|'Snakes on a whaaat? Where do I motherfucking sign?'|
Author Richard Ford was on CBC’s The Next Chapter recently discussing how his publishers wanted him to change the title of his latest book, Canada. The publisher’s suggestion for a new title?
I guess they thought Canada was just too broad for a title but winnowing it down to a single province would improve the book’s chances of finding an audience.
I’ve been thinking about titles recently and this little story was more grist for the mill. Aside from the laughs, there’s something important here about choosing the right title for your book.
Aside from the distilled essence of your tale, the title is your first marketing tool.
Crass and crude, I know. ‘But’, protests the young scribe (the one in the back smoking Gitanes), ‘the title is sacred, how dare you denigrate it to the level of a barking salesman.’
Because it is your pitch. Your title is one of the few tangible tools you have to catch the eyeballs of a potential reader.
Let's face it, there are a few concrete tools you have to give your book a fighting chance. First and foremost is simply writing the best book you can. If your self-publishing, you also have the title and the book cover.
A compelling professional-looking cover is probably your greatest tool to attract potential readers but unless you’re an accomplished artist, you’ll need help with that.
That leaves you with your title, which often gets overlooked as a hook for an audience. Finding the right title to capture the essence of your story is tough as hell but it’s only one part of your title's purpose. It needs to accomplish two other key goals:
1) It hints at the genre
2) It states what it is
Imagine readers perusing titles without the covers or any information about the book. Could they discern the genre from the title alone? Would they get some glimpse into what the story’s about? Or would your spy thriller be mistaken for a YA romance? Could your literary fiction be mistaken for yet another vampire book?
See what I mean?
Remember that movie Snakes on a Plane? That was the epitome of the perfect title. I know you’re rolling your eyes or clicking off somewhere else by now but that title transmitted everything you needed to know about it. It screamed exactly what the story was and relayed the genre. Simplistic to the point of artistry, people buzzed and blogged about that title a full year before the movie came out. Samuel Jackson signed up, script unseen, on the strength of that title alone.
Want to know one of the worst titles ever?
I don’t mean to single out Ian McEwan but that title is a repellent to readers. I’ve heard it’s a great book and a half-decent movie but I’ll never know because I’ll never read it. The title screams ‘bore, chore and pretension’.
Why? Because ‘atonement’ is not a title, it’s a theme. And you never want to mistake your theme for your title.
It is reader-repellent. It gives absolutely no hint to what the story is about, nor a clue to what genre it is.
Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom is another example. If you saw that title by itself without knowing the author or seeing the cover, would you pick it up? Hell no. It sounds blechhh.
On the flipside, how about this title: Grandad, There’s a Head on the Beach
Grabs your attention, doesn’t it? You can guess pretty accurately that it’s not only a mystery but one with some cheeky humour to boot. I haven’t read Colin Cotterill’s book but it’s on my list now. It’s a show-stopper of a title.
Lionel Shriver is an author who cuts both ways. We Need to Talk about Kevin is a title that stands out because of its specificity but by itself, it can be misleading. Without any other info, the title could be mistaken for a touching, warm yarn about parenthood and not the brilliantly unnerving horrorshow that it is. But it stands out. After reading that, a friend loaned me another of Shriver’s books. I liked that one a lot too but I can’t ever recommend it. Know why? Because I can never remember the title of the damn book. ‘That’s all there is’? No, that’s not it... Is that it? No, wait...
Granted, it suits the story but as a title it’s bland and forgetful. I would love to recommend it to friends and family if only I could remember what the hell it was called.
In case you’re wondering, I claim no practical expertise in this matter. I used to think Bad Wolf was a good title. While it might convey the genre, it could also be misconstrued as a spy thriller or a Twilight rip-off. A failing grade there but I’m stuck with it now.
The takeaway here is that while the title should encapsulate your story, it first has to grab a reader's attention and lure them in for a closer look.
Imagine your potential reader walking into their local bookstore or perusing online for their next great read. Is your title strong enough to tear their attention away from the stacks of Stephen King and James Pattison and those Fifty Shades books?
Your title is a tool. You gotta hook ‘em before you can reel ‘em in.