by K.J. Howe
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.
“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.
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?