BOOK MESSAGES – Don’t Send Out Yours in a Old Glass Bottle!

by | Mar 18, 2020 | KJ Howe, On writing | 5 comments

by K.J. Howe

Many publishers are delving into marketing data to help sell books, and it seems like the old maxim, “you can’t judge a book by its cover” is being proven false. The latest studies show exactly what makes readers rocket through the book buying cycle—discovery, conversion, availability—and it would seem the bookselling process has much in common with a beauty pageant. Long before readers even engage with the blurb on the back of the book, they make decisions about their interest based on the title and the cover. They either engage with the “book message,” or they don’t.

So what exactly does this “book message” refer to and how does it work? The critical feature that drives a genre reader to sample a new author (familiar readers returning to a branded author are a different story) is the topic or “message” of the book. This “message” is immediately conveyed via the title and cover art. Research data compiled by a well-respected book audience research firm called The Codex Group demonstrates that the power of the title significantly outweighs that of the art or images on the cover, although publishers should strive to have them work together to deliver the maximum breakthrough impact.

The president of the Codex Group, Peter Hildick-Smith, believes the explanation for this is straightforward:

“People who buy and read books are word lovers; nothing intrigues them more than a strong message delivered by uniquely crafted title, subtitle, or even a reading line,” he says.

Crafting the title for a novel can be painstaking work, akin to giving birth to a thirty-pound porcupine. Hours upon hours are devoted to brainstorming multiple titles which are then discussed, dissected, tested, and usually discarded. Many novels will have dozens of proposed titles before the publisher and the author settle on “the one.” A number of people are involved in this process, from the author and editor to various department heads and consultants. If the book is weighty enough, focus groups, studies, and surveys can also be used to deliver hard numbers instead of relying on our “gut,” which is truly a subjective process.

The elements of an effective title can be difficult to pin down. Readers seek a variety of signals from an effective title, and those signals need to be delivered in a single word or a short phrase at most. Readers want to know that the book delivers the standard tropes that have made the genre or sub-genre so beloved to them, while at the same time providing a unique, intriguing approach or twist that provides fresh entertainment and new ideas. Readers want what is often referred to in Hollywood as “the same, but different.”

Most importantly, the title must create questions in the readers’ minds. It has to pose a mystery or conundrum that will make the reader want to invest the time to discover more. It needs to invite them into a world they are comfortable in, so they can chase down secrets and be dazzled by the answers. Simple right?

Speaking of Hollywood, one of the most effective titles in recent times might be that of this year’s Academy Award Winner for Best Film: Parasite. Even the simple meaning of the word is loaded with imagery and intrigue:

1. an organism that lives in or on an organism of another species (its host) and benefits by deriving nutrients at the other’s expense.

2. DEROGATORY a person who habitually relies on or exploits others and gives nothing in return.

That title delivers on every level, setting a dark mood for the film, letting the audience know that while comedic, it is certainly not a comedy. A single word causes the potential viewer to ask questions immediately. Who is the parasite? Who or what does the parasite prey on? What will be the outcome of the struggle between the parasite and its host? All the elements of great intrigue are delivered in a single word.

This particular title rises to higher levels, as while the movie delivers a comprehensive conclusion, questions remain and are open to debate and interpretation. Who actually was the parasite and who was the host? The family from the basement apartment or the wealthy people living in an architect’s former home? Or both? Or was it the man hiding from the loan-sharks who was the true parasite? That is what makes for a sublime title. Layers and layers of questions and meanings in one word.

The world of fiction is filled with examples of effective, and not so effective, titles. What are some of your favorite and least favorite book and movie titles?

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  1. Karna Bodman

    You are so right, Kim, about the importance of a book (or movie) title to lure and intrigue a buyer. I see so many copycats though. Take the word "Girl" — once we see a bestseller using a certain word, it's interesting how many publishers think they can capitalize on it. For example, we have GONE GIRL, GIRL ON A TRAIN, GIRL GONE VIRAL, THE GIRLS ARE GONE, LOST GIRLS OF PARIS…and so it goes. I figure others have similar examples. Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

  2. Karna Bodman

    P.S. I just saw several more "Girl in the titles" leafing through a new issue of Publishers Weekly: THE NEW GIRL, TO KILL A MOCKING GIRL, and THE GIRL BENEATH THE SEA. Perhaps publishers aren't being all that "creative" after all, or they think readers love repetition. What do you think?

  3. Chris Goff

    Titles, first lines, closing lines — all can make or break a book. An effective title will get readers to pick up your novel. I wonder how much the cover art then impacts the message.

  4. Lisa Black

    I don’t think we ever put that much work into my titles—gulp!!
    Probably a good example of an effective title is: Pride and Prejudice. It sums up the issues, but is intelligent enough to let you know it’s an intelligent book!

  5. Karen

    I writhe over titles and it was only for my third book that I came up with one that my editor/marketing actually liked. (I'll admit I proposed some howlers for my first two books; my editor was right to tactfully set them aside.) Some of my fave titles are old Mary Stewart ones–This Rough Magic, Nine Coaches Waiting, The Moon-Spinners–titles, drawn from Shakespeare's Tempest, a Jacobean revenge tragedy, and a Greek myth. (I'm a sucker for the literary ones.) But do I find these titles evocative merely because these were some of the first mysteries I ever read, when I was about 10 and rooting through my grandmother's library, sifting past the bodice rippers? Maybe. I also love many of the newer titles: The Tenderness of Wolves, The Last Mrs. Parrish, The Sound of Broken Glass, to name a few. Apparently I like "the" for a first word. : ) Thank you for continuing to post, by the way … I like finding scraps of normal right now.