To Pick the Best Titles
by Linda Carlson
Titling a book can be tough. The task is complicated partly because you usually need to target several markets: readers who have already shown interest in the author or the topic by buying a book from you or otherwise, as well as readers new to your publishing company, the author, the genre, and the precise subject matter.
And then you have to consider how the title will look on the book cover, especially when the cover image is reduced to thumbnail size for print catalogs and social media sites and posted by online retailers. Plus you need to think about how the title will be truncated in wholesaler and bookseller databases, where it might place a book on retailers’ shelves, and whether it will be memorable and easy to say.
When we asked independent publishers how they select book titles, we learned that some do research, some do formal testing (often using online surveys), and some evaluate titles with help from participants in relevant workshops and classes, ads (real and mock), friends and family, in-house meetings, cover designers, sales reps, wholesalers, distributors, booksellers, librarians, authors, existing customers, potential customers, and/or gut feelings.
At Palmer/Pletsch Publishing, Pati Palmer explains that she starts thinking about how to publicize a title when she begins considering a book concept. It’s important that a title be promotable, she points out, adding, “Since The Food Nanny Rescues Dinner was out of my normal sewing book genre, I did some research on the importance of families dining together.”
Quotes on the value of family dinners from such notables as Joseph Califano, Jr., head of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, and statistics from the American Heart Association on childhood and adolescent obesity told Palmer that she needed a title that would emphasize both the social and health values of family dinners as well as the importance of portion size.
Scott Rossell and his wife started the process of choosing a title with the phrase Ready to Live! in mind because they had been conducting workshops with that title for a couple of years, and they were basing their book on the program.
“Early anecdotal research suggested that the title should evoke a question without using a question mark,” Rossell reports. “Then the subtitle could provide the promise of an answer.”
To get feedback, they included a list of possible titles on the last page of their workshop workbook, and Rossell says, “It was fun to bandy titles about immediately after the workshop while the irons were still hot.” Based on this informal input, the publishers chose the title Get Ready to Live, Book 1: Living with Purpose and Passion.
“When our demographic (typically people 30 to 55) is looking for self-help books and sees this title, it evokes questions while promising purpose and passion in life,” Rossell believes. The title has what he calls the added advantage of “rolling easily off the tongue,” and Get Ready to Live has now also become the name of his company.
Michael Fischman used Survey Monkey to poll his Facebook friends about four possible title/subtitle combinations for what became Stumbling into Infinity: An Ordinary Man in the Sphere of Enlightenment (Morgan James, 2010).
He asked respondents to rate each option for his book on a five-point scale from “Strongly Like” to “Strongly Dislike,” and then asked an open-ended question about titles that might be better. Of the 700 people invited to rate the titles, 275 responded, and 96 also suggested alternate titles. Dozens of other friends skipped the survey and emailed responses directly to Fischman.
The final choice was between the two most popular combinations. The one Fischman himself preferred got fewer positive votes than the other popular title (149 vs. 164), but it also had fewer negative votes (54 vs. 59), and he went with it.
Donn LeVie, Jr., relies on groups of friends, family members, and colleagues to provide honest feedback on titles, subtitles, and cover art for his company, Kings Crown Publishing, which is scheduled to issue four titles this year.
“I use an evaluation sheet,” he says, “to ask for initial impressions of the title/subtitle and cover illustration together, title by itself, cover by itself, and what the test group member thinks the book will be about.”
He also asks evaluators for alternative titles suggested by the subject matter.
Thanks to the Internet, the well-established practice of advertising a product before it exists and creating it only if there is adequate response can now be free—and very fast.
Tag Powell of Top of the Mountain Publishing, who tests interest in some books he publishes each year, explains: “You run an ad using the title on at least five or six of the thousands of free online classified sites, something like: ‘The True Stories of Worthenton Farthengale, an exciting new book. Farthengale1@TopOfTheMountainPublishing.com’ on one site and then ‘Worthenton Farthengale Exposed, an exciting new book. Farthengale2@TopOfTheMountainPublishing.com’ on another site.”
Then, he continues, “you see which title generates the most responses, and email people who express interest, saying, ‘We will let you know as soon as the book comes back from the printer.’”
Another advantage of this method, says Powell: “You build a list of potential buyers!”
Using a similar tactic, Pati Palmer creates mock display ads to test titles. Each one includes an image of a different book cover. “The ad has to tell the reader ‘What’s in it for me,’ and it lets me see how well the cover works when reduced in size,” she says.
Instead of publishing the ads, however, Palmer shows them to colleagues who fit the profile of her targeted reader. “I loved the first title for the Food Nanny book. But you have to listen to others,” she warns. “You can’t be married to a title just because you created it.”
When a friend and potential wholesale customer for the book described the author as “the food nanny,” Palmer says she knew it fit. But a Google.com search of the term showed it has been used negatively in reference to government regulations. “So as a home economist, I asked all my foodie friends if they perceived the name as negative. I figured if they didn’t, it was okay.” And they didn’t.
Polling Your Market
Larger publishers often use well-established industry relationships to get valuable market perspectives on a title. One representative of a university press reports, “Our sales manager talks to sales reps about some of the titles for trade books, and we do think about the reduced size of the cover images in online catalogs, although that won’t drive the final decision.”
Distributors’ opinions are very important to her, says MaryAnn Kohl of Bright Ring Publishing. She always sends at least three possible titles for a new book to the staff at IPG, her distributor.
“And boy-oh-boy, are they honest!” she declares. “I’ve changed my cover design and my titles because of their input. I trust their expertise nearly 100 percent. They also often suggest new titles for me to consider.”
Kohl, who publishes books on art and crafts for children, also calls on her huge network in early childhood education and art for opinions. “I usually send my three favorite titles to people in the know, such as other authors, consultants, magazine editors, teachers, art education blog owners, professors, and retired teaching friends,” she explains.
In addition, she emails those favorite titles to groups that include hundreds of teachers and childcare providers. “I tell them a little about the book and then ask, ‘Which title would catch your attention? Which title would encourage you to pick up the book or purchase the book?’”
Kohl keeps tallies of the responses and comments. Her final step is to review all this material with her husband and two adult daughters. “We talk over the concept of the book, who will buy it, what the title communicates, etc. By the end of this meeting, we have a title.”
Of course, Kohl adds, after she has all this information in hand, she sometimes falls back on her 25 years as a publisher and resorts to a gut-level decision.
Shel Horowitz of Frugal Marketing is another publisher who has used online forums for feedback on titles. In his case, it’s Publisher’s Forum (pub-forum.net) and the Yahoo Group Small-Pub Civil. Feedback from participants resulted in one significant title change, from Win-Win Marketing to Principled Profit: Marketing That Puts People First.
At High Plains Press, which issues four books annually and has a backlist of more than 50, Nancy Curtis tries titles out on friends and colleagues, and she is personally fond of short titles with verbs or implied motion. “I like titles that ‘roll off your tongue,’” she says, adding: “Sometimes that involves alliteration or associations with songs, old sayings, or even rhyme. We recently named a guidebook Forts, Fights and Frontier Sites despite the length, because the rhyme made it easier to remember than some alternatives.”
Curtis also considers how a proposed title might be truncated in databases (How To usually becomes HT, and articles and conjunctions may be eliminated, for instance).
Another issue: “We look at where books end up on shelves alphabetically and try to position ours at eye level. Of course, you never really know how that is going to work, but a book with a title that starts with A or Z is less likely to be at eye-level in a bookstore.”
And a final concern at High Plains: “We consider connotations. This may sound politically incorrect, but for a book with ‘Sisters’ in the title, we did an informal survey at our regional trade show to see if the word has come to indicate something other than siblings or sibling-like friends. Feedback from major wholesalers and buyers indicated there were lesbian connotations.”
It’s worth noting, as Curtis recalls, that a sewing guide published by the pattern maker Mademoiselle was challenged by a school librarian because its title was Making It with Mademoiselle.
Some publishers want authors to suggest titles, while others resist any input from a book’s creator.
One publisher who depends on authors is Helen Cherullo at The Mountaineers Books. “We call our titles ‘outdoor books by the experts,’ and we rely on our authors to have their fingers on the pulse of the market. That’s what sets our content apart,” she notes.
Although Cherullo looks at book cover designs reduced to an inch in height on a computer screen and also examines them as reproduced in black and white, The Mountaineers does not otherwise test titles.
“We are lucky to have experienced sales, marketing, and acquisitions folks who are highly creative and engaged. That counts for a lot. To be a market leader, you have to know your market, and take risks—and trust your gut. More than often, it works!”
Linda Carlson (twitter.com/carlsonideas) writes for the Independent from Seattle.
Booksellers’ Advice on Titles
“If it can’t be said in five words, try again!” exclaims Elaine Fields Smith of Blazing Star Books when asked how to brainstorm book titles. “Short and meaningful says it all.”
Marcella Smith, Barnes & Noble’s director of Small Press & Vendor Relations, agrees. Simple is always best. “If the book has a promise, then the title has to deliver that promise,” she says, “and the book jacket has to reflect the simplicity of the promise and the message.”
For hardcore nonfiction—health and fitness, self-improvement, business—focus groups work best to help the publisher center on the core message of the book, Smith continues. “I’m looking at the books on the shelves in my office—Location Lighting Solutions or Building Your Photography Business—no question what those books are about.”
With fiction, the title must evoke the spirit of the place or the main character, she says. “Here is where I think readers in the genre can be helpful, and the publisher’s or author’s blog can generate some good responses.”
Titles for memoirs and biographies must veer toward fiction, she says, “in that the title must evoke an experience of a life, how, when, and where it was lived–The Middle Place, True Compass, Traveling Mercies.”
“Titles that excite me and have something to say” is what Bob Adjemian, general manager at Vedanta Press, looks for. Too much of what comes his way is “me-too, ego trips, nothing new—or just plain boring.”
A caution from Fields Smith—avoid trite humor: “It turns people off.”
A Librarian’s Take on Titles
Titles have little impact on whether a book is selected for a library’s collection, reports Kathleen Morley, a selection services librarian at the Seattle Public Library.
But she points out that the practice of changing titles for new printings or paperback editions of a book raises an issue for libraries.
“It often takes some time to determine if a title is truly a reprint or paperback edition of a title we already own, or a brand-new title. Changing titles confuses library patrons, who often request the ‘new’ title when we own the hardback or previous printing,” Morley says.
Another source of confusion that Morley cites: titles that duplicate titles of existing works. For example, Amazon.com currently lists nine children’s books called Where Is My Mommy? or Where’s My Mommy?