Choosing a title for a book is as hard as writing it. Choosing a newspaper headline can be even harder: the time for dithering is short before presses roll. But the time we take to decide whether or not to read an article is even shorter: 3 seconds, according to psychologists.
With books, there is more time to choose a riveting title conveying genre, theme, and literary merit. It may take months if not years to write a novel and decide what to call it, but research shows it takes an average of only 3 minutes for a prospective reader to decide if it’s for them- said to include perusing the title, cover, blurb and a quick peek inside (in the flesh or online). Not sure I agree it’s that cursory for this doesn’t take into account the effect of prior promotion, reviews, social media, and personal recommendation. Haven’t seen that effect quantified yet, but doubtless it will be.
News headlines can offer hilarious diversion by being arresting, amusing, or cringeworthy. Top in polls is Musetto’s 1984 New York Post ‘Headless body in a topless bar,’ though the bizarre ‘Alien Bible found! They worship Oprah! from Weekly World News is hard to beat. In the UK I love the Mirror’s ‘Elvis Presley’s teeth come to Malvern.’ A posthumous dental tour, apparently. Sex and animal references (not necessarily in the same story…) abound. My favourite? ‘Crime Exclawsive: Mugged by a parrot!’ in the UK Sun after a parrot stole a wad of money (again, apparently).
It’s easy to be dismissive and patronising about tabloid headlines, but they follow patterns also applicable to marketing books. There are endless sources of advice to potential title writers, even automatic title generators, with some offering SEO search scores for predicted findability or popularity. Whatever we choose, a title has to sell the story, connect with a prospective reader, and hint at what the book is about. Not that Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is all about how to fish for salmon in the Yemen.
Choosing a title for a book. For fiction, hooks can be emotional, like Coetze’s Disgrace encapsulating its theme. Or factual e.g. The Lion, the Witch, and The Wardrobe is about just that and Anna Karenina is about Anna Karenina. Different countries may adopt different titles for the same book e.g. Lee’s Cider with Rosie is The Edge of the Day in the US and Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead is Blood Will Tell. Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone became the Sorcerer’s Stone with US publishers who regarded philosophers as boring old guys who’d put kids off reading the book. So even deciding on one title may not be enough to embrace differing cultural nuances of taste or even ability to offend.
Single-word titles are popular for fiction and useful in social media with limited wordcounts like Twitter. Non-fiction books are often the opposite: multiple keywords being aids to ‘findability.’ As ever, there are exceptions like Jonasson’s brilliant The Hundred Year Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared.
Broadly, it’s anyone’s guess what will take a trick with agents, publishers, or the public. Genre specific words like ‘Murder’ for crime or ‘Love’ for romance, phrases from quotes, mis-spellings, wordplay, rhymes, alliterations, you can find them all. But we mustn’t forget word interpretation depends on a reader’s individual mindset, as a recent writer’s club exercise showed. Members given article titles had to guess what they were about. Brushstrokes evoked suggestions of artists, street sweepers, or beauticians. Wear and Care, the stress in eventide home workers, dry cleaning costs, or buying environmentally-friendly clothes. Blue Sky Thinking meant to some brilliant original ideas, wacky stupid ones, or airline marketing plans to others.
Those struggling with a title for their magnum opus can take comfort from history. Many classics started life with very different titles. Frankenstein was The Modern Prometheus, The Great Gatsby was Trimalcho in West Egg (!), War and Peace plagiarised Shakespeare with All’s Well That Ends Well, 1984 was The Last Man In Europe, The Valley of the Dolls was They Don’t Build Statues to Business Men and Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men was Something That Happened. So, choose away, but be prepared: someone else may have different ideas.
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Glasgow born Anne Pettigrew was a Greenock GP for 31 years and a light-hearted medical columnist in The Herald and medical press. A Glasgow graduate of 1974, she also has an Anthropology Masters from Oxford.