A couple of weeks ago, at lunch with my editor in New York, the topic of how best to title a book was on the agenda. The title that best suits a book may not be the best title to attract readers; a title readers can't pronounce, as I learned the hard way with my science fiction novel The Maquisarde, has trouble creating buzz; a title that puts readers off or is boring or unmemorable can hurt sales. All of us would love to have artistic, poetic titles that fit the way we think of our work, but often those titles aren't effective sales tools. As with cover art, the title is, indeed, a tool, a way to define and identify a book for the book buyer. As my editor pointed out, it's easy to make a mistake.
Did you know that Gone with the Wind was once Tomorrow Is Another Day, for example? Or that Trimalchio in West Egg became The Great Gatsby? Mitchell and Fitzgerald received some excellent advice, evidently.
Beloved Husband and I read a wonderful historical mystery novel a couple of years ago. It had everything I like--two strong female protagonists, a World War II setting, a nice connection between the present day and the past--but I can't recommend it to my friends. Why not? I can't remember the title. I knew at the time it was a really awful title, absolutely forgettable. Now, I'd like to read more by the author, but I can't remember his name, and the unmemorable title is gone from my head forever. It was a poor sales tool for what was an excellent novel.
The New York Times bestseller list illustrates some of the principles of choosing a good title. At the top right now is The Help, which is short, pithy, easy to say, memorable. The Art of Racing in the Rain is not short, but it's appealing, poetic, and alliterative. Water for Elephants is intriguing and easy to remember.
There is an abundance of opposite examples, but since I don't want to slam another author's efforts, I'll just discuss my own. As I mentioned above, I made a mistake in titling The Maquisarde. It's a beautiful word, "maquisarde", and it was the right word for my protagonist, meaning "resistance fighter", in the feminine form. However, in many, many reviews and comments, it became "marquis de sade", if it became anything at all. People who wanted to talk about it couldn't say it, and it was devilish for folks to spell (a killer on Amazon!) The combination of an unfortunate title and an unfortunate cover was a death knell for my novel. An event like that can be a career-ending experience, and it was hard to take.
Luckily, I'm still here and writing books! My editor's concern at the moment--and I'm grateful for the insight--is about using classical music references in titles. In fact, she said that for general audiences, art, dance, or classical music aren't good sales points. We've had no trouble with Mozart's Blood, but the feeling is that Mozart as a composer is so well known, even among non-classical music enthusiasts, that it's not a problem. We may find that The Brahms Deception is a different issue. Brahms is a gigantic figure in music history, but not, perhaps, as accessible or recognizable to people who aren't classical music fans. Of course, we know that it's a time-travel novel, and a romance, but it's possible the title doesn't communicate that. We're considering a title for the new book which doesn't make specific reference to classical music; in fact, the music is only background, or setting, if you will, for a human story, but when considering the sales tool which is the title, all these considerations come into play.
At the same lunch, I mentioned a possible title for an upcoming work which takes place in the twelfth century and uses the legend of the goddess Ishtar as background for the plot. When I mentioned a title that included the name "Ishtar", my editor and my agent both burst out laughing! Now this is a sad thing. Ishtar is a beautiful name, an ancient legend, and we can't use it because of a movie that is famously bad. It's a waste of a perfectly good Babylonian goddess. And it means I have to come up with a better title!
Connie Willis, the author of the fabulous time travel novel Doomsday Book, told me years ago that she and her editors had lengthy discussions about the title. It's based, obviously, on the ancient Domesday Book, which was, among other things, a census begun in the eleventh centuryin England. Because Connie's novel deals with the Black Death, and the "doom" implied in both titles, they settled on the alternative spelling. Great idea! It's easy to say, easy to remember, and one of those classic titles everyone wishes they had written!
The greatest titles, in my experience, are the ones that exist in the writer's mind before she even begins the story. I love it when that happens to me, but we can't rely on it. Sometimes we have to think like salespeople, even though--at least for me--that isn't the most natural approach. It should be all about art, right? Sadly, no. It is about art, of course. It's also about business, and it's the business that enables us to go on creating art.