As someone who has worked in advertising, I can picture the meeting where Sharper Image’s art director is tasked with photographing a medicine safe.
Marketing: “We’re selling to people who don’t want their teens raiding the painkiller stash.”
Art director: “No prob. I can do you a sketchy boy skulking out of the john with a prescription bottle.”
Marketing: “Are you crazy? We can’t come right out and accuse their children of stealing!”
Art director: “Um…”
Marketing: “Put a teen in, but make it family friendly. I want smiles.”
Which is how you wind up with this.
Yesterday I spent at least an hour on the phone with my parents, working on a replacement title for what used to be called Telling Lies, a book I’m going to self-publish real soon now. This book has had that title for probably 7 years, but in the middle of last year, someone came out with a mystery of the same name. I was about to say, “Eh, screw it,” and use that title anyway (they’re not copyrightable) when I got an email from the author (whom I’ve never met) asking me to nominate her book for an Agatha. It was just too much, you know? The hunt was on.
What makes a good book title?
It makes people buy the book. That is the number one requirement of a book title. Do not get this aspect confused with how well a title fits a book after it’s read. I don’t care how much someone appreciates your clever wordplay when they’re done with the book. “See, not only was she telling lies, but the lies she told were telling – about her!” Great, but remember, the book is already paid for at that point. P.S. My dad says that if a title really doesn’t fit a book, he might find that annoying enough to shun a second book by the author, even if he really enjoyed her writing. But Daddy fits no one’s idea of the average person, so let’s move on.
How does a title sell a book?
1) The title has tension, asks a question the reader wants answered, or piques the reader’s interest so much that he buys the book. Everyone knows that telling lies is bad, but it’s also sometimes necessary. One word can convey tension, which is why there are about a million romances with reckless in them. If you don’t mind a long title, you can create a whole scenario with tension. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Sometimes tension comes from words that seem to war with each other. The Accidental Tourist. How is that possible? (Oh, look, it asks a question, too.) Try piquing their interest: Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. WTF?
2) The title tells the reader the tone of the book. This works particularly well with books of a specific flavor, especially one that isn’t widely available but has hardcore fans. Southern lit used to be rare enough that putting Sweet Potato Queens in the title was enough to make the right reader snatch it off the shelf. I don’t know if that’s the case anymore. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Speculative fic readers LOVE that title, and for good reason. It’s frickin’ brilliant on so many levels. (In case you don’t know, that book became Bladerunner.) How ’bout The Da Vinci Code? Sounds kind of like an art-themed thriller, doesn’t it? (Btw, Da Vinci Code would also make a great self-help book title, a la The Seven Habits of Highly Lengthy Titles.)
3) No one else has used the title, at least not recently, or famously, or in a book that’s really similar. Yes, Telling Lies was a great title. I’m trying to get over it, okay?
Let’s talk about stuff to avoid.
1) Clichés. My book deals with a reluctant Tarot reader, so all kinds of card-related sayings suggested themselves. Wild Card. Full Deck. In the Cards. Meh. Clichés pass through the mind with barely a trace. You want a title that rattles around in the ear canal like a moth with fangs.
2) Insulting potential readers. We briefly considered Mystic Lies, then realized that title would piss off every Tarot reader out there, and they might be expected to buy the book because there isn’t much fiction with Tarot in it. (Note to Tarot readers: This book is not anti-Tarot. You can safely buy it.)
3) Titles that make no damn sense. There may have been books with nonsensical titles that made it big, but I’m pretty sure they became famous because they had a publicity machine behind them. Case in point – I can’t remember any of them.
All right, so what title did we come up with? I’m not going to claim it’s great. I did use some card imagery, although I think I dodged the cliché bullet. I think it has tension. It works well with the cover art I picked, and also with the blurb. Here’s my very preliminary mock-up of the cover. Because it requires some photo manipulation (putting the card in the model’s hand), Angel Joe is going to clean it up this weekend. It will change in other ways.
And here’s the blurb.
LeeLee Moldovar’s mother is dead, leaving her debts, her angry Chihuahua, and her abandoned Tarot clients. After losing her job, LeeLee decides to read Tarot for a living. Her first client is a very attractive man, and there’s definite chemistry. The cards say Adrian should dump his newest girlfriend – or is that what LeeLee wants? It’s only after Adrian leaves that LeeLee discovers he’s dating her best friend. When the next client arrives, she’s afraid to say anything and risk another Tarot disaster. But something inside LeeLee speaks out, giving advice she doesn’t anticipate and can’t control. To silence this unwanted voice and regain her sanity, LeeLee must discover her true self, despite attractive men, best friends, and the specter of her mother’s loving wishes for her.
Oh, look, I’ve already changed the cover.
Comments? Suggestions? Lay ’em on me.
The internet is how we find things these days. Anyone can sell things on it, and almost everyone does. As an author, success depends on getting your writing into the hands of people who will enjoy it. You have to cut through the clutter of things clamoring for their attention and say, “Look at me. I’m what you want.” One of the easiest ways to do that is to find a place where your ideal readers are clumped together, and show them you can fill one of their unmet needs. “Excuse me, but is anyone writing fiction about this thing you love? No? Allow me to introduce myself.”
Ideally, an author’s hook should be lively and engaging, something that will add to the books’ tone. It’s even better if it doesn’t bore the general public. And wouldn’t it be great if it had authentic emotional content? It shouldn’t be done to death, or that whole “cutting through the clutter” benefit is lost. Most importantly, it needs to be something the author will enjoy writing about over the long haul. So I took a look at the various things I love: singing, playing guitar, cats, writing, Chihuahuas…hold on a minute. Only one of those things met all my criteria and then some. As a considerable side benefit, the characteristics of Chis, and the character of their owners, matches my writing style rather neatly – funny, mischievious, and very into people.
So yes, the decision to include a marketing hook in my books was cold-blooded, but Chihuahuas were there to be chosen because I am crazy about them. As a benefit, I get to own these dogs in my imagination, when my cat won’t let me in real life. Actually, she will, but she becomes a ghost in her own home. (I’ve tried and may try again.) When Musette dies, clearing my sinuses but breaking my heart, I’ll get a Chihuahua.
P.S. Years ago, before I knew what a marketing hook was, and just as I was getting into Chihuahuas, I wrote a book with one. It got me my agent and my first publisher, but has never been published. The problem, as all the complimentary rejection letters said, was that publishers didn’t know how to sell it. Well, I do, and as soon as I fix the ending and find a new title (the one I had was recently used for another book), I’ll publish it myself. Stay tuned.
P.P.S. You can experience my Chihuahua enthusiasm for free with the short story, ‘Twas the Chihuahua Before Christmas. Am I giving away a Christmas story for marketing reasons? Of course. Did I love writing it and want everyone to read it regardless of whether they buy my books? Also yes.
UPDATE: I finally succumbed to my obsession and got a Chihuahua. And by golly, she’s kind of a ringer for the Chi at the top of this page!