Someone on Twitter this morning asked a writing group “What is the significance of your title? Could it be something else?” Hmmm. But my NewBook has no title yet, so let’s talk titles.
The title of a book has different roles, as seen by the writer, the editor/publisher, and the reader.
Let’s look first at the reader (me with my reader hat on) and what the readers hopes and expects to see in a title. The reader hopes a title will convey (either by itself, or with a cover image or writing) what kind of book it is: fiction/nonfiction/poetry, genre of fiction and subject matter of nonfiction, whether it’s to be taken seriously or is humor or an attempt thereof. Some titles (Photographing Nature, Edible Wild Plants of the Prairie, Autism and Pervasive Developmental Disorders) clearly suggest nonfiction. The title Photographing Nature will disappoint the reader only if the writer spent 1/4 of the pages on photographing nature, and the bulk of the book on hyping one camera manufacturer over all others. Other titles of nonfiction works (Shooting Blanks, for instance. an analysis of some military mistakes) require a subtitle to be sure the reader doesn’t think they’re buying a thriller or mystery or a book about infertility in males…or even a book about humor that wasn’t funny, or football quarterbacks who started throwing lousy passes. Great title, memorable, easy to say, potential for humor, but not that helpful without other cues to what kind of book it is. Fiction can helpfully signal its genre by the title (Murder by Design, The Stars Are Ours!, Sweet Savage Love, which signal murder mystery, SF, romance accurately. A reader allergic to mysteries will avoid books with “murder, death by, poison, detective, mystery of, ” and similar words/phrases in titles….but what about Gaudy Night? A reader might expect something like riotous costumes in New Orleans and not what it really is, a mystery set in Oxford University and the developing relationship between a wealthy amateur detective and a successful well-educated (at Oxford) mystery novelist.
As a reader, I’m fine with ambiguous titles and those with a bit of humor, but by 10 pages in I expect the book’s content to resonate in some way with the title. If it’s a military term, I expect a military-influenced story; if it’s got “mountains” or “shores” or “steppe/prairie” in the title, it better be set (partly) in that scenery. Like many readers, I don’t want to be tricked into buying (or borrowing) a political/religious spiel masquerading as an honest story, or a tech story that’s really just a love affair with nuts and bolts glued to the scenery. I want a title I can pronounce (no “The Luck of the g’KKrtihmidtis”), which I will never recommend to anyone else because I can’t say it or remember how to spell it–and of course it’s imaginary and doesn’t exist, but that’s not the point. If it existed, I wouldn’t recommend it. Dune was easy. North From Rome was easy. Lad of Sunnybank was easy. Titles should be easy to say, and remember, because (back to writer hat) word of mouth recommendations sell books.
Editor/Publisher’s primary goal in choosing a title is to increase sales by catching the attention of the potential readership for that book. They want the early readers to find it, so the title should be unique enough to be noticed, and interesting enough to get the reader to pick the book up. They also want it to make sense, be easy to say so a happy reader can tell friends about it, and be unique enough that the reader finds it easily in stores & online. The problem can come when some subset of the publisher’s many subsets misunderstands what the likely readership is, and pushes the wrong title (not a bad title, but the wrong one for that book) and puts with it the wrong cover art. Cover and title art should work together, or at least not be in the wrong kind of opposition. To take a common enough genre, fantasy, the cover art can convey the fantasy (even if the title doesn’t have the word fantasy on the cover, spine, or back cover.) Certain icons work: harp, sword, spear, throne, rider in period dress on horse with period (or close) trappings, art that “looks medieval” or whatever unusual culture is in the book. If the writer has a following that includes both men and women, the cover should work harder to attract the male reader (a much shyer book buyer in fantasy than in SF.) While many men will buy books with a barely clothed babe in chain mail on the cover, most will *not* buy (or be seen reading in public) a book that in any way gives off “romance” vibes. (Yes, men do read, and write, romances. This post is about titles & covers. Not the content–the reputation of a given male reader.)
Oddly enough, with many industries doing focus-group research to determine if a logo or shape of container or color combo will attract their known audience, big publishers ignore the potential advantages of that, and go for “We know what we’re doing.” Only they don’t always. Covers–titles, artwork, the extra words on the front and back–do affect sales, especially early sales. Mistakes in reading the audience (assuming–which used to be true–that most men would not read books by women, so the reading audience for women-written books skewed very female, or that women all really wanted a romance-with-SF/fantasy topping, and not SF/fantasy w/o romance) lead to–have led to–sudden dips in a woman writer’s sales, even for men who normally buy that writer’s works. There is a market for SF/F crossovers with romance, mystery, or horror, and these can pick up additional audience by satisfying both the “little/no romance with the SF/F” and the “romance forward/SF/F” audiences, but it’s a tricky line to hit.
The Editor/Publisher has another issue that readers and writers don’t. Titles cannot be copyrighted…and really good titles show up over and over , in more than one genre. But titles must, on their initial arrival in the marketplace, be unique to new books, in that genre, so readers can find them, order them, by their titles and be sure what they’re getting. Editors have access to the scheduling of books across their genre, from different publishers, and they will nix a writer’s suggestion for a title if they know that another firm already has a book scheduled for the same period of time with the same or too close a title. What’s too close? Editor’s call. What’s too obscure? Editor’s call. How far apart does re-use of a title have to be? Varies with the books involved. If a population biologist had published a book titled “Remnant Populations” the year my Remnant Population came out–a nonfiction study of plant or animal remnant populations and means of expanding them, for instance–neither my editor nor its editor would’ve blinked. Biology books are marketed differently, to a different audience, than SF books. But if an SF/F book had “Remnant Populations” and a story about remnant populations of humans on a distant planet…or indigenous species on a distant planet…warning bells would have rung. Too close a title, to0 close in time, one of the two authors would’ve had to find another title.
So here we are at Writers, specifically writers who want to title their works in ways that enhance the work during and after reading, through resonance of the title with the contents…but also want to give their works titles that are attractive to readers who haven’t read the story or book yet, to increase sales. Writers who go out and meet readers at bookstores or conventions (esp. conventions) and listen to them talk about books, titles, cover art, and the rest, have an advantage. It was in talking with readers that I discovered how much even devoted SF/F readers do not like names they can’t say, and how much they want names they can hear in their heads when they read them. Names different enough, in the course of a story, that they are unlikely to confuse even minor character Sim with minor character Simis or Simit. When I asked people who didn’t read SF why they didn’t…the number 1 reason then (maybe not now) was not knowing how to say the names and how they then couldn’t remember which was which. When I could point them at books that had easy-to-read names some of them then started reading SF/fantasy. (There’s nothing to be done for the person who hates imaginary worlds of any kind…SF/F is the safe home for imaginary worlds. But we can help the person who reads phonetically and wants to “hear” what they “see.”)
How can a writer approach titling a specific work…is there only one “good” title for every book? Think short, easy to say, and resonance: the ways those words resonate with the contents of the book. Remnant Population involved a failing colony, remnant of a larger one (remnant population #1), the individual who chose not to be evacuated (remnant population #2), and several other things that made it a good (and I thought best) title for that book. It allowed a discussion of colonization (whether natural or imposed), attitudes within the colonizing society toward colonists, perception of colonists by indigenes, the ethics of colonization of “worlds without an intelligent species of level whatever” and so on. The book could be read without considering a lot of the resonances I felt were there (any book can be read more shallowly than the book demands) but for me, the contents supported the title and the title capstoned the contents. Could it have been called something else? Sure. Possibilities include “Escape to Solitude” and “Left Behind” and “Diplomatic Error” and probably more. Those would have *something* to do with the contents, but to me, not enough.
My story “In Suspect Terrain” (“suspect terrain” is a geological term) in an anthology of military SF also played with variant meanings of the term: suspect geological terrain, the instability of human minds in severe stress, and the difficulty of interpreting and predicting human behavior in the context of such stress. Who is suspect and why? Who is the real…whatever? Elements of mystery (into which “suspects” fit on a moral/ethical scale, while the terrain itself is innocent of criminal intent), suicide, murder, double agent, laws broken, etc.
So the questions asked on Twitter: “What is the significance of your title? Could it be something else?” are good questions, but require more complicated answers than Twitter can easily handle.
NewBook is coming to an end without a title. Nothing has emerged from its complicated relationships yet with the stamp of “TITLE” on it, nothing with the right connections to the right parts of the story that this volume will be part of much later…because it’s announced itself as “Volume I of the Something-something” It could be named for the location of the end of the story, sure. It could be named for one of the main characters: “Name’s Tale” or the like. It could be named for the disability which has limited one of the main character’s life ever since a particular traumatic event: memory loss that includes someone’s childhood and most of his adolescence, his family, his home, everything before the event, and when coupled with spatial dislocation, imposes difference from the experience of most. It could be named for many events and relationships and activities in the book…but so far…I’m not there yet. Maybe I’ll need to write the next volume, or an entire group, to find out which strains, which ideas, which relationships lead to an overall title…although, musing on this, the possible perfect *group* title just landed in my brain. Possible perfect. Not proven.
We’ll see. Here, at least, you have my personal way of looking at titles when I’m writing, or have written, something. Sometimes I know ahead. Sometimes I know midway. Sometimes an editor steps in and chooses for me.