September 26, 2007
They Just Love My Title
"I asked five friends, and they all told me they loved the title I'm thinking of for the book."
"I randomly surveyed a dozen people at the mall and most liked my title best."
"I've been speaking on this topic lately, and when I mention my working title for the book, I get a very positive response."
Over the years we at InterVarsity Press have heard many variations on this theme from authors. They mention their working title to friends, relatives, coworkers or people in the intended audience, and the reaction they get leads them to believe they have a winner. And they might. But why should a publisher be cautious about such a conclusion? Why should an author also be cautious about such a conclusion?
Blinding is a common tool used in research to take conscious or unconscious bias out of the results. Authors almost always have a definite bias about which titles they do and don't like, especially for their own books. So if the presenter of the options is the author, respondents will consciously or unconsciously pick up that bias, even if they don't know the presenter is the author. Often there is an unconscious tendency for respondents to please the presenter. And if the responders are friends or family, the tendency can be magnified.
It would be far more objective for an author to give the task to someone else, to have that third party present several possible titles to people who don't know the author or anything about the book but who represent the target audience for the book. Often Uncle Elmer, you see, is not in the bull's-eye. The author should also give no indication to the third party what his or her preference is.
Another reason publishers and authors should be cautious is that after the author has explained the book or topic to people, they have a very different context for understanding the proposed title than the average customer who does not know the author, has no prior background about the book and only has an ad or a catalog page or the book cover itself on which to make an initial judgment. In addition, people in an audience may not be responding so much to the title as to their personal appreciation for the author or the topic generally.
The author's sample is not random nor is it representative of the actual customer experience. Unfortunately, the author cannot explain the book to every customer at every bookstore or be ready to chat online to anyone who looks up the book on Amazon. Often the book cover has to stand totally alone and unaided. It has to do all the work by itself.
Should publishers pay no attention at all to an author's survey? In one important sense they should: authors are often the ones who are in closest touch with the sensibilities, tastes and needs of the primary audience for the book. In fact, publishers very much hope they are. So such survey results should not be dismissed completely. They should be included as part of the decision-making process about a title. But the results of an author's informal survey should not control the decision or trump other factors or input. On the whole, publishers and authors should view author-generated research results with a healthy dose of suspicion.