by Will Viharo
Choosing a title for your book is almost as significant – and challenging – as naming your own kid, since, in effect, your book is your baby, or at least your brainchild.
There are a variety of factors to consider when it comes to this decision, which is just as commercially crucial as the cover art, since it will be the initial introduction of this work to the public, and first impressions always count when courting success...
Giving your book a memorable, unique and enticingly descriptive title is one way to make it stand out in the over-crowded virtual marketplace, or even on an actual bookshelf.
A catchy title doesn’t always guarantee the book’s success, or even that it will attract much attention outside of your own social circles, but you need to give your work as much ammunition as possible. And the title, along with the cover, is your opening shot.
If your aim is true, it might be all you need to make a “killing.” Probably not, but piquing a browsing reader’s interest is the first giant step toward closing an actual sale.
The title should say something about what a reader should expect, but it shouldn’t make promises it won’t keep, either. Nobody appreciates false advertising. Anyone can embrace particularly creative promotions, though. And your title is a major promotional tool.
An effective title economically evokes the story’s plot and mood, painting an instant mental image without giving anything away. Modern marketing often entails the age-old art of seduction.
Creatively Licensed Plagiarism
So how do you think of the perfect title? Sometimes mining the rich fields of your fellow scribes yields pure gold.
Many of our world's greatest books took their titles from other classical literature. Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises is a quote from the Bible, as is John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Shakespeare is possibly the most popular source of inspiration, from William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury to Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes to Philip K. Dick’s Time Out of Joint to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.
Or back to Steinbeck, The Moon Is Down.
Not all titles boast such respectable origins, though. As always, it depends on one’s artistic, or commercial, agenda…
The Name Game
Back in the 1950s, enterprising independent film studio American International Pictures actually sold a title and poster art to exhibitors before they even made the movie! Those assurances of distribution helped secure financing. Their very first major double bill, I Was a Teenage Werewolf and Invasion of the Saucer Men, revolutionized drive-in fare for decades.
As a former film programmer and lifelong film buff, my fiction is very influenced by cinema, and in fact, I often start with a title, meaning once it pops into my head – Love Stories Are Too Violent For Me, Fate Is My Pimp, A Mermaid Drowns in the Midnight Lounge, Chumpy Walnut – the story begins telling itself to me. But that’s just me. Every author has to discover and develop his or her own creative process. There are no rules in the case. Basically, whatever works in sparking the imagination – both the author’s, and the reader’s.
The Incredibly Strange Who?
Exploitation cinema is filled with examples of lurid advertising luring in customers before the film was screened for a single audience member. Has anyone ever heard of the 1972 grindhouse flick The Rats Are Coming, the Werewolves Are Here? Odds are, probably not. But now that you’ve heard that title, chances are you’ll never forget it. You may even feel compelled now to seek out a copy of the film and watch it. Good luck.
Ray Dennis Steckler’s 1963 “monster musical” The Incredibly Strange Creatures That Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies is most likely another cult classic that has yet to make it to your Netflix queue, and the story behind that outrageous title is almost as entertaining as the film itself. (Some might argue more so…)
Steckler had to actually settle a dispute in court when his originally announced title, The Incredibly Strange Creatures, or Why I Stopped Living and Became a Mixed-up Zombie, was challenged by the producers of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, concurrently in production!
But this is an extreme case, and it only happened because Columbia Pictures execs decided to pick a fight they knew they could handily win, although why they considered a low budget cult filmmaker like Steckler a “threat” to the success of their much higher-profile property is beyond me. But the upshot is, it provided Steckler with unexpected and much needed publicity, so in the end, it worked out for everyone. Not that you were worried.
You Can’t Steal It If It’s Free
The fact is, in literature, as in cinema, copyright laws do not cover titles, which is why you often come across books or films with the same title, but are otherwise unrelated, like Running Scared (two different crime films, one from 1986, the other from 2006), and Frozen (both a 2010 thriller and a hit 2013 animated fantasy).
So this is yet another issue to ponder when coming up with a title. Sure, you could call it To Kill a Mockingbird or One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, but do you really want to invite that comparison? Plus there’s always the possibility of a reader backlash. Most readers appreciate originality. If the title is a rip-off or just plain dull, what does that say about the book?
“If you really want to hear about it…”
J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is a famous example of a rather obscure reference: a line from a 1796 poem by Robert Burns called “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye,” which Holden Caulfield paraphrases – or rather, misappropriates - when explaining his aspiration to his sister Phoebe in Chapter 22:
"Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around--nobody big, I mean--except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff - I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be. I know it's crazy.”
John Kennedy Toole’s posthumously published, Pulitzer Prize winning novel A Confederacy of Dunces takes its title from an essay by Jonathan Swift called Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting, specifically: "When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him."
My own bizarro horror novella Freaks That Carry Your Luggage Up to the Room was actually lifted from an infamous underground bootleg recording of Elvis Presley rambling on stage in between songs while clearly under the influence of narcotics, when he tossed off this sentence rather randomly during the course of his rant. Now if anyone Googles that phrase (which granted, probably doesn’t happen very often), two results pop up: me, and Elvis!
Pizza By Any Other Name Is Still Pizza
E. L. James' initially self-published phenomenon, Fifty Shades of Grey, has in itself become a frequently quoted, often-lampooned, loosely appropriated catchphrase in the popular culture, giving the books a life outside of their already massive audience, and in effect generating free publicity, as if they need any.
Sometimes a very simple title, like The Martian, also initially self-published by Andy Weir and now a hit film directed by Ridley Scott, is augmented if not compensated by an organically inspired buzz amongst the consumer community. So it doesn’t matter that it’s not as colorful as, say, Douglas Adams’ cult classic bestseller The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (or my own recent sci-fi collaboration with Scott Fulks, The Space Needler’s Intergalactic Bar Guide).
Hopefully the Douglas Adams estate won’t sue me.
What are some of your favorite book titles?
PHOTO: WILL VIHARO