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What Should I Call My Book?

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PUBLISHED OCTOBER 1996

by Curt Matthews, Chicago Review Press


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Curt Matthews

How important is it to come up with a good title for your book? How much will a bad title hurt your book? Of course the title is just one of many variables that can affect a book’s success, but recently I have had an occasion to get a somewhat more objective view of the damage a poor title can do.

Over the last couple of years, my company has published a series of children’s activity books based on various themes. They are all by the same author, have the same “look” to their covers, and have the same trim size and price. Of the five books in this series, four are doing well, but one is just limping along. Everything else being more or less equal, the problem almost has to be the title. Can you pick out the loser in this group The titles are Westward Ho!, More than Moccasins, Green Thumbs, Huzzah Means Hooray, and Kids Camp!.

“Huzzah” means what? That is exactly the problem with the title, Huzzah Means Hooray. It doesn’t mean anything to most people without an explanation. (If you have to explain a title, it is by definition a bad title.) What will be the cost, in sales, of this bad title choice? The rate of sales for Huzzah is one-third to one-half lower than the others. Ouch! Clearly it is worth taking some trouble over titles.

How do good people choose bad titles? Here is how we did and how you might too if you are not careful.


Rationalizations to Avoid

We had been cudgeling our brains for several weeks and still the titles we had come up with were dull as dirt. We were sick of thinking about this title, the cover art was due at the printer, and worst of all, experience had taught us that the really good title ideas show up in the first ten minutes of the search. We were therefore open to the rationalizations that take publishers down the primrose path to a bad title selection. Here are some of the most insidious of these rationalizations.

The Subtitle Will Explain the Title.

Our subtitle for Huzzah Means Hooray was Activities from the Days of Damsels, Jesters, and Blackbirds in a Pie. Surely no one could mistake the subject of our book.

The Cover Art Will Explain the Title.

Our cover has castles, princesses wearing pointed hats, knights, etc. Who could fail to get the idea of this book?

The Track Record of Our Author Will Make Up for Any Weakness in the Title.

This is the third in a successful series of books. How important can a title be when there is a large audience out there just waiting for the next one?

The Oddball Title Will Actually Pique Interest in the Book.

This interesting word “huzzah” will cause many potential buyers to snap up a copy of our book just to find out what the word means!

There is just enough truth in these rationalizations to make them dangerous. The fact is that many potential buyers-both consumers and the bookstore professionals who stock the shelves-will never see or never bother to look at the subtitle, or the cover, or the author’s name; and many will simply be irritated when they encounter an unfamiliar word. If they draw a blank on your title, they will be on to the next book-some OTHER publisher’s book.


How to Decide

The moral of this story is very simple. If you have to chose between a snappy but meaningless title and a dull but informative title, go for the dull one. The subtitle, the cover art, and the author’s name can help give some zip to a title, but they can not do the work of the title, which is to tell the customer the subject of the book.

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