Last week a friend handed me a book I knew I’d have to read. It’s title: If I’d Killed Him When I Met Him (… I’d Be Out of Prison Now). With a title like that, how could I resist? The author, Sharyn McCrumb attributed it to a friend who overheard the words from a battered woman who was in jail for murder. Ms. McCrumb is a wonderful writer and a New York Times best-selling author, but this book, an early Elizabeth MacPherson novel, hadn’t made the list.
I wondered why. With such an interesting title and a fun, well-plotted story, it seemed like it would have been a sure-fire winner, at least in my opinion.
This got me thinking about titles and the importance that they have not only in describing a book’s contents, but also in attracting readers and ultimately sales. Through online research, I learned that conventional wisdom has it that it’s easier to market and sell a book with a great title—preferably a short, catchy one. The Exorcist and Blink are two that come to mind.
I also learned that a good title is one people tend to respond to, and perhaps more importantly, retain, much like Pride and Prejudice, the #2 listing on the BBC’s poll of the 100 most popular books. Furthermore, a good title should also be one that the media catch on to and use over and over again, like Catch-22.
We’ve all heard of Jaws ( a book which sold 20 million copies according to Wikipedia’s list of best sellers). This blockbuster novel spawned several movies and from them, the famous tag line: “Just when you thought it was safe…“ A line that’s become part of the vernacular, as has the intro music. Da dum. Da dum. All keeping the popularity of the book alive and well for many years.
So, can you judge a book by its title? The Great Gatsby started out as Trimalchio in West Egg until editor Maxwell Perkins changed it. Somehow he understood what would hatch successfully and what wouldn’t.
Some titles, like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo seem provocative. Others, such as The Time Traveler’s Wife may appear straightforward. And some, like The Kite Runner, merely hint at what’s to come. Of course, each of these titles can be interpreted by the imagination and the inclination of the reader. And each has its own twists and turns that have gone beyond their titles to make them best sellers.
Many well-known authors depend on repetition and reader memory to move their work along. Titles by John Sanford include 12 titles in his Prey Series while James Patterson’s Women’s Murder Club is working on their 8th crime.
Wondering about which new titles might attract me as a reader, I took a trip to my local Border’s, to see what was on offer.
Titles in new fiction included Invisible by Paul Auster, Looking Glass by Alice Sebold, Ice by Linda Howard and The Atlantis Code by Charles Brokaw.
Among the Best Sellers, I found Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving. Pursuit of Honor by Vince Flynn, Ford County by John Grisham, and The Given Day by Denis Lehane.
While all seemed interesting and fit the criteria of short and catchy, none had that immediate, got-to-read-it-grab of If I’d Killed Him When I Met Him, at least for me.
I’m hoping that the titles of the two novels I’m working on, Keeping Secrets and Telling Lies, will spark interest of that kind among mystery readers.
What titles are you planning for your work? Will they be short and sweet? Long and expressive? Emotional? Descriptive? Or something entirely different? Will they spark accolades, adoration and sales? Please post a comment and let us know what you think.