May 21, 2007
A Book by Any Other Name . . .
Most people know the title of a book matters. It can make or break the success of a book. A wrong title can confuse readers about the content or mislead readers to think the book is not for them.
In publishing, everyone wants a piece of the title--editorial, marketing, sales, design and, oh yes, the author. So what makes a good title?
Basically two things: clarity and creativity.
A good title should clearly communicate the content of the book. Most books on a bestseller list have titles that tell you what the book is about. Some current examples are How Doctors Think, The God Delusion and Grace (Eventually).
A good title should also be creative. It shouldn't sound too familiar, like you've heard it many times before. It needs to stand out. I Feel Bad About My Neck is definitely different but also communicates that the book is for women with feelings about body image. (It's not so clear that the book is focused on aging, however.)
Creativity can take several forms, some of which can be combined. Offering hope without insulting the reader is a tricky balance but an effective one if it can be achieved. The Audacity of Hope is an obvious current example. Smart Women, Foolish Choices is another more vintage attempt.
Sometimes books succeed without either clarity or creativity. Why is that? Sometimes it's because the title is not actually the most important factor. Sometimes it's the author's name. The celebrity book falls or rises mostly on the notoriety of the writer. So Bob Woodruff's In an Instant is neither creative nor clear. But it's on the bestseller list because Bob Woodruff is known.
The fact is, with 190,000 new books published each year in the United States alone, 99.44 percent will not be by well-known people or have huge marketing budgets. So the title has to do the heavy lifting. The fact that most titles don't achieve both clarity and creativity shows just how difficult the whole process is.
So what do you do if after hours, days and weeks of effort you don't have a title that is both clear and creative?What if you have to choose between a clear title or a creative title? Go for the clear title every time. Why? Because (again assuming no huge marketing bucks or celebrity author) a creative title that isn't clear has very little chance of finding its audience. A clear title definitely has a better chance.