Friday, May 4, 2012

Entry # 60 - "The Promise of a Title & How We Shop for Books"

How important is the title in the way we shop for books? I was browsing the various book lists on my Kindle, which also caused me to think and to compare how readers browse the shelves in a brick and mortar bookstore versus how we shop online for books.  And clearly we have learned to approach these tasks differently. 
"Later That Afternoon" - Jan Bowman - October 2011
In a bookstore I am more likely to wander around scanning shelves in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Looking for eye candy for the mind.  I do confess that I’ve picked up a book I wasn’t looking for and had not heard of – just because - something about the title or cover intrigued me, seduced me into looking inside, and once I’d read the first few pages, I was either hooked or I put it back.  

But that’s not how I shop online for a book. I tend to go online on a mission. Looking for a particular book or author. I find it. Read about it or read a sample and decide whether to download it. Clearly this is a different experience from my bookstore search which involves more whimsical and exploratory acts.  

I’ve thought about the importance of good titles in the world of publishing.  And I’ve thought about the power of an interesting title upon readers as they shop for books. A great title gets writers “reading time” with their target readers. And a great working title gets the writer the time and attention of agents, editors and publishers. But if the writer fails to deliver the goods, the target audience will move on to something more interesting. 

And I wonder to what extent does the title increase or decrease the odds that a reader will select a book?  

Which is to say, would I be more likely to read, a novel with the titled, The Mute or one with the title, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter?  The first was the original title for Carson McCullers wonderful novel that was published under the second title.  

Stephen King originally considered Second Coming for the book we all know as Salem’s Lot. And F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 
The Great Gatsby almost had one of these three terrible titles: Trimalchio in West Egg (too obscure and no one could pronounce it), Gold-Hatted Gatsby, and Fitzgerald’s personal favorite, Under the Red, White and Blue.

Interesting, evocative titles are essential. But how does a writer come up with a title that works? What kind of guidelines do writers need to consider?
So I’ve looked for advice about book titles, and here is what I’ve learned.  Most of the time a publisher, agent, editor or someone “out there” is likely to change your title no matter what - once you’ve signed a contract or unless you are an established writer who has a following or series, think of Sue Grafton’s alphabetic crime books.  

But here are a few tips gleaned (online) from David White, Sr. Editor for American Book Publishers (2005).  He says that - in a few words a title has to do a lot.  It has to grab a reader’s attention, hold that reader’s attention and tell what it’s about.  Most titles are lucky to get two of these three things in the first round. White also suggests that writers avoid cliches, as well as any words likely to offend someone in a title. He reminds authors to use familiar words. No one is likely to stop and look up a word in a title.  And - YES. We mean you - F. Scott Fitzgerald. -- 

Titles make a promise to readers that if they read your book, story, article, they will discover something.  The best phrase is the worse, if it’s a title that can’t live up to the hype.  If you promise, then deliver.

"Camera Ready"- Jan Bowman - April 2012
 Try to capture the essence of the work using words, whenever possible, that provide evocative, powerful, and image-ready words.  I think of these as almost “camera ready” images.

Jan Bowman’s work has appeared in Roanoke Review, Big Muddy, Broadkill Review, Trajectory, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, Potato Eyes, and others. She won the 2012 Roanoke Review Prize for Fiction. Her stories have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best American Short Stories and a story was a finalist in the “So To Speak” Fiction Contest. She is working on two collections of short stories and currently shopping for a publisher for a completed story collection. She has nonfiction work pending publication in Spring 2013 Issues of Trajectory and Pen-in-Hand. She writes a weekly blog of “Reflections” on the writing life and posts regular interviews with writers and publishers.   Learn more at:


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