The Tragedy of the Titles

16 Mar

 Awhile back, I did a post on possible ways to create a title for a book. Now I’m going to revisit the subject of titles, but from a slightly different perspective.

One of the most popular questions among writers, published and un-published alike, is how can I come up with a title for my book? That’s the question I tried to address in my last post on the topic. But lets go a little deeper. Why is this question so important? There’s a lot more to a book than the title after all. (Same for short stories and poems, but I’m going to focus on novels here.) About 400 pages of text for one. Why then are we so worried about titles? Why the endless debates and the tales of publishers annexing another bit of creative control? It’s pretty simple.

Most of you already know the answer. The title sells a book. It’s not the only thing. Covers, copy, and the afore-mention content are all important. For word-of-mouth, content is king. But when a reader is trudging down the aisles of their local bookstore, two things stand out: the title and the cover. The title is how you look a book up online or in a catalog. It gives you your first idea of what a book is about. “The Romancing of Ms. Elisia Keen”? Probably not for the 15-year-old science fictionist in your family. (Or is it?!)

Titles can convey story, theme, character and much more. When we google “SFF with spaceships”, the most likely thing to draw us to one book result over another is the title. It’s the first thing that pops up. Looking at an author’s wiki page? Their bibliography has titles and dates. Guess which one is going to draw our attention. All that effort and suffering for the perfect title? Totally worth it.

Now the big question, how do we get that perfect title? A title is like a beautiful young maiden (or a MILF, if you’re into that sort of thing, but I think the former makes a better analogy). An unnamed book is like her ardent pursuer. This book could be the reincarnation of Romeo, or it could be a Casanova. Or, even worse, it could be an abusive boyfriend in the making. He might be nice for the courting, and maybe he’s perfect for making the other ladies jealous, but you wouldn’t want to marry him. But, once the book is published, the deal is done. That ring’s not coming off.

Now, say another book comes along. He’s like Edward Cullen, except not a freaky, abusive stalker. He’s smokin’ hot, he’s sweet, and he cooks a mean rhubarb pie. But he’s from a rich family, and has his reputation to consider. (Now, keep in mind, titles cannot be copyrighted. Two books, or poems, or songs can have the same title. )  So along comes Edward 2.0, and our young lady decides to run away with him. But wait, it’ll be a scandal. Even if she divorces Casanova, everyone knows how he treated her: running around with other titles(some less than flattering), verbally abusing her in front of readers. Her reputation is ruined.

Even if Edward agrees to take her, he’ll be disowned by his family, and abandoned by his friends. Nobody will read him, because she connects him to Casanova, who everyone despises. Our young title has already proven her bad taste; you know Edward’s going to turn out the same way. And there we are, a beautiful title tarnished by a terrible book. All her promise, her possibility for attracting readers is gone. She’ll forever be associated with that terrible book. Her life is over.

As an example, let’s look at Pat Rothfuss’ “The Name of the Wind”. I picked this book up entirely on the strength of the title. If it had been called “Kvothe Goes to Magic School and Plays the Lute and is Tota-fucking-lly Awesome Because Pat Says So”, which is what it’s really about, I would never have even read the reviews, or the cover copy. Which, to be fair, were not terrible. There were some interesting premises beneath the narrative. Musician heroes are fun and rare in fantasy, at least compared to the mercs and farmboys and spoiled noble girls.

So, here we are, with this fantastic title, and Rothfuss has ruined her with a mediocre book. If a wonderful, incredible novel were to be written, which this title would fit perfectly, and which this title would hurl from the shelves into the arms of a legion of readers… well, it couldn’t use it.

Before anyone calls me out on the ridiculousness of such a scenario, remember there’s a reason that new authors are advised to google their prospective titles. I cannot count how many times I’ve arrived at what I’d thought was a perfect title, only to see it had already been claimed—twice. Now, sometimes it was by a wonderful book, which I subsequently loved and enjoyed, and even forgave for stealing away the love of my book’s life. But often–maybe even mostly–it’s been by rather average stories, and also some mediocre or even terrible ones.

So, remember, when you set up your book with his dream title, make sure it fits—and that your book deserves her more than all the other drooling slobs out there. (Which it will, of course. After all, you worked your ass off writing and revising and editing that story, ‘til it shone with the avariciousness of a thousand starving ferrets spying a mouse scurry out of the wall.)

Now, back to our regularly scheduled rant on cultural ideals in fiction.  (A domani!)


Posted by on March 16, 2010 in atsiko, Authors, Books, How To, Titles, Writing


Tags: , , , , ,

10 responses to “The Tragedy of the Titles

  1. Susana Mai

    March 16, 2010 at 10:53 PM

    So true, so true. I avoided Special Topics In Calamity Physics for 6months because I thought it was about physics (which I’m terrible at, naturally) when really it was an amazing work of literary fiction. Go figure!

    Great post!

  2. atsiko

    March 17, 2010 at 12:08 AM

    Thanks. Despite the amount of attention titles get among authors, very few people talk about their affect on readers, and also how so many are re-used.

  3. ¿W?

    March 17, 2010 at 4:28 AM

    “He’s like Edward Cullen, except not a freaky, abusive stalker.” HAHAHA well done Atsiko!

    Concerning the importance of a title though, I find myself completely disinterested in novel titles… just their covers >.< I've picked at least 50% of the books I've read based completely on the cover.

    Maria from

  4. atsiko

    March 17, 2010 at 4:42 AM

    It’s always fascinating how diverse readers are. Generally, I couldn’t care less about the cover, unless it is extremely cheesy, in which case I might put it back. That’s mostly if it has less than stellar cover copy, though. If it’s really hokey, I might read a few pages first.

    But titles hold a lot of sway online, where most searching for fiction is done by text, and thus title. Amazon, Google, and forums, all major sources of suggestion for me rely almost entirely on text to recommend books. Especially the forums, and often blogs as well.

    My experience has been that the cover says very little about the content of the book, and so perhaps I’ve become resistant to them. At best, they might make me pick a book up in the store, but the next thing I look at is the title, then the copy. Cover has never convinced me to buy a book over objections.

    Also, from a writer’s perspective, titles can be useful in agent queries, though they’re often changed during piublication.

  5. Kirsten Lesko

    March 17, 2010 at 4:52 PM

    Titles are something I have no talent for. Have you ever noticed how some people just have a knack for it?

    I completely agree with your thinking and appreciate the analysis you’ve provided. Title is a powerful marketing tool – I just wish it came easier!

  6. atsiko

    March 17, 2010 at 5:55 PM

    Yeah. Sometimes I have the knack, sometimes I don’t. It’s frustrating when you’ve got nothing to identify the work with. It can take me anywhere between 1 second and a month to get a decent(though not necessarily the best!) title once I’ve started considering a project. Since I really like to have a title before getting far into drafts, this can be both a big distraction, and a great temptation towards procrastination. I’ve discovered, however, that it can also lead to some interesting new ideas and themes. Titles should be both descriptive and inspirational, I think.

  7. Neutral Fire

    March 18, 2010 at 1:53 AM

    Twilight joke, some of my favorites.

    Title is one thing that grabs me, yes, but I find that the summary on the back cover has a much better chance of getting me to actually reading it. But that’s just when I’m pacing the aisles at the library.

    No, the thing that is most likely to get me into a new series is author recognition. If I read something by an author that I adore, I’ll often seek out the rest of their work and devour it, which I’m currently doing with Brandon Sanderson.

    Another side of that is if I recognize an author who is associated with another in some way, I’m seeking out the Wheel Of Time series because Brandon Sanderson is writing it now, though most people make the reverse association. I’ve also started reading the webcomic Schlok Mercenary because the author does a podcast with Brandon and discovered it to be very impressive.

    I also consider recommendations from friends to be extremely valuable, in fact, it was a recommendation from a friend that directed to Brandon in the first place.

    (If you haven’t noticed, I absolutely adore the work of Brandon Sanderson) 🙂

  8. atsiko

    March 18, 2010 at 3:13 AM

    As I mentioned earlier, I don’t buy books only based on the title, but it’s one of the first things you see when a book is sitting on the shelf. The second is the cover. If these don’t grab me, I’m much less likely to pick the book up and read the cover copy/back blurb.

    So, yes, back covers are important as well, but they can’t make you pick the book in the first place, especially since books show front or spine only on the shelf.

    The other thing that makes titles important to a reader is that on teh intertubes, it’s the first thing you’re going to see. You can’t google a book based on its cover copy, after all–at least, not reliably.

    Now, name recognition and recommendations are two of the biggest impetuses for picking up a book. Which is natural. But for someone to first hear of a writer, name recognition is obviously not as effective. recommendations still are, of course.

    On the topic of Brandon, I love Writing Excuses, and I really like Elantris. Not so much the Wheel of Time, though I started that when Jordan was still alive and writing. Warbreaker and Mistborn fall into the softmore slump category for me. Not nearly as good as Elantris for me. I think Sanderson did less world-building for them, because Elantris felt so much deeper to me. However, that’s not the purpose for this post. if you want to discuss Sanderson more, please go to the Discussion page.

  9. ralfast

    March 18, 2010 at 2:04 PM

    I have a knack for titles (or so they tell me). I can’t really start writing without one. For me it is the first sentence that a reader reads and a writer writes. Without one, I’m hopelessly lost.

  10. atsiko

    March 18, 2010 at 3:44 PM

    I do prefer to start with a title, but it all depends on how the book unwinds itself in my head. Or if I have time between other projects to start right off. For the latter, I might get a good ways without deciding on a title.

    Since most of my stories require a certain amount of world-building, even if I have title pains, I usually arrive at one before the I start the first draft. But for one story that I did mostly discovery writing on, it took me quite awhile to come up with a title.

    If I get too worked up looking for a title, though, I’ll just start writing, because title-hunting is a convenient excuse for distraction or procrastination. Two things I have trouble with a lot, and thus two things I do my best to avoid.


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