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What Makes a Title Work: PMA Members Distill Advice from Experience

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Plain Speaking


My favorite story about the
importance of getting the title right, which I often tell at new-employee
orientations, is about a book we did very early on called <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>Creating Your Own Future


I often ask people, so what do you
think that book is about? And responses typically include:



new career


starting your own business


The range of responses tells you
that the title is a problem. The book was actually the first book on retirement
planning for women. We sold about 5,000 copies. The year after our book came
out, Henry Holt published a book entitled something like <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>Retirement Planning for
. That one sold about 80,000 copies (as I recall). It was a
great—and difficult—lesson about the importance of titling directly
when you have a competitive advantage.






Three to Make Ready


The essential factors, in order of


The subject should be
clear in the main title, not just in the subtitle, and key (searchable) words
should appear in the main title, not just the subtitle (which often gets
truncated in databases). What Color Is Your Parachute would now be a terrible title
for a jobs book.


The full title should
indicate the book’s attitude toward its subject—serious or funny, hostile
or adulatory, ironic or straight. Often this is the job of the subtitle. Almost
all nonfiction books are bought because readers want to have their
preconceptions and prejudices reinforced. <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>George Bush Is a Big Fat Jerk
will not
sell to conservatives, but some other people might love it. <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>George Bush’s Policies and
Personality Carefully Considered
can be left to the university presses.


A good title has some zip to
it. This can come from alliteration, a pun, an intentional ambiguity. <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>Driving While Black

is a great title because it has all three elements in just three words. The
beauty of short titles is that you can make the words bigger on the cover.


When in doubt, go for the title
that really explains what the book is about rather than the witty vague one.
Don’t believe that a beautiful cover will make up for a bad title.


Good titles are hard to create. At
Chicago Review Press, the whole staff spends hours working on each one. Authors
almost never come up with good titles for their books. Asking booksellers to
pick from a list of possible titles is wonderfully unproductive. Focus groups
always pick a loser. The editor of a book is far too involved in the subject to
select a good title. Marketing people with very limited knowledge of the book’s
content are in the best position to make a good choice precisely because they,
just like prospective buyers, do not know what is in the book.


It is often useful to explain a
title by using bulleted information on the cover if there seems to be no way
for the title to get the job done. It is a mistake to rely on the back cover to
explain to prospective purchasers why they might be interested in the book.
They won’t look at the back cover if the front cover does not set the hook.


A zippy title will help sales a
bit. A title that fails to indicate the book’s attitude toward its subject will
hurt sales. A title that does not clearly indicate the book’s subject will be
disastrous for sales.



Publishers Group



Think of Shaking Hands


The title opens the door to
building a relationship with the reader. If we write to connect to people, a
title is like a handshake. Sometimes, handshakes are warm, firm, and
accompanied by a smile, and other times they are cold and clammy. A good title,
like a good handshake, is warm, inviting, and welcoming. Without that, the
reader won’t even look at the subtitle.



Bear Publishing



Mockups and More


Our title ideas come initially
from the author and the acquiring editor. The title must clearly fit the book’s
intended category, be easily understood by the reading audience, and quickly
and accurately convey the message of the book’s content. Also, it must make
sense alone—without any subtitle—as one line in a database, and
because many books are now found through electronic searches, we want it to
include key words if possible.


We check the proposed title(s) in
databases like BookScan, Amazon, and Books in Print for titles that might be
confused with ours and get input from the sales and marketing department once
the acquiring editor believes we have a title that meets the criteria above.
With databases being so important to stores’ systems, we prefer not to change a
title once it is in the catalog.


Sometimes we test just the title,
but usually we mock up covers and test them with key buyers and librarians by
sending electronic JPG files for feedback. When we are concerned about any
element of the cover mockup, we may make several versions, mount them on foam
core, and test them in stores, malls, retail areas, and libraries. We also
consider the way the title will look and read on the spine of the book, since
most books are displayed spine out.


With a book of essays about a
naturalist’s journeys in the urban landscape of a major city, we started with
the title Seattle, Au
Naturel: Field Notes from the City
, but after extensive testing,
we chose The
Street-Smart Naturalist: Field Notes from Seattle
. <span

gives the reader a sense of urban knowledge on a local, intimate scale, and <span
conveys the theme of natural history in an urban setting. By moving the name of
the city to the subtitle, we positioned the book as a series. <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>Field Notes
conveys the idea that the book consists of essays and avoids the misconception
that it is a guidebook. The book sold well, and received a blurb from Ivan Doig
as well as numerous positive reviews.


Yup’ik Eyes
was a title we
resisted because it failed to convey the content of the book. Most readers
didn’t know what the word Yup’ik meant, and searches for <span
irrelevant since the book is about tracing biological and ancestral relatives.


Unfortunately, the author had the
contractual right to insist on this title. His well-written book got a starred
review in Library
and was a Booksense 76 pick, yet it failed to sell well.
Feedback from bookstore buyers pointed to the title problems we had identified
prior to publication.


A. Pfeiffer

Arts Center Publishing Company



Short Sells


As a veteran writer and PR
consultant, I know that labels—for people, products, businesses, movies,
books, or anything else—can make or break the named item.


When Joseph and Agnes Smith call
their company Jo-Ag, Inc., it naturally fails in the first year. On the other
hand, when Fred and Mary Jones name their business Smithville Computer Store,
it thrives. That name tells the world where they are and what they do.


Over the years, when coming up
with titles for books, my first question always has been, What will grab the
potential reader’s attention and hold it long enough for the prospect to read
more about the book and then, ideally, buy it? The next question is, What title
cleverly describes what the book is about, but is short enough and simple
enough to be easily remembered? A defining bit of dialogue from the book works
extremely well


I’m convinced that the more words
you put in a title, especially if they’re esoteric words, the fewer books
you’ll sell. Many great books have one- or two-word titles. Very few use more
than three unless the additional words are incidental parts of speech, such as
articles and prepositions.



Simple Publications



Surprises Spring from Keywords


I learned an interesting lesson
when developing the title for my new book <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>The Business Startup Checklist and Planning Guide:
Seize Your Entrepreneurial Dreams!
My initial strategy was to
include as many keywords as possible, since I am relying heavily on the
Internet for book promotion. I made an extensive list of words and titles and
checked on Amazon to see if they were already in use. Then I settled on the
title and turned my attention to early marketing efforts while finishing up
edits on the book.


After contacting a number of
publications and offering book excerpts, I received a message from Romanus
Wolter, a columnist for one of the magazines I had queried who branded himself
“The Kick-Start Guy.” Wolter pointed out that my subtitle—at that point <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>Kick Start Your
Entrepreneurial Dreams!
—was similar to his book’s main
title, Kick Start
Your Dream Business


I had been so concerned about
checking to see if my main title was taken, that I never bothered to search for
my subtitle. And while I hadn’t done anything illegal, I was concerned about
presenting my book as unique.


Fortunately, I had plenty of time
to swap Kick Start
for Seize.
And I also got to connect with an interesting established author; Wolter and I
are now finding ways to work together. So an innocent mistake turned out for
the best, and I still managed to keep all the keywords I wanted in the title.
For my next book, you can bet that I will be double-checking subtitles.


As for the keywords, so far they
are helping tremendously in terms of generating visits to my site, orders from
visitors, and requests for review copies.






b>Four Findings


1. It is a good thing to agonize
over a title. Do not make a hasty decision. This agony may get you to the best
possible wording. Share your prospective titles with sales reps and booksellers
for critical feedback. Do not let your author chose the title without serious,
critical review.


2. We publish books about Alaska.
Two promising titles with the word <span
in them have bombed. Still, we have
a third such title coming this fall, <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Cold Crime: Police Detective Stories from Alaska
that I hope will reverse this trend. If not, I’ll never use the word <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>cold in a
title again.


3. A good title works best in
concert with a cover design incorporating a photo or illustration and a good
blurb or two, all of which combine to signal to the browser what the book is


4. Sex sells.






Laughter Picks a Winner


We have a huge collection of
advertisements from the 1940s through the 1960s, and we pulled all the alcohol
and tobacco ads to create a book that was stimulating and humorous, with
doctors approving smoking and actors giving thumbs up to liquor. We knew people
would love to see this collection of roughly 300 full-color images, but we were
stuck on the title until, during a staff meeting, our office manager blurted
out: “How about What’s
Your Poison?
” Everyone immediately laughed. We loved it, added
the subtitle Addictive
Advertising of the ’40s–’60s
, and published it with back
orders for more than 3,000 copies and major reviews scheduled.






Guidelines Include No Numbers


To create a good title, I write
down everything I can think of. Sometimes going to the dictionary to find
different ways of saying the same thing gets me going again when I run out of ideas.
I also have a book called Words That Sell to help me think.


My list may be a page long or
more. I rank the titles as the book progresses. Sometimes the title influences
what I write and keeps me focused. If what I’m writing no longer suits the title,
I start over again with a new list of titles. I keep in mind that I want the
title to begin with A, B, or C to put me near the top of any list that is
arranged alphabetically. I avoid using numbers (<span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>15 Ways to Sell Your Book
, etc.), since
they tend to confuse people about where to look (in a numbers section at the
beginning of the list? Or with titles that start with the letter <span


Although subtitles are popular, I
think it is important to keep a title short and to the point. If the title
rambles, the book probably does also. If the title doesn’t fit the book because
you are trying to get more folks to buy, then you are not doing the buyer any






What Helped, What Hurt


, about nonviolent responses
to confrontation, is a title that definitely hurt sales. The author had her
heart set on it, and I couldn’t persuade her away from it. On the other hand, I
was dead set against The
Mattawa Song Cycle
for a collection of original music, but people
come up to me with those words rolling off their tongue and remember the
composer’s name to boot.


Among our truly good titles are <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>Listen, My Dears
a memoir about growing up in Nashua, New Hampshire, with a sepia cover picture
of the author at age five in 1915 speaking on an old telephone; and <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>Bone Cages
and Cutting the
Cemetery Lawn
, both collections of poetry with fantastic cover
illustrations by Abigail Rorer, a prize-winning book designer. <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>Bone Cages
came from a phrase within a poem; <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Cutting the Cemetery Law
n is a poem


For a pair of memoirs by a
well-known local columnist, we used <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Enduring Generation
for the first volume
(right after Tom Brokaw’s blockbuster <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>The Greatest Generation
). The second
volume was about baby boomers, and we called it <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>They Also Endured
. Both sold out.


We feel that the title is very
important for morale, marketing, and mainstream acceptance. There is a bit of a
mystique around how you find a good one and, sometimes, I think we succeed.



a mile west of Athol center on Route 2A



Imagine Images


A book title is often not the only
title in a book. A poetry or short-story collection typically features many
titles. Each should articulate the thematic essence of the material to which it
refers. Its tone can be jarring, mellifluous, playful, or somber depending on
the writer’s purposes. Often a good title resonates with double and triple
entendre, with connotations that illuminate subtle complexity behind the
seeming simplicity of a catchy phrase. This in turn suggests the larger
complexity of the subjects in real life to which a poem or story might refer. A
good title can use alliteration and assonance to make it memorable, and
typically it should be brief. Let one or two words resonate with multiple
meanings rather than pile on phrasing.


Literary book titles, like cover
images, can often be drawn from a manuscript’s repeated images, phrases,
themes. If an image of fire and flame, for example, appears and reappears in a
manuscript and suggests its fundamental themes, then one might mention fire in
the title. Physical images tend to work well in titles. Look for inclusive
symbolic physical images, but images nonetheless. Abstract phrases often lack
distinctive taste, flavor, bite.


The best way to test is to make a
list of about a dozen favorite titles. Live with the list for a few weeks or
even months. Winnow out the least satisfying, the least compelling. Winnow
further. Imagine placing the book title on each page of the book. Does it
effectively describe that page? What might be missing or feel wrong? Revise;
combine suggestions; toy and tinker and play and try anew. Consider also
superimposing various titles on possible front-cover images. Which title looks
and feels most compatible with an image? Of course, consult with the author of
the book, if it is not yours. Eventually, two or three phrases will emerge as
the best choices, and finally over time one title feel will most compatible
with the project as a whole. Be patient with the process. Let a title emerge
from the material rather than impose a title on it.


Last, one might check Books in
Print to make sure no undue conflicts exist with titles of other books. That
test passed, you have likely found your title. Live with it for a month or so,
and commit to it if it still works. Good titles resonate in readers’ minds for
years. They allow a reader to recall the experience of reading the book and of
absorbing its themes, story, and tone. A good title articulates an essence and
has the poetic power to evoke that essence’s distinctiveness. It is a seed, a
doorway, a companion, a sanctuary—rarely simply data.


D. Horowitz

Rose Alley Press



Marketing Makes the Difference


Since the title is part of a
book’s packaging, we spend a lot of time on it. Agonize a lot. Brainstorm with
staff, family. Lose sleep. Until, in the end, everyone agrees that we have come
up with a “good” title.


I hate to say this, but so long as
the title identifies the content, I don’t think it really makes much difference
to sales. Promotion and marketing are what really matter. For example, we have
two related osteoporosis books with similar titles. <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Stand Tall: Every Woman’s Guide to Preventing and
Treating Osteoporosis
did exceptionally well when we were touring
the author, but afterward sales dropped off considerably; <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>Walk Tall: An Exercise
Program for the Prevention and Treatment of Osteoporosis

continues to sell well, probably because the author is out there giving seminars.


Our best selling book, now in its
fourth edition, has an accurate but uncreative title (<span
class=95StoneSerifIt>Dictionary of Eye
) that no one remembers. It’s usually referred to as
“the eye book” or “the little green book.” But it’s sold about 200,000 copies.


Triad’s newest release—<span
class=95StoneSerifIt>Droidmaker: George Lucas
and the Digital Revolution
—has us still pondering the
question. Will people remember the title? Or should the subtitle be the title?
With a major promotion planned to coincide with the release of the new <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>Star Wars
DVD, we are hoping the title catches on.






Going with the Gut


We have been publishing books on
consumer electronics and sports for almost 60 years. The more direct the title
on our type of books, the better. We try to fit each one into a series, and we
use surveys of our staff and employees from our affiliated companies to get a
broad view of the impact of the title.


Since truncation in databases is
an issue, and the general public scans instead of reads, our shorter titles
with very direct keywords are the most successful.


We have learned not to
overanalyze. We are always exponentially more critical of our own work than the
consumers will ever be. Often, an initial idea is the best, and it is a mistake
to stray from that first gut feeling.


A. White

Technical Publishing



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