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If book titles were people…

When I’m working on a book, I like to think of things like the title, opening scene, overall plot etc. as a team of employees, each of whom has a specific job to do. At the revision stage, I evaluate each team member’s performance with one specific question in mind: 

If [insert relevant name and task here] was an employee, would I give him a raise?


If the answer is ‘no’, then I’m giving the job to someone else.


“Okay,” I hear you say (in a very much Don’t make any sudden moves. He could crack at any moment! kind of way ).  “I can see the logic of this analogy when it comes to something like the opening scene, but why bother with the title. Everyone knows it’s the cover that attracts a potential new reader, and unless I’m an established author already, I have little or no say in that.”


True, the cover has a big part to play, but is that really what the vast majority of your potential new readers see first? I don’t think so. I believe the title is the first (and possibly only) thing most of them ever see. 


Imagine your novel came out a few months ago. It’s doing okay. The book stores have copies on the shelves and you can find it in quite a few libraries, but it’s not stocked at places like Target or Walmart. 


Now, let's visualize a potential reader (we’ll call her Alice), strolling up and down the aisles at Barnes & Noble, looking for something to buy. Sure, a few books face outwards, but for most of them (yours included), only the spine is showing. 


How many potential readers like Alice will walk past your book each month?  Assuming it’s on sale in a lot of stores, I’d say thousands, perhaps tens of thousands. 


That’s where Tommy Title comes in. As Alice scans the shelves, sub-consciously looking for a key word or unusual title which might mean a book’s worth pausing to take a look at, Tommy’s job is to leap out and attract her attention (in a good way). He’ll need to do a stellar job to make himself stand out from amongst all those other books, but he’d better, because otherwise it won’t matter how good the cover is, that potential reader will walk right on by.


I had a quick look through my collection. These are just some of the books I remember buying after the title leaped out at me: The Sword of Attila by Michael Curtis Ford; A Fine Night For Dying by Jack Higgins; Killing the Lawyers by Reginald Hill and The Good Guy*  by Dean Koontz.


I put an * by The Good Guy because the spine had a picture of a post-it next to the title, containing the words “KILL ME INSTEAD”, which definitely caught my eye.


How about you?


What was the last book you read after the title alone piqued your interest?

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( 47 comments — Leave a comment )
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Sep. 5th, 2009 04:14 pm (UTC)
Great points about titles. And I like the notion of considering components has employees and giving them job reviews. Plus, the title contributes to what the cover is going to look like - since most of us have no control over the appearance of the cover (fonts, art), the only things we control are the words that form the title.

The last book I read after the title alone peaked my interest was The Great Nursery Rhyme Disaster - it's a picture book I reviewed on my blog. But I saw the spine only, and snatched it up.

I know that I picked up Eats, Shoots & Leaves for the title, although the addition of a panda on the cover didn't hurt.
Sep. 5th, 2009 04:42 pm (UTC)
I like Eats, Shoots & Leaves. It has some truly awful puns :)
Sep. 5th, 2009 04:20 pm (UTC)
I was intrigued by the title of Rebeca Stead's MG/YA novel WHEN YOU REACH ME. But I did check the review to see if I thought I would like it. And I got a free sample, too. I am cautious about buying books as much for my time as for my money.

I have a friend who writes chick lit mysteries about a fashion reporter/amateur detective, and her first few books had some great titles-- KILLER HAIR, HOSTILE MAKEOVER and DESIGNER KNOCKOFF.
Sep. 5th, 2009 04:44 pm (UTC)
Lol. great titles, especially Hostile Makeover :)
Sep. 5th, 2009 04:38 pm (UTC)
The Da Vinci Code

Boy, did I learn my lesson. ;)
Sep. 5th, 2009 04:45 pm (UTC)
My wife bought me the picture book version of The Da Vinci Code (the one with photos of the relevant paintings etc.). I really liked it.

If I'd just seen the title first, I'm sure I'd have picked it up.

Thanks for sharing :)
(no subject) - bogwitch64 - Sep. 5th, 2009 05:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Sep. 5th, 2009 06:45 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bogwitch64 - Sep. 5th, 2009 06:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - brni - Sep. 7th, 2009 02:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bogwitch64 - Sep. 7th, 2009 03:00 pm (UTC) - Expand
Sep. 5th, 2009 04:39 pm (UTC)
Last book I bought (but have not completely read yet - I'm having a hard time getting into it) based on title alone was Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse. Because, seriously... that's an awesome title. Unfortunately, while the story seems a little interesting, it's written in a much stuffier and 'literary' style that doesn't seem in keeping with the Douglas-Adams-humor-style title.

Oh! I also checked out Am Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England from the library based on the title. I'm more likely to impulse-read there than actually spend money on a complete unknown, though I have enjoyed a library book so much that I went out and bought it just to support the author, figuring I'll read it again some day.
Sep. 5th, 2009 04:48 pm (UTC)
I'm with you on the library thing. I've bought too many books on faith, only to discover they don't live up to the title/cover/blurb, but once I like an author, I'm buying his or her next one for sure :)
(no subject) - black_faery - Sep. 6th, 2009 10:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
Sep. 5th, 2009 05:08 pm (UTC)
Seriously? "The Very Virile Viking" -- I don't even read books like that, but it was such a PERFECT title I went out of my way to pick it up for when I needed brain candy.

In one of my best literature classes, the very first thing discussed was always the title. I have great respect for good titles.
Sep. 5th, 2009 06:46 pm (UTC)
Great title :)
Sep. 5th, 2009 05:46 pm (UTC)
"The Life of Pi" which intrigued me because it had the tiger on the cover with Pi, my favorite mathematical symbol. I *HAD* to read it. It was literature, to be sure, but I liked it. Will I read it again? Heck no! :)

The other one I picked up recently that didn't turn out so well was "The Nymphos of Rocky Flats". With a title like that I had to see what it was about. Unfortunately, it just wasn't to my taste. The author has some great titles, though! :)
Sep. 5th, 2009 06:48 pm (UTC)
Sad to say, a great title doesn't necessarily mean a great read. Still, those two did their job, right?

By the way, it's nice to have you back safe and sound after your trip to McScotland ;)
Sep. 5th, 2009 05:51 pm (UTC)
The last book I bought because I was first attracted to the title was about two years ago; The Thin Place by Kathryn Davis. I do admit, however, to not having read it yet. Most of the books I read lately are either written by friends or recommended by them. Or book club books.
Sep. 5th, 2009 05:56 pm (UTC)
Oh, fer crikey-sake! How could I forget: Lamb, The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal. It was a book club book, but there were three in the offing--titles only--and I voted for that one based first on the title. This was last November.
(no subject) - jongibbs - Sep. 5th, 2009 06:50 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bogwitch64 - Sep. 5th, 2009 07:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Sep. 5th, 2009 06:49 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bogwitch64 - Sep. 5th, 2009 06:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ailsa_cf - Sep. 5th, 2009 07:29 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bogwitch64 - Sep. 5th, 2009 07:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
Sep. 5th, 2009 06:00 pm (UTC)
Quartered Safe Out Here grabbed me and never let go. As it happens, it's from the Kipling poem Gunga Din and the book itself by George MacDonald Fraser is one of the best WWII memoirs ever written, so its pedigree is exemplary.
Sep. 5th, 2009 06:52 pm (UTC)
That sounds like a good read. I'll have to look it up. Thanks for sharing, Chris :)
Sep. 5th, 2009 06:02 pm (UTC)
I hate when publishers use fonts/colors that are completely illegible. I totally skip books that use silly fonts because if I can't tell what the title says because it either
A) blends in with the cover-art/spine art due to poor font color choice
B) has too many curlycues and doodads hanging around on it that the actual letters are obscured
then it's probably not worth reading anyway.
Sep. 5th, 2009 06:53 pm (UTC)
Yeah, sometimes those book jacket designers are a little too clever for their own good :(
Sep. 5th, 2009 06:05 pm (UTC)
as for the last book I picked up...
actually, it was because of the spine-art.
I'd picked up the Night Angel series lately by Orbit, which had a distinctive cover and I liked the books, and upon finding the Innocent Mage/Awakened Mage set with the same type of cover by the same publisher, I picked up those too. Orbit's been giving me some pretty good books lately <3
Sep. 5th, 2009 06:54 pm (UTC)
Putting the cover art on the spine is a good idea, because it makes it stand out, even before you read the title.
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Sep. 5th, 2009 06:56 pm (UTC)
'...Kill me instead...'

If you see the cover first, I think you'd be forgiven for thinking that was what it was called.

I like Fat Kid Rules the World, great title :)
Sep. 5th, 2009 06:24 pm (UTC)
Making an Elephant, by Graham Swift because I really wanted to know how to make an elephant. So far though it seems to be about the writing life and no clues about elephant making at all. I'm not giving up though. I expect he'll get to it soon.
Sep. 5th, 2009 06:57 pm (UTC)
I know how to eat an elephant (one bite at a time), but now you've got me curious as to how they're made in the first place :)
Sep. 5th, 2009 07:26 pm (UTC)
I tend to worry more about the query letter and first three chapters. Both your agent and your editor at Del Rey will tell you whether the title or other element need changing - but you won't get either one without a seriously good query!
Sep. 5th, 2009 07:44 pm (UTC)
That's a fair point, but I'd wager a great title catches a slush reader's eye too :)
Sep. 5th, 2009 08:02 pm (UTC)
I have to say that titles don't peak my interest. I follow authors and zines. I find most titles rather forgettable. I don't read novels much anymore, but I do read a lot of short fiction. When I look at the ToC I look at the names of the authors to see who's in line-up. Someone I know, someone I like, etc. I just hoping the first paragraph or two will grab me.
Sep. 5th, 2009 08:58 pm (UTC)
For short stories, I definitely check out ones by authors I know first, but I often don't read shorts if the title doesn't grab me.
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Sep. 5th, 2009 09:00 pm (UTC)
I'm with you. A good title is like a baby's name. After a while, you can't imagine calling it anything else - and they're less expensive than kids too ;)
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