A lot rides on a title – and publishers employ teams of marketing strategists to come up with the words on the cover that will seal the deal with a prospective reader.
What’s in a name? More than you might think, dear reader
When Nicholas Evans told a novelist friend the title he planned to give his debut novel, his friend disdainfully replied: “The publishers will never go for it. It’s too long to fit on the spine.”
Yet The Horse Whisperer went on to become one of the bestselling books of all time, with 15 million in sales and a number 10 slot on The New York Times list of bestsellers in the US in 1995. Three years later, it was turned into a film starring and directed by Robert Redford.
Quantifying what will and won’t sell is a constant preoccupation for publishers, agents and editors. Never an exact science, book sales can be influenced by the public mood, a zeitgeist decision triggered by events of the moment or resolved by something as arbitrary as the size of the font or the illustration on the cover.
And the part the title plays in that decision whether a reader picks up a book, often made on a whim, can be huge. “The book is the fishing line and the title is the hook,” says Joanne Harris, author of the award-winning novel Chocolat and the sequels The Lollipop Shoes and Peaches for Monsieur le Curé.
“A lot of the time I get the title fairly early on. I feel quite uncomfortable if I am writing something that does not have a title.
“Usually I have a working title in my head and very often it stays the same. Changing a title midway feels a bit like a change in tempo and I don’t like it.
“It is a little bit like writing a book in a blue room and suddenly one day you wake up and it’s a yellow room.”
But do we really judge a book by its cover? And does the title make the book or the book make the title? These days, there are marketing strategists and committees set up within publishing houses which try to ensure the title chosen will lead the reader to pluck that book off a shelf packed with hundreds of other options. Nothing is left to chance – and it can sometimes lead to clashes between authors and publishers where one side claims to be all about the art and the other is focused on the hard sell.
Luigi Bonomi, the founder of the London-based literary agency Luigi Bonomi Associates, says: “The title is all-important. A title sells a book and much more attention should be spent on the title than almost any other aspect of marketing.
“This is particularly the case with commercial women’s fiction, where a title will intrigue and captivate a reader.
“Authors should have a say but sometimes they are simply too close to a book and can often come up with a title they love but which does not sell.”
But when did the title to a novel become as significant as the book itself? Granted, a catchy title – think Paul Torday’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen and A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka – can be intriguing enough to inspire a reader to pick up a book in the first place.
Perhaps it was Jane Austen who first realised the potential of a winning title. More than 200 years ago, several of her books began life under rather mundane working titles.
The all-time classic Pride and Prejudice was rejected as First Impressions before she revised and renamed it, Sense and Sensibility started life as Elinor and Marianne and Northanger Abbey was simply Susan and then Catherine (its eventual title was thought to be the invention of Austen’s brother Henry, who was bent on getting it picked up by a publisher). Similarly, Tolstoy’s War and Peace was given the curious title All’s Well That Ends Well while The Great Gatsby could have been called Under the Red, White and Blue or even The High-Bouncing Lover.
Then there is the difference in psyche between different nations. Books known by one title in the UK often morph into another in the US. J K Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was changed to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone because it was felt the legend of the stone would not be widely known in America; Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express became Murder in the Calais Coach; and the escapades of Jeeves and Wooster by P G Wodehouse were published in different forms across the Atlantic.
The British-born Evans discovered that conflict with his latest publication The Brave. “I’m slightly disappointed that no one has ever really got it but it was about the home of the brave; it is about America,” he says. “The cowboy is such an icon in American life and we all know the true story of the conquering of the West was one of unabashed massacre and genocide where native American Indians were just wiped out. It is about what bravery is and whether the conquering of the West and the brave cowboy was a real thing or a myth.
“For me, titles have to have more than one meaning. They have to try to encapsulate the themes in the book.
“I spend ages trawling through my head to find the right title. I need to know the title first. I don’t think you squeeze the story into a title but it does help me shape the book as I write it.”
Harris, whose book The Lollipop Shoes became The Girl With No Shadow in the US, says a title “helps me shape the identity of the thing I am supposed to be writing. Sometimes I have to change it because the publishers want me to. They think for one reason or another it is not right but I am often quite reluctant to.
“The cover and the title are designed to make the reader choose the book. Whether it is fair or not is another matter.
“Most writers do not design their book jackets, so sometimes it is a bit of a frustrating situation where you do not feel the jacket is entirely representative and yet it has been slapped onto your book.”
The Dubai-based author Liz Fenwick thinks writers have to go one step further by branding themselves and becoming their own marketeers. Her working title of August Rock became A Cornish Affair once she and her editor decided a reference to Cornwall would play a part in all her books.
“It changed when my publishers at Orion realised my brand was going to be Cornish,” she says. “Until I am established and people know me, there will be Cornwall in the title. I understood what my publishers were doing – it was a business decision. Ultimately it is their job to sell books and they are the ones who have to market me and position me in a bookstore. I don’t think you can be precious about titles, especially when you’re new.
“Unless you have written the best book that has ever been written, you need to be branded.”
Richard Madeley, the TV presenter turned author, runs a book club with his wife Judy Finnigan that can make or break a bestseller in Britain. He says that while a gripping title is vital, there is often little rhyme or reason to why books sell: “It is about timing, chemistry, the mood of the public – there are so many factors, you cannot brew the perfect book commercially.
“You can write the perfect literary book but that does not mean it will sell. Then you get books which are mediocre and bestsellers when there is a much better book on the shelf next to them.”
Isobel Abulhoul, the director of Dubai’s Festival of Literature and the co-founder of the Magrudy’s chain, says both as a reader and a bookseller, titles have always been crucial to her: “If a book has a really good title, I am always intrigued and will pick it up but I am not going to continue unless the book has content.”
Bestsellers, she believes, are created through word of mouth, literary prizes and established book clubs such as Oprah Winfrey’s. But online shopping has changed the face of our book browsing; traditionally, covers and blurbs counted for more in book stores, whereas online retailers such as Amazon will reel in readers on the basis of book titles. “The title and the cover are really important marketing tools and hugely important for unknown authors,” she says.
For Evans, there is a “synergy” between a story and its title. He is superstitious about revealing either until the book is finished. “I think one helps the other,” he adds. “I won’t tell people about a story or a title. It is as if you bought a bird and before it is trained, you open the door; it could just fly away.”
• The Abu Dhabi International Book Fair runs from Wednesday to May 5 and features writers, poets, illustrators, academics and publishers from all over the world. To find out more about its cultural programme, read the dedicated supplement being published with The National tomorrow or visit www.adbookfair.com