The Trouble with Titles

Wed, 29 Oct 2014 17:00:12 +0000

If you’re anything like me, chances are that you’ve spent an agonizing amount of time trying to come up with the perfect title for something. Whatever it is you’re trying to name, the search ends up being one of the most unexpectedly cumbersome and mentally exhaustive aspects of the creative process. Here at Ooligan, my project team and I have spent the better part of the summer trying to rename one of our upcoming books, the former Trout Frying in America. After a few months of back-and-forth, we finally settled on a relevant and catchy title; the legacy of this Sisyphean task is, however, still very much present in our midst. So what is it about titles that makes them so hard to make? And what makes a successful one? Can good titles provide a gateway to impressive book sales? I’m not sure a definitive answer to these questions exists, but I’ll share some of my observations here and offer some suggestions for fellow title appenders in the struggle.

The Philosophy Behind Titles & Why Algorithms Don’t Necessarily Work

The problem with titles is that, in theory, a successful one ought to concisely summarize a complex body of work while also being accessible, reflective, and memorable. A bad title can be as devastating for a book as bad cover design, because a consumer’s perception of a product can be influenced by the naming of it. We’re culturally obsessed with classifying things, and the difficulty in pinning down a successful title is that language is a subjective thing: words are merely signifiers which, to each of us, symbolize different valences of meaning for the object being named. Yet we name things so that we can establish a relationship with them. In this way, the concept of a “best-selling title” is a fallacy. Regardless, there are tons of theories out there which try to whittle title-making down to a science. For instance, LuLu, the online self-publishing platform, developed an algorithm called the title scorer, which presents you with a percentage indicating what “chance of best-seller success” your book may have on title alone. I typed in my blogpost title and got a 10.2%—which is not surprising—but then I typed in Lolita and got a disappointing and inaccurate 35.6%. The problem with formulaic approaches to titles is that they rely on quantifiable categories: we cannot possibly expect them to provide us with a window into the unpredictability and incalculability of the human mind. LuLu’s title scorer also only takes the variable of name into account. Yet there are professions and studies which devote time and research to the connections between linguistics and marketing that make not only claims but money off of their recognition of patterns. Some of these claims include that alliteration, possessives, the “number + noun + of + noun” rule are all common occurrences in best-selling titles, which certainly can be true. However, adherence to these patterns doesn’t necessarily guarantee a best-seller either.

Why Titles are Important to Publishers

Now that we’ve discussed titles in a larger scheme, let’s talk a little bit about why publishers place so much emphasis on good titles and can get nitpicky about title choice. Titles are just as important for publishers as they are for authors. This is because a good title helps us help you. If our distributors are excited about your title, they’ll be more enthusiastic about selling your book. A good title also helps beyond the physical process of bookselling and the visual appeal of consumerism; it is especially helpful in marketing. A good title can work wonders for book promotion. Sales kits, book ephemera, any associated merchandise, and so forth, can benefit from a title with enough flexibility and spunk to be easily translated onto each medium. Don’t forget that social media comes into play as well. It certainly doesn’t hurt if your title is short enough to sound good as a hashtag. If your title takes up more than half of the allotted 140 character tweet space, make sure you have a good acronym, a catchy abbreviation, or a quippy catch phrase that can substitute.

Some Tips for Realizing Your Title Potential

  • Don’t pick a title that already exists and that has had a moderate amount of success. Puns can be great, but they’re also risky in the sense that your book can fall into the vortex of AAA: accidental anonymity by association. Case example: The book our group was working on this summer was formerly titled Trout Frying in America, which is a pun on Richard Brautigan’s famous Trout Fishing in America.
  • Main title: short and sweet is a great rule of thumb. Subtitles are great places to expand and specify content if your book requires extra clarification/edification.
  • Don’t be afraid to brainstorm and create peer-review groups. We created a large brainstorms sheet and placed all possible titles and variations of titles in this sheet, sometimes having the big picture in mind can work wonders. In fact, good overall general life philosophy: don’t be afraid to ask for help.
  • Look through your book for particularly memorable passages, phrases, or chapter titles that are indicative of the larger message of the book (ex: Diving into the Wreck — Adrienne Rich)
  • Analyze the genre which your books falls under, look at successful titles, what do they do differently? Stay away from overplayed cliches within that genre.

If you’re interested in learning more about the complexities behind book titling, you might take these are some really good articles that I make frequent use of and that have additional information, you might take a look at Scott Berkun’s “The Truth about Book Titles” and Michael Hyatt’s “Four Strategies for Creating Titles That Jump off the Page.”

For more information about our newly titled book, The Ghosts Who Travel with Me (formerly Trout Frying in America), please check out our Start to Finish Page or author Allison Green’s blog.

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