Readers did not realize that two types of titles existed. One type was the title found by the dumb author or the clever publisher after the book had been written. That was simply a label stuck on and tapped with the side of the fist. Most of our worst bestsellers had that kind of title. But there was another kind: the title that shone through the book like a watermark, the title that was born with the book, the title to which the author had grown so accustomed during the years of accumulating the written pages that it had become part of each and of all.
This passage comes from a slim and excellent novel by Nabokov called Transparent Things (not, in my opinion, a great title, while we’re on that subject), and I confess the title of my first (published) novel — More and More unto the Perfect Day — falls squarely within the category of his latter description: for better or worse, that title is the title my book was born with.
It came to me while most of the book was still in my head, not on paper — and, for anyone interested, it’s from the Old Testament, Proverbs 4:18: “The path of the just is as a shining light, which shines more and more unto the perfect day” — and I chose it in part because it’s entirely thematic and in part because I found it entirely euphonious, as I still do.
Thematically, the book is about whether good and evil exists in a godless universe, and it is (therefore) also about justice, a subdivision of ethics, and it is (therefore) also about human happiness, which (says my book) is the goal of human life. It’s ultimately an uplifting novel, I believe, despite how black it gets, and I think the title captures the spirit of striving upward which so engages the main characters.
In general, the title has been well-received, and yet a number of readers have written to tell me that they found the title confusing and too long. In addition, I think now that the title defaults on the previously discussed principle that online readers don’t really read: they browse.
That’s my working theory, and I’m admittedly hanging a lot upon that slender peg: online readers aren’t reading magazines or books wherein they have the luxury to absorb every word. In fact, online readers are readers only in the loosest sense of the term: they’re skimmers.
Thus the new criteria for good titles (true for both fiction and non-ficion):
Good titles should not make the reader work to grasp what that title is saying.
Good titles should be easy to digest. They should be quickly intelligible.
Good titles should not leave much room for questions or interpretation.
Good titles should encapsulate the essence of the book.
Good titles, as discussed in Part Two, should instantly capture the reader’s interest (i.e. when Gautier’s Fleece of Gold was changed to The Quest for a Blonde Mistress, sales jumped from 6,000 to 50,000).
Good titles frequently, though not always, capture interest by suggesting something of value to the reader (this is particularly true of non-fiction: i.e. How to Improve Your Conversation sold 77,000 copies yet The Romance of Words only 10,500).
Creating a spellbinding title is extraordinarily challenging, the difficulty involved not something any writer should underestimate, particularly if selling books is the goal.
What I think now is that there’s a third type of title in addition to the two Nabokov mentions. That third type, a kind of hybrid, brands the book like a watermark, yes, but it’s also captivating and not necessarily generic, as Nabokov suggests the only alternative to be.
In Part 1 and Part 2, I mentioned a recent, eight-month-long experiment in which I’m employing two different strategies for selling Kindle books — neither of which method has anything to do with platform-building, email marketing, or social media.
Though the strategies are very different, the first step in both is creating a new title. This is something that I and I alone decided.
Here are a few that I brainstormed:
The Man Who Murdered God
House of Flesh
The Man Who Opened the Ark
Dogmeat of the Dead
Inside the Ark
For any lingering doubts about the importance of a good title, I close with the following story — a true story, from Michael Alvear — which I thought was fascinating and significant:
I had a client come to me because her book on infertility was selling so badly she could practically hear Amazon laughing at her. I thought she was going to have a stroke when I recommended she change the title of her book. She was very upset. She had actually trademarked the title, and used it everywhere in her marketing materials (she’s an infertility therapist). Thankfully, she relented.
This was her title:
Hopeful Heart, Peaceful Mind
Quick! Tell me what this book is about. You can’t. Not really. Yes, of course, it’s about infertility, but how vague is that? Is it about the latest infertility treatments? About managing your infertility doctor? The title has a kind of Zen feel to it. Is it about meditations to enhance fertility? It’s anybody’s guess.
This brings us to my fundamental premise about titling books:
DO NOT LEAVE ROOM FOR INTERPRETATION.
Here is the new title I developed:
Managing The Stress Of Infertility
How To Balance Your Emotions, Get The Support You Need, And Deal With Painful Social Situations When You’re Trying To Get Pregnant
Is there any doubt about the content of this book or whom it’s for? Notice two things: It has a short title and a long subtitle. While this is admittedly almost impossible to do with fiction, it’s something highly advisable for nonfiction. The short title tells you what it’s about while the long title explains the benefits. Did my client’s new title work? It bears repeating that her book languished in Kindle’s basement for two years, selling an average of one or two books a month. When we re-packaged it with the new title (and all the marketing strategies in this book) it hit the Top 10 Books On Infertility within two weeks. Same book, same price, different marketing strategies, stellar results.
8 Responses and Counting...
My favorite alternative title is “The Man Who Opened the Ark of the Covenant”. I like it since it is one of my favorite parts of the book. For what it is worth, I find it difficult to judge the titles while at the same time imagining I haven’t read it.
Perhaps you could offer a title around happiness. Until I read your book I never thought about happiness but now I think about if very deeply and I thank you for that.
I thank you for that.
“Between the Horns of the Sacrificial Cow”
“Return to Worshiper – Address Unknown”
“More and More unto the Perfect Jibe”
Hiya Jeff! It’s good to see you here. It’s been too long.
I like your list — number one most especially.
Thank you for dropping by.
Did you notice the fourth was actually a nautical pun?
Notice it? My dear fellow, you practically beat me over the hull with it.
But everyone has a slightly different take on the art of cover-letter writing. You can read some of the language used by one professional poet here: she’s used this brief, down-to-earth cover letter successfully for many years. If you know other writers, ask them what they do. They might even offer to let you read an example. It never hurts to have a few templates to work from.