What’s in a Name?


Alison Morris - March 13, 2007

When starting a blog, it seems to me there are two things worth agonizing over. One of these is your blog’s first entry—your drop-kick into the see-all, tell-all world of the blogosphere. The other is your blog’s name, which needs to be clever, catchy, and suggestive of your blog’s content. What it shouldn’t be are the names my wordsmithy friends and I came up with in our first few naming attempts. Excerpts from literary quotes? Too obscure. References to particular books? Too specific. Variations of my own name? Either too ridiculous (“Alison Also Rises”) or too… suggestive (“Alison Wonderland”). I believe we scraped the bottom of the blog-naming barrel when my boyfriend Gareth proposed “Clifford the Big Red Blog,” but at least that one got us laughing!

At last, inspiration struck in the form of “ShelfTalker,” a “shelf talker” being a piece of paper or cardstock we booksellers attach to a shelf in order to call attention to a particular book or books. Shelf talkers sometimes feature marketing materials prepared by a publisher or—as is the case at my bookstore—handwritten book reviews.

My intention with ShelfTalker is to both resemble a shelf talker (by calling attention to particular books) and be a shelf talker, by talking about all things book-industry-related. I hope too that you will make of me some kind of “shelf listener” by commenting on my remarks.

I can just see my first reader comment: “Thank you for not naming your blog something as lame as ‘Shelf Listener.’ “

On the topic of lame names, I’ve been wondering: Why am I suddenly seeing publishers change the titles of underperforming hardcovers when these books are reissued in paperback? This is a phenomenon I’ve observed with three novels in the past few months, and while three instances do not make a trend, I’m worried about the precedent this is setting.

The three novels I’ve recently purchased for our store that were apparently (in the eyes of their publishers) lamed by their own names are: Naughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman, now appearing in paperback as Black and White; Gideon the Cutpurse by Linda Buckley-Archer, soon to appear in paperback as The Time Travelers; and Olivia Kidney and the Exit Academy by Ellen Potter, coming soon to a bookshelf near you as a paperback entitled Olivia Kidney Stops for No One.

I don’t fault the publishers of these books for wanting the sales of these books to improve. I do, however, question changing a book’s title in order to achieve that goal. From a marketing standpoint this seems like an expensive move, as it unravels any name recognition you may already have established for the book under its original title. Those teens who read about Naughts and Crosses when it first appeared read about a book called Naughts and Crosses, not Black and White. Those kids who’ve heard their friends talk about Gideon the Cutpurse haven’t heard a word about The Time Travelers. Why make your marketing team start the buzz all over again?

Then

Now

I find Philomel’s change for Olivia Kidney an especially strange one, as the book is the second title in a series. If you were going to boost the interest in a series, wouldn’t you change the title for the first book (if any) or rebrand the entire series? Rebranding a sequel seems, well… pointless, really. And confusing. I can already see the Olivia Kidney fans I’ve cultivated at our store rushing to the cash register with a copy of Olivia Kidney Stops for No One, only to get home and discover that they already read it, under what was arguably a catchier, more intriguing title.

As for Simon and Schuster’s name changes for Naughts and Crosses and Gideon the Cutpurse, I personally suspect that both books were less victim to poor titles than to unfortunate cover designs. The jackets of both books gave readers no indication of what each might be about and falsely suggested the tone of each book (bland and/or very serious). Don’t get me wrong, Gideon the Cutpurse had a more elegant package than almost any novel I’ve seen to date, but elegant often does not translate to kid-friendly, and I certainly don’t think elegant fits with either the tone of this book’s writing or with the thrilling notion of time travel.

Time travel will now certainly be on the minds of the kids who pick up Linda Buckley-Archer’s novel, as the title The Time Travelers leaves no room for doubt. But I also feel it leaves no room for intrigue. And I would argue that the same is true for Black and White, a title that calls to mind a bland nonfiction book about either race, photography or newspapers.

I have the utmost respect for the work of these two publishers, as they continually produce wonderful books. I just think it would be best to let wonderful (and even less than wonderful) books keep the names they were originally given. Find some other way, please, to reinvent the wheel—preferably one that doesn’t confuse or bewilder readers.

30 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

  1. Sarah Fields

    In the past few years I have read a lot of kids books as part of courses in children’s and young adult literature, plus wanting to pass on suggestions to grand-children. I picked up an advance copy of Gideon the Cutpurse in a books-for-review box at my local small-town bookstore. I was attracted by the title. Loved it, sent it to one of my grandkids, recommended it people, and have waited for the next book in the triology since. I do not usually read the various sorts of other-reality adventure series, but this was tops. The story left you hanging, wanting to read the next book right away. So, I want to know when the next book is going to come out. That would sure help to promote the first book. I will want to read it again.

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  2. carfan00

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  3. athol@brighternaming.com

    Now if only this blog was found at Shelftalker.com! The new TV show Power of 10 says 80+% of US judge a book by its cover..so if it doesn’t sell, don’t blame the publisher for changing its look and name! We call it “perfuming the pig” in marketing. Many a product has succeeded after a name change… e.g. Diet Deluxe foods became Healthy Choice.. and the rest is history.

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  4. Joan

    Hi Alison, As a librarian who might buy both hardbacks and paperbacks, I find this “trend” obnoxious. It seems like a great trick to get us to buy the same book twice. I sure hope you can report on these titles so as to save our limited budget! I just purchased Gideon so at least I’ll know not to get the second title.

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  5. JILL SAGINARIO

    Alison! Congratulations. It’s about time PW gave you a blog…! I think a certain publisher has to just accept the fact that Olivia Kidney & the Exit Academy was just simply not as good as a book as the first in the series. And I LIKE Clifford the Big Red Blog.

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  6. Bobbie

    Hi Alison! Good start to the blog. Just had to throw my 2 cents (sense?) in on the new title issue — I too had never heard of changing a book title for paperback. I remember as a kid buying a book in a series thinking I had read it only to discover I had been “tricked” by a different color cover. That’s all it took to get me to plunk down my hard earned baby-sitting money for a book I already owned. A different title would probably work the same way.

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  7. Bookwink.com

    I agree with Erlene that a great book doesn’t need a great title to do well. I suppose there are some fabulous books that can’t find their audiences because the titles are unclear, but I don’t think this is the case with Gideon.

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  8. Laini Taylor

    What a bizarre phenomenon that is! I hadn’t heard of it — it seems almost like a trick! I would guess publishers would have to have pretty good reasons to do it. To give a good book a second chance in paper, if it didn’t do as well as they thought it deserved? Still, I agree, it sounds really risky! (Welcome to the blog world!)

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  9. Proud Father

    HI Alison: Just a brief note to let you know how much I enjoy reading the reflections of my celebrity daughter. You make a lot of sense to me (but then I suppose I am just a tad biased). Keep up the good work.

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  10. ERLENE

    Alison, Great blog and interesting topic. Having a very difficult name in life and being a school librarian (we don’t seem to ever be able to settle on what our position should be called) I have learned that names don’t really matter as much as what one does or what is inside!! If the books in question didn’t take off when first published, a new name may not help much. Think about some of the biggest sellers — Harry Potter isn’t a very glamourous name and that first book became popular without a lot of fanfare! Readers will share really good stuff no matter what it’s called. I also am dismayed about no RSS — I want an e-mail nudge to come back to your blog. I suppose PW will continue to remind us you are out here but RSS is so much better! Best wishes on your new blog! Erlene Bishop Killeen (leave out the middle and it’s a doorbell ring!!)

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  11. Little Willow

    Welcome to the kidlit blogging world! I’m a bookseller with a blog entitled Bildungsroman. 🙂 I suspect Naughts and Crosses was retitled mostly for the American audience which is unfamiliar with the game under that title. The Olivia Kidney series is cute and has appeal, though I think I preferred the first to the second.

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  12. PETER TAYLOR

    Hi Alison, Greetings from ‘Down Under’! Thank you for starting this blog. I will look forward to all your posts and everyone’s replies. My non-fiction book, ‘The Australian Manual of Calligraphy’ was published by Allen and Unwin in 1987. At the time of the first print-run, some copies were given a different title, ‘A Manual of Calligraphy’, to be published by Unwin Hyman/Harper Collins and sold in the UK and New Zealand. It was felt that if it had ‘Australian’ in the title, customers in these other countries would be less likely to buy it. I wonder, does having a place name in the title really improve sales within that locality? Regards, Peter Taylor

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  13. EMILY GOODMAN

    This looks like fun, tho’ I too am a fan of Clifford the Big Red Blog! I think in the case of the titles that maybe they were too British (naughts and crosses = x’s and o’s?) and nobody was getting it? But one would expect publishers to have thought of that earlier.

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  14. LINDA BUDZ

    Hi, Alison! Great first post and great title … you’re two for two! Looking forward to reading more. I do have a question for consideration should you start to run out of things to blog about (speaking of “What’s in a Name?”): How important do you think it is for an author to have a memorable and/or easily spelled name to achieve booksales? I’m considering writing under my maiden name because it is a name kids could remember and spell much more easily than my married name, and with everything so computerized now, I think that might be a factor. Would love to know your thoughts. Best wishes for a long-lived and successful blog! Linda (Acorn) Budzinski

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  15. BeckyB

    I am excited about the new blog – it’s great – only bummer – I tried to subscribe with Bloglines and it says you have no RSS Feed – could that be changed at all???! Thanks!

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  16. Scott of the Merritt Bookstore

    Jeepers cookies and colors I have written three brilliant essays and they keep saying I must eat cookies or I spelled wrong. This is my first blog so mistakes happen. Great job Alison and change the name when it comes out in paperback blog along sith the cover to really fool us.

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  17. STEPHANIE

    Hi Alison. I have been a children’s book buyer for a few different stores and my experience has been that many preteen and teen readers prefer paperbacks to hardcovers. I have been trying to convince publishers for years now to release new books in both formats for this readership. This would obviously eliminate the need to change the name of the paperbacks. What is your experience with this?

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  18. Edith

    I think a book’s title is extrememly important, and I’m happy to see publishers thinking outside the box by correcting something that obviously should have been corrected the first go round. It would be my guess that these books will perform better with the new titles. Too bad they didn’t test it by releasing some with the old & some with the new & tracking sales. That would be a cool test.

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  19. cecil

    Oh I am so excited that your blog is up! Shelftalker is a great name. Although I think Clifford the Big Red Blog is awesome-licious. I already adore your wise points of view on stuff so naturally I can’t wait to read more. Dorkolicious me, I even made a feed over at Livejournal (it’s pwshelftalker for those who want to add it as a friend over there) so I can get my dose of Alison on a regular basis yay! cecil

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  20. Bina

    Hi, Alison. What fun! I just happened to link on this from PW (so that the marketer in you would let you know how I “found” you. We are all lucky that your infinite wisdom is now available online! I am with you on the changing the titles issue for all the reasons you include. The changing of names is all the more confusing when sequels are coming. Good luck with the Shelf Talker which is the perfect name for this! Bina

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