(Side note: I loved BookExpo this year, and my next post will share some of the most fun highlights and photos from the trip. So if you’ve been waiting to hear about it, I promise, you will!)
One of the fun things about being a bookseller is the opportunity to notice how readers (at least in one’s own market) respond to book covers, titles, and handselling “pitches.” So much can be learned from observing what makes a customer’s eyes glaze over, as well as what perks them up. Day after day, we see which books are snatched up eagerly by young hands and which books kids will shrink away from even touching with a pinky finger. (This is, sadly, literally true. I’ve seen kids recoil from a cover they dislike. Nothing is sadder for an enthusiastic booktalker than seeing a book undermined by its own packaging.)
The immediate-appeal factor of a book usually has most to do with cover art, but titles can be surprisingly important to a book’s success. As always, matters of personal taste come into play, and nailing down titles that work or don’t can be more elusive than assessing successful cover art. But since a terrific title can get readers to pick up a book whose cover art isn’t ideal, finding the right one is critical.
The best kinds of titles seem to be:
- Titles that are very clear about their subject matter — The Boyfriend List, The Candy Shop War, Fablehaven, Wereworld, The House with the Clock in its Walls, Rapunzel’s Revenge, Evil Genius
- Titles that work in concert with the cover art to paint an inviting idea of what the story is about — My Side of the Mountain, Chasing Vermeer, Charlotte’s Web, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, The Sea of Trolls
- Titles with words that appeal to kids, like “spy,” “clue,” “game,” “secret,” puzzle,” “ghost,” etc. — 11 Birthdays, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, The Westing Game, Harriet the Spy, The Golden Compass, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Lightning Thief
- Titles that intrigue — From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, A Mango-Shaped Space, A Drowned Maiden’s Hair, A Barrel of Laughs, a Vale of Tears, Inkheart, The House of Scorpions, The Game of Sunken Places, A Great and Terrible Beauty
- Titles that delight or surprise or amuse — The True Meaning of Smekday, Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat, The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, Whales on Stilts, Toad Rage, The Strange Case of Origami Yoda
- Titles that are pleasing to the ear, even if they don’t immediately reveal too much about the story — Alabama Moon, Grave Mercy, Journey to the River Sea, The Star of Kazan, Artemis Fowl, The Starry River of the Sky, The Amulet of Samarkand
I’m reluctant to list examples of titles that tank, because that would make the authors and publishers feel terrible. So I’ll give a couple of examples of books we sell really, really well despite titles we have to overcome. One is Immortal Beloved by Cate Tiernan. I may have griped about this title here before, because, while it does point to one aspect of the story, it is too broadly, vaguely romantic and conveys none of the sharp wit and crisp pacing of this addictive YA fantasy. I’ve had to work hard to get my smart, funny readers (this book’s demographic) past the title. Once they do, however, they’re in. Customers actually phone the store to tell me how much they love it.
Books whose titles don’t give a reader something solid to hook into can be problematic. Another fantastic book and strong seller by a superb writer is Gary Schmidt’s Okay for Now. If that book hadn’t been by an award-winning author, it might have struggled more, because — at least for me — there just wasn’t enough to connect the title to the subject matter of the story.
I’ll also say that books with overused words (“water,” “shadow,” “bone,” etc.) can struggle by getting lost in the crowd. However, these words are overused precisely because they resonate — so if the rest of the title is distinctive, they can be effective.
What are your experiences with titles? Are there other categories of titles that make a book fly off your shelves? Aspects of titles that always grab you — or leave you cold?
I’m not one for titles like ‘Immortal Beloved’ (have yet to read it><) because it sounds too simple/shallow to be a gripping read for me. It gave me the impression that it was a simple paranormal romance story. However, if I hadn't loved her Sweep Series (no clue why it was called that), I might have passed it over simply because of the title. However, since I had read her work and completely enjoyed it, I read the prompt and realized that the title misled me in the worst way. And I will read it soon!!! Like you said, the title does nothing to sell this book on its own:/
And I would like to see commensurate pain inflicted on the people who think they’re being clever by starting titles with non-alphanumeric characters, e.g. “&” and “#” and “@”. It’s one thing to stand out as different, it’s another to make your work so inconvenient that it’s not worth the bother. — #%!!&!
Thanks for this post, Elizabeth. It gives me a lot to ponder. Titles are always a struggle. Just when you think you’ve settled on a good one you find there is another that is too similar or there is some other reason you can’t or shouldn’t use it. And sometimes if the words are too unique no one can keep it straight, but if the words are too common it is confused with other titles. Not easy!