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Monday, January 6, 2014

What's in a name?

If it's a book title, the name is crucial! 

Choosing a book
What if Fifty Shades of Grey had been called Disempowered two-dimensional woman gets sexually abused by equally two-dimensional rich, sadistic man ? ** Disclaimer ** I haven't read Fifty Shades.. and am creating a phony title, based on random negative reviews of a bestseller, to make my point. Please don't sue. My point being that I think Fifty Shades of Grey is a great title. It is short, memorable, thought-provoking, rich in double meanings, metaphorical, indicates genre and is original (as far as I know).

A book title has two jobs; to attract readers and to accurately represent the content. It is married to the book jacket and if they're heading for a divorce, the reader will be put off spending time in their company. If Fifty Shades of Grey had a cover image of a happy two-parent family, with a cute dog, on the jacket, the potential reader would be confused, especially after reading the blurb (the small print in the implicit contract between writer and reader). If title and jacket do a brilliant job of attracting the reader but the book is then nothing like expected, the reaction will be disappointment and negative comments about the writer. You can't please everyone, or cater for all subjective reactions, but you can at least try to find the right readers for the book you've written, by using current 'first impression' conventions.

If you don't care whether readers enjoy your book, or come back to read another one by you, as long as they buy this one, none of these principles apply to you. Most of us writers, however, get our kicks from the readers who love our books - and that means finding readers, yes, but also finding a good match between readers and books.

Finding a title you're happy with is difficult and whether it's a 'good' title is for other people to judge. When I'm planning a book, I have a working title that might change many times before publication. I always look up my title on amazon to see whether it's been used already. If so, I think again, unless the title is out of print or in a niche that doesn't clash with my book. If there are similar titles, I consider their genres - if they are all in a very different genre to my book, I am on the wrong track for reader expectations.

I do test the title (and jacket) out on other people, and consider their feedback, but once the book is written, I work on gut instinct to recognize the title that fits. That's how it feels to me; not like creating a title but like finding it. I feel the same about naming dogs; you can come up with beautiful names in advance but when you actually see the living creature, you know he's called Spud, and that's just how it is.

Working as I do is terrible for advance marketing - how can you work up reader enthusiasm for a book with no title? As with many aspects of writing, there is a clash between what suits me as a writer and what is best marketing practice. If I'm not sure about the title, I would rather wait till I know it for sure than regret the choice forever. If I'd gone with the first working title,

Snake on Saturdays would have been Twisted Yarn. The heroine runs a hand-knit business and I liked the double meaning. One of my failings is to laugh at my own jokes but I now think Twisted Yarn is a truly awful title for a novel.

Someone to look up to would have been Sirius, after the main character, a dog. Not so bad as a title but 'someone to look up to' is such an important concept in the book, that I didn't understand until I was writing, and that was a revelation for me as well as for Sirius. I love this title.

Bedtime story

Gentle Dog Training, my translation of Dressage Tendresse was not just a book title but a method of dog training and I had to fight my corner to avoid Tenderness Training (a great alternative to Fifty Shades of Grey), or Train Me Tender and all kinds of ambiguity.

On the Other Hand would have been Sinister because the word 'sinister' originally just meant 'left-handed' and left-handedness is a theme in this YA book, which mixes fact and fiction. The Romans thought left-handed people were untrustworthy because they could shake hands with their right hand while stabbing you with the left, hence the more sinister meaning of ... sinister.

Here are the more recent ebook jacket and the original print jacket for On the other hand My publisher told me that we'd made one mistake - On the other hand starts with three words that get ignored in searches so the title doesn't show up unless you add my author name. You live and learn! Avoid using more than two high frequency words at the start of a title.
amazon link

Sometimes, the title just works, right from the start. My bestseller How Blue is my Valley took its title from the Welsh classic How Green was my Valley  and the 'blue' from the lavender of my current home in Provence. It just seems right for a book about someone moving from Wales to Provence and comparing the two. Alluding to a phrase or title with which readers are already familiar can work but it can also backfire as readers sometimes react against what they see as an attempt to cash in on fifty shades of copying.

I wish it was always so easy to find a title that suits! I have about twenty potential titles for the third novel in my 12th century series about Estela and Dragonetz but am not sure yet. The working title is Eaglesong but that's probably too suggestive of fantasy rather than historical novel and I don't know what eagles have to do with anything, apart from the castle and (probably) main setting being on high rocks. As it follows Song at Dawn and Bladesong, I thought Song somewhere in the title would link the series. I'm hoping all will become clear to me as I write.

Thanks to advice from fellow authors, I am also a big fan of the subtitle or tag as this can clearly indicate genre and add extra keywords to show up in online searches. I am sure that adding the real Provence in small print below How Blue is my Valley has helped find readers. For the Troubadours series, I've used date and place so I now have another headache as 1150 in Provence was used on Song at Dawn and now my characters are back there,  I don't really want 1152 in Provence... decisions, decisions, which I will have to make before the book jacket goes live.

Perhaps I should work the other way round; take a great title and write the book that it deserves. Helpful friends often suggest, 'You should write a book on..' and occasionally I'm even given titles. Drug Mule to Merthyr really ought to be written by someone but Going Home to Dai is more my style.

aggressive marketing

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