Tuesday, August 14, 2007

On Titles

Coming up with the right title for your book is so important, it’s scary.

While it’s true that some great books with great titles have died hideous, unjustified deaths in the “numbers game,” it’s also true that a great title (especially when allied with a catchy idea) has lifted more than one ho-hum book into the winners’ circle. Which means any writer wanting to succeed in this crazy business needs to pay a lot of attention to titles.

So what makes a great title? According to James Bonnet, a title needs to clearly signal the book’s genre. That sounds like a no brainer, but for some reason it struck me as profound. You see, I’m aware of the need not to send a FALSE signal to readers (hence my decision to name book number four in the Sebastian St. Cyr series WHERE VIRGINS SLEEP rather than WHERE DRAGONS SLEEP). But for some reason I wasn’t as clear on the need to have a title--like a cover--that clearly telegraphs my book’s actual genre to a reader. I tend to focus instead on finding a title that sounds intriguing or evocative, or that fits the book. Silly me.

Think about it: TITANIC immediately tells us we’re dealing with a disaster movie, just like THE PRINCESS DIARIES tells us this book/movie plugs into the Cinderella fantasy and THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA tells us we’re dealing with a book/movie about shopping. Romances are often ridiculed for their titles, from the days of SWEET SAVAGE LOVE to YEARNING HEARTS. But mysteries are just as bad, using the word “death” ad nauseam, along with words like “sin” and “prey” and, of course, “murder.” Unoriginal? Yes. Effective? Yes.

Another clever insight from Bonnet is the importance of making sure that your title immediately conveys your genre’s prime emotion—fear for horror, intrigue for mystery, lust for erotica, etc. I’ve picked up some other good tips from Bonnet, and I’ll talk about them next time.


Blogger Sphinx Ink said...

Too true. Certainly, titles attract readers to pick up the book and look at the cover blurb, perhaps to read the first few paragraphs. Bonnet's point that a title needs to clearly signal the book's genre is plainly the philosophy of Harlequin Books, which is known for including certain buzz words in titles of its category romances--bride, husband, marriage, secret, passion, desire, rich, cowboy, baby, etc.

For example, the Harlequin Romance line publishes stories of traditional romances without explicit sex. This month's releases in the line are MARRYING HER BILLIONAIRE BOSS; THE ITALIAN'S WIFE BY SUNSET; REUNITED: MARRIAGE IN A MILLION; BREAK UP TO MAKE UP; BABY TWINS: PARENTS NEEDED.

The Harlequin Presents line is for stories that are "essentially escapist romantic fantasies...set in sophisticated, glamorous international locations" (description from Harlequin guidelines). This month's titles are THE ITALIAN PRINCE'S PREGNANT BRIDE; THE RICH MAN'S VIRGIN; THE BRAZILIAN'S BLACKMAIL BARGAIN; ONE-NIGHT BABY; THE BILLIONAIRE BODYGUARD; FOR THE SHEIKH'S PLEASURE; HIS PRIVATE MISTRESS; SURGEON PRINCE, ORDINARY WIFE; THE PETRAKOS BRIDE.

The Harlequin Blaze line focuses on "sensuous, highly romantic, innovative stories that are sexy in premise and execution." The line's editors look for "fully described love scenes along with a high level of fantasy, playfulness and eroticism." You can see this reflected in the titles of this month's Blaze releases: DOING IRELAND!; STRIPPED; THE DEFENDER; PICK ME UP; HARD AND FAST; UNDERNEATH IT ALL.

Those titles may sound stupid or boring to some of us, but they sell the books, by sending a subliminal message to readers of those lines: "This is the kind of story you love."

It would be amusing to go through Harlequin's website to pull down the titles for every release in every line this month, to see how well they illustrate the line's purposes...but that would take up way too much space on your blog comments. (Not to mention falling in the category of Too Much Information, eh?)

I myself frequently pull books off shelves at bookstores because I'm caught by their titles. When it's a great title, I'll often buy the book unless I'm turned off either by the cover blurb or the first couple of pages of the text. Among books I've bought because I loved the titles are FORTY WORDS FOR SORROW by Giles Blunt (still on my TBR shelves); FAT WHITE VAMPIRE BLUES by Andrew Fox (comical modern-day vampire story set in New Orleans); DATING DEAD MEN by Harley Jane Kozak (humorous chick-lit amateur detective); THE SKULL MANTRA by Eliot Pattison (fascinating mystery set in Tibet, with a Chinese detective exiled from Beijing).

So it makes sense to tailor a title to a book's genre and to its primary emotion. Easier said than done, however, when one is looking for a title that will catch bookbuyers' attention, eh?

4:17 PM  
Blogger Steve Malley said...

Good post. A thoughtfully chosen title needs to resonate with the story *and* give readers a clear idea of what to expect. I wish I was better at it...

I recently got the Tiny Dynamo what looked like a Marian Keyes knockoff: pastel colored cover with chick lit lettering, back cover copy about some woman's wacky adventures balancing career, romance and a very special sibling, a jazzy title to match. (I can't see it from here or I'd mention it.) Turns out is was about as amusing as a heart attack. The woman's life implodes when she's left to care for a severely challenged sibling, and the ending makes Ethan Frome look like a laughfest. *Very* disappointed...

It reminds me a bit of that uTube hobby of taking famous movie trailers and recutting them to completely change the movie. Like the 'horror' Mary Poppins, or the 'Goodfellas' Sesame Street.

It'd be like naming a Lee Child omnibus 'Sea to Shining Sea, Jack Reacher's Journeys to the Heart of America' or changing 'Rebecca' to 'Manor House Hinjinx'...

4:46 PM  
Blogger Charles Gramlich said...

Titles are always important to me. I won't buy a book for it's cover but I AM heavily influenced by titles. I even keep a list of my favorites, such as "I have no mouth and I must scream."

5:47 PM  
Blogger Farrah Rochon said...

The scariest thing for a new writer is that you often don't get to keep your title. Yikes! I was lucky with DELIVER ME, which is a clever play on one character's occupation, but I know the next book's title may not stick.

Sphinx, I am a sucker for those Harlequin titles. As silly as many of them seem to me, if I whenever I see an indication of a secret baby or an arranged marriage, that book is coming with me.

11:20 AM  
Anonymous Chap O'Keefe said...

As a writer of genre westerns, I'm very familiar with the concept of using certain words in titles that immediately tag a book. I'm also aware of the prime importance for many readers of a good cover. (This debate is covered -- no, not an attempt to pun! -- at length in the latest online Black Horse Extra.)

The problem I, and possibly many of those Harlequin writers, have is that most of the words have been used ad infinitum in every conceivable permutation. My own publisher has published more than 2500 westerns! Occasionally, another writer's back-list title is duplicated inadvertently. To my chagrin, I have done that once myself.

With my Misfit Lil series I've kinda copped-out, relying on the character's name rather than specific "western words" to attract attention. As Grumpy Old Bookman says in a review at his blogspot today, "What a terrific name, eh?"

But the problem remains for my standalone, non-series books. For the next of these, coming out in November, I've adopted a strategy of a title that suggests certain elements without naming them -- no openly stated violence, gunfights, etc -- but "Peace at Any Price". I hope it's not too subtle and that it will work.

6:19 PM  
Anonymous Chap O'Keefe said...

PS to yesterday: Grumpy Old Bookman today (Thursday)puts in a plug for this blog. Hope it brings lots of traffic, Candy. This current post on titles is just another reason why it's well deserved.

5:18 PM  
Blogger Payton L. Inkletter said...

Yes, titles are important, but how does one fare when a novel is bona fide multi-genre? And what of highly successful books of the past whose titles gave no inkling of their genre?

It would seem that cover art, sub-titles, and back covers will still be needed to sell stock, and word of mouth of course.

10:43 AM  

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