What’s in a Name?
Choosing the title for a book is an increasingly difficult task. In a world of marketing and focus groups and branding there is more to think about than just picking something that represents the content. However innovative and “out there” marketing and promotion folks like to think they are, the fact is, apart from a rare outlier, they tend to drag things towards a lowest common denominator. There is a narrow range of things that will have a universal appeal, that will call out to everyman, and bid them to buy.
Of course there is some segmentation, Sci Fi has a different lexicon of potential titles to Historical Fiction. But within the genres you see that lowest common denominator emerging (how many sci fi books have Stars in their title was a recent discussion with a book reviewer friend). Reach back in time and the titles of classic sci fi books were just woeful. Today I don’t think “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” would pass the publishing companies’ doors. The money men would barricade it in. If only they spent as much effort on editing, rather than relying on spellcheckers, but that is a separate rant.
And yet in those halcyon days with names like a mouthful of rocks, the galaxies like grains of sand, sold. In numbers. Big numbers.
So what has changed, what has made us conservative, safe, following the herd on book titles?
It is in parts due to affluence, falling print costs, improved technology and self publishing which have all lead to an explosion in the amount of content. And it is no longer sufficient to aim for a sold out print run, with a few boxes of remainders in the attic. In fact in the age of digital printing the concept of print run is becoming obsolete. Today every writer has half a sleepy eye on the dream of film rights, or a tv mini series. We can’t trust the movie execs to see through DADoES to see Blade Runner.
But there is also the dreaded Return on Investment. The money men are all about de-risking, payback periods and net present values. Making something safe to get a small return is better for them than something bold that may fail. So titles are researched and winners are “proven” chosen based on “evidence”.
Ask what people will buy and they will tell you what they know, it is the trap of the focus group.
If you stick to what people know you narrow your range into the domain of cliches and tropes.
And here’s the rub, fans of a genre know the tropes. They can spot them in a title, and it will be a warning sign of “nothing new here” for the contents.
As a proof by counter example some of the best recent fantasy written has been by Joe Abercrombie, whose book titles are seeming non sequiturs pulled from the middle of famous quotes. And the content was fresh, challenging and hugely engaging.
Lynch’s “Lies of Locke Lamora” – tricky title, was better than his follow up “Red Seas Under Red Skies” which started to become a little predictable.
It’s the internet, two examples are incontrovertible proof. But the paradox is real enough, for the experienced reader, bold content is unlikely to hide behind a bland name (note unlikely, not impossible), and yet for the general reader, a bold title is a challenge they may shy away from. The real question is does the money win, or the art? More thoughts on art and money here.
All of which leads to me to moment of self reflection. I agonised more over the naming of my book than I did over naming my children.
There is a well established precedent that the title of a book of short stories should be taken from one of the stories, or, if they are all based on a theme, setting, or character, they reference that common element. It is not a law, but it is a precedent, which post Magna Carta has the strength of law.
That narrowed my choices to seven, as the stories cross genres, plot lines and no character is reprised.
The objective was to find something representative, memorable, and to which I could associate an image to make an attractive cover.
I discarded “Ali Baba and the Little Thief” straightaway. It was too long, and with the addition of “and Other Stories” the whole thing would become too unwieldy with too many ands. It was a shame because I’m quite proud of the story.
I won’t take you through them all, but I narrowed down to the following, which I put to my own focus group.
Broadly the guys liked The Lethe Cluster, the girls liked Image. The clincher was that only two of the stories are Sci Fi, but Lethe would only invite a sci fi readership.
Even without a marketing team or sales experts I fell into the same trap as above. Lethe is the centrepiece, but it would be a challenge for a broad readership to pick the book, so I went with the title that has more general appeal, but is bland.
Mistake? You decide.