Sunday, May 06, 2007

What's in a name?

I've never been good at titles. They just don't come easy to me. Since I've only written a few novels, I haven't found out if practice really does make perfect. When my friend Marcus told me that he needed a new title for his second book, I wanted nothing more than to help him. I sat for few hours, brainstorming, flipping through pages of quotes, scrolling through books on Amazon, but nothing came. The fact is, I liked his original title, even if his publisher didn't, and it was hard for me to think of his book by any other name.

The other day, I had coffee with another writing friend and, as always, I asked him what he was reading. "That Harlan Coben book," he replied, "The Innocent? Innocence? I always forget the names of books!"

So it got me thinking. How important are titles? Publishers seem to think very. But what about readers? Personally, I have never bought a book or picked it off the shelves simply because it had a gripping title. In fact, I've bought quite a few books despite the title because of a review I read or a friend's recommendation. Is it just me? Is the title of a book a real deciding factor for most people?

In his blog, Marcus writes:

"Despite the lesson we're taught in childhood, people do judge books by their covers--and their titles. And why not? First impressions matter. And where a cover design assumes the reader is holding the book, and can flip it over to read blurbs and a summary, a title has to stand on its own. It has to be memorable and suggestive, with the right balance of poetry and punch..."

I agree that a good title resonates long after I read a review or hear it mentioned at a party. Titles like "Please Kill Me" or "Be Cool" draw you in immediately. Others, like "Positively Fifth Street" or "Hairstyles of the Damned" are suggestive, give you a flavor of the book before you even read the back cover. But do they truly make or break the sale? After all, I bought "Welcome to Temptation" and "Faking It" despite the pastel covers and suggestive titles (both excellent reads by the way).

The conclusion I seem to be drawing is that while a bad title doesn't necessarily break a book, a good title can certainly make it, so why not spend time developing the best title possible? And there must be something to it if publishers and booksellers are so concerned about it. However, for newbie novelists such as myself, the top priority should be writing the best book possible. Don't spend so much time dreaming up the most perfect, poetic, resonating title. After all, isn't the publisher going to want to change it anyway?

I'd love to hear people's opinions on this. Are there books out there that you bought just because of the title? Do you even remember titles? When it comes to book buying, what's in a name?


Rob said...

For me, a bad title carries more weight than a good one. That is, I have been turned off by both books and movies because of a silly or misleading title more times than I've been turned on by a punchy/poetic one.

However, there are plenty of great books with mediocre, forgettable titles. The Innocent (Harlen Coben's book) is a good example. In fact, many "THE _________" titles are bland as hell, but they're usually safe. Coming up with a good title is a risk, because poetry in three words or less is damned hard, and too often they sound more like the tear-stained sonnets of a heart-broken seventh grader.

Quinn said...

I hate coming up with titles, too. I always pick a working title and promise myself I'll think of a better one, and inevitably that working title becomes the actual title after my new ideas get progressively and embarassingly worse.

I think titles ultimately don't mean a lot to a book, though. In fact, the more famous the book, the less anyone ever thinks of the title when they talk about it. Think of Moby Dick, The Great Gatsby, Wuthering Heights, Great Expectations...then think of what these titles actually refer to. Chances are you don't think of that meaning when you refer to the book; you just remember the way it sounds.

Of course, Snakes on a Plane was proof that a title can be all you need for a brief pop-culture phenomenon. That and Samuel L. Jackson.