but this is the first of his books I'd ever read.

No online sample . . . no "knowing" the author, or getting online buzz . . . no sale.

Rachel Hauck said...

A title should reflect the content of the book. It should be somewhat clever, but the recent trend in play on words, like (I'm making this up) "The Witchaholic" Or "Carp Demon" or even Barbie and the Beast is over done.

It feels manipulative to me -- toward the reader.

Title should fit the genre.

It should evoke some emotion.

The cover art is probably as important if not more. So a great title with a bad cover is wasted.

A great cover with a bad title? It'll get some attention.

A title should be understood. :) If it's a play on people, places or things, is it common enough for people to get or know?

A title should be lyrical. I was "watching" easy listening television recently and was capture by some of the song titles. I thought they'd be good book titles.

My thoughts. Great question Karen!

Richard Mabry said...

Titles interest me, but if I've previously read the author's works and liked them, I'm likely to pick up a book even though the title doesn't grab me.

For my forthcoming novel, I chose a title that I thought was perfect...until my editor pointed out that it did nothing to convey the medical aspect. We reached an agreement on that one, and since I've been more careful to convey an image with the titles I choose.

It's been suggested that, since most people are interested in books about history, medicine, and animals, the ideal title would be LINCOLN'S DOCTOR'S DOG. Might be hard to write that one, though.

Nicole said...

Can I just say one thing I dislike (intensely) about some covers? I can't stand it when you can't even find the title because the author's name is plastered on there so large you can't see anything else. Really don't like that? (Can you tell? ;0 )

angela said...

Rachel, did you not like your title Love Starts With Elle? I thought that was a great play on words.

Unknown said...

Karen, I'm sniffling. You didn't mention my Guardian of the Flame as a B&H title coming out in 09 with an author's title that you decided to keep. :-)

Janet said...

I wish I knew the top five things an author should keep in mind when devising a title.

I personally like evocative titles. Snippets of Scripture, Shakespeare, poets, can be wonderfully effective for this, even if the reader doesn't know where they're coming from. Finding such a snippet is another thing.

Juxtaposition can be a wonderful tool also. A Canticle for Leibowitz, for example, combines a word refering to Christian religious music with an obviously Jewish name. There's a tension in the title itself that inspires curiosity.

Hm, I think I am going to go look for a title with internal tension.

Karen B. said...

Tracy, I thought you gave us a different title to begin with! Sorry about that. Whatever the title on that book, it's a WONDERFUL novel. I had a blast working on it, so anyone reading this...go pick it up! You'll love it.


Peg Brantley said...

A book I consider one of my initial learning exercises started off with some working title I no longer remember. All I knew was it wasn't the right title.

One night, about 3 am, I decided to pray and of all things, allow myself to be led. {gasp}

At about 4 am, I got up and just started scanning my Concordance. I found the perfect title. Well . . . God kind of pointed it out to me. Duh.

Unfortunately, the pile of words I learned on is a buried ms . . . but the title is not. said...

Karen, I got a proposal off today, and my agent said he doesn't like the title. "Jungle Nurse" sounds too much like a biography. Crushed, a bit miffed,I emailed my crit group and begged for some brainstorming. Within a few hours, we had about 8 good suggestions. One of the best was to look up this thread on your blog. I've read it all tonight. Thanks so much. Your posts are rich with reasons.