The hardest thing to write is a title. Seriously. Titles for anything – be it a short story, book (fiction or non-fiction) or whatever – are a nightmare to figure out.
Even when an author comes up with a good name for their project, publishers often have other ideas, and with good reason. A standard publishing contract signs away the right to title your own work – it’s up to the publisher marketing department.
When that works, it’s great – these people know what they are doing and can usually figure out what’ll strike chords with the market. The down side, of course, is that sometimes that title doesn’t bear much relation to the themes and ideas of the work it’s describing.
In New Zealand non-fiction, dissonance between the promise of a title and the actual content is usually a dog-whistle call for the academy to launch into a worth-denial feeding frenzy. It’s happened to me with virtually every book – explosively hostile rants from the intellectual community claiming I am so incompetent in their personal territories that I can’t even write a book to match the promise of a title imposed post-fact by my publishers.
Such performances speak more about the people doing it and the ethics of the field they represent than they do about the work being dissed – the intent to damage is as blatant as the emptiness of the technique.
But, still, it underlines just how important titles are to get right.
So what constitutes a good title? In both fiction and non-fiction it has to be snappy, catchy, short – and yet sum up the essential themes of the work. Non-fiction usually has a slightly longer subtitle with it – but the same rules apply to that.
The road to that title, for authors, usually involves the logline (‘elevator pitch’) from which all work springs. You know – the one-sentence summary of the basic theme.
For publishers, a title has to have an emotional promise for the reader. What will they get out of the book? How will they feel afterwards? What does the title impute about the reaction they’ll have to the book? It’s often selected by committee – the editorial and marketing staff get together and run a focus group.
Authors need to know that because, if the author’s title meets what the publisher’s marketing department wants, it’ll be used. And these days, when so many authors are also their own publishers, they have to wear that hat too.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016