Wednesday, July 27, 2011

What's In a Name?

By Lisa Karon Richardson

We’ve talked before about book covers, and how important they are in a reader’s decision to buy. There’s no question that a book is frequently judged by its cover. Publishers work hard to make sure that readers can do that very thing.

But in today’s climate of shrinking retail space, the very first impression people will have of most books is the spine. That’s right, we writers who slave to craft an exquisite 90,000 word tome, have (at most) about 5 words to actually capture a potential reader’s attention.

We’re not talking the first line of the story, we’re not talking about the back cover copy. The first chance we have to motivate a buyer to pick up our novel is the title.

Titles are hard, and writers are often consoled by the reassurance that it doesn’t matter what we call a manuscript, because the publisher’s marketing team will probably change it. It’s true, the marketing team often wants changes, but from what I’ve seen, they typically toss that particular albatross back into the author’s boat, by asking sweetly for other options, perhaps with certain key words that have been identified.

Being one who is not particularly good with titles I find the whole process interesting, if a little intimidating. I was trying to analyze a bit about what makes me as a reader pick up a book. There are a few authors on my auto-buy list. I may not even notice the title, when I see that name on the spine, it’s going home with me regardless.

The vast majority of my book buying decisions are more difficult. I did a survey of the books on my shelf. (A very scientific survey consisting of typing up some of the titles I can see on my shelf without having to get up from my chair.)

Justice Hall

The Camelot Caper

Cat Among the Pigeons

A Monstrous Regiment of Women

The Mummy Case

The Silver Pigs

Valley of Betrayal

The Swiss Courier

Death at Sandringham House

Sisterhood of Spies

Arms of Deliverance

I was trying to figure out if there were any common denominators. Using analysis nearly as scientific as the selection process, I have decided that all of these titles hint at intrigue within. Intrigue is clearly something I’m attracted too.

What are you attracted too? What titles are on your shelves? Why did you pick those books?

Influenced by books like The Secret Garden and The Little Princess, Lisa Karon Richardson’s early books were heavy on boarding schools and creepy houses. Now that she’s (mostly) all grown-up she still loves a healthy dash of adventure and excitement in any story she creates, even her real-life story. She’s been a missionary to the Seychelles and Gabon and now that she and her husband are back in America, they are tackling a brand new adventure, starting a daughter-work church in a new city. Her first novella, Impressed by Love, part of the Colonial Courtships collection, is coming in May, 2012.


  1. Interesting topic, Lisa.

    I'd have to say what attracts me in a title is one that hints at mystery with a sense of humor. So I look at shelves with lots of books using word play in the titles:

    Owls Well that Ends Well
    Too Many Crooks Spoil the Broth
    Death Threads
    Let There Be Suspects
    Murder with Reservations (takes place in a hotel)
    The Cereal Murders
    Thou Shalt Not Grill
    Cockatiels at Seven

  2. Ahhh, here I am among my peers. Mystery and Intrigue. So clear in your cover choices. I can't see my book spines from my computer (well obviously not THIS computer...ahem, I'm at work).

    But GEE Lisa, thanks for ramping up the importance of 1-5 words selling my book when I've spent umpteen years writing and I'm embarrassed to say how many on this one book...

    I do remember the thrill of finding just the MOST PERFECT title for my WIP only to see it come out on someone else's book.

    Good stuff, ladies. Love your titles.
    Thanks Lisa!

  3. aha, pretty funny--I just went over to Seekerville and saw the author who ALSO picked the best titles ever, but happened to publish them.

    May all your titles be perfect, Lisa!

  4. I love titles that allude to something artsy like "She Walks in Beauty" by Siri Mitchell, "Embrace Me" by Lisa Samson, "Rhythm of Secrets" by Patti Lacy. I also like titles that sound elegant: "The Lady of Milkweed Manor," "In the Arms of the Immortals." But my favorite titles include my favorite words like "dance" and "passion." "Tour de Force" caught me be the title and the pointe shoes on the cover.

  5. Barb, I have some of those titles on my shelf as well. I recognize Donna Andrews, and is that Joanne Fluke or Diane Mott Davidson?

    Do you think it's easier to come up with a title when there's an obvious cozy theme that works throughout a series? Like, oh, I don't know, knitting or cooking. Or with books like Sue Grafton's alphabet series, or Janet Evanovich's numbered books?

  6. Sorry to up the angst, Deb. Don't worry we'll brainstorm your title and polish it until it shines. Isn't another name for Nightshade, Belladonna? Would that work? It might even be a bit of a pun regarding the poison and the heroine.


  8. Ohhh! Love the promotion! Thanks Lisa.

    Speaking of which. The original title I had in mind for it was, "These Three Remain." It seemed to appeal to the literary crowd, but not the romance crowd, and I wanted to reach both. Then I tried, "Dandelion Dreams," which I was told sounded too contemporary. Finally I stumbled onto "Dance of the Dandelion," which everyone seems to love.

  9. I do like Dance of the Dandelion. It goes so well with the story, but also the cover, so that it everything flows to fulfill reader expectations.

  10. Thanks, Lisa. It was Roseanna's idea to use a dancing pose for the cover. I had never thought of that, but loved the idea immediately.

  11. Fun topic, Lisa.

    The books within my viewing area are:

    - Wyoming Lawman
    - The Outlaw's Return
    - The Rancher's Reunion
    - Threat of Exposure
    - The Best Laid Plans
    - The Billionaire's Unexpected Heir
    - The Sarantos Secret Baby
    - Her Best Friend's Wedding
    - A Vision of Lucy

    The above books are a combination of 4 genres. I'm not sure it shows anything except my eclectic taste. However, common themes seem to be love reunited and secrets.

    When I'm creating titles, I like to show something about the people in the book, such as:
    - Charley's Saint
    - Mariah's Minister
    - Emma's Outlaw
    - Susan's Gunsmith
    - Caleb's Cowgirl
    - Marry Me, Ma'am

    As you can see, I use a lot of alliterations, mainly because they roll off my tongue and are easier to remember - for both me and the readers.

    Anita Mae.

  12. I don't know, Anita Mae. I think your titles all imply romance, many of them sound like westerns, a couple like romantic suspense. That pretty much fits what I know of the books you like to read. As for the titles of your projects that format may become something you're known for when you are a bestselling author!

  13. I have a terrible time with titles, but I love books in a series to have titles that work together: The Cat Who . . . books or Mary Higgins Clark's mysteries with song titles as the titles.

    I like titles that make me think, too. Why that particular line from a poem or a nursery rhyme or a well-known saying? Or, if it's something like that with a slight change (like Barbara's examples), why the change? How does that come into the story?

    Titles are really interesting. And really hard.

  14. I like a title that makes me wonder what the story is about. That combined with a cool cover will make me pick up the book and read the back blurb. So far, the titles of all three of my own books start with "The". I'm making a conscious effort to mix it up. I've got four or five proposals out, and none of them start with "the". Now, if only I could sell one...

  15. DeAnna, I always liked the Cat Who books. A twist on a familiar saying is supposed to be a really good way to catch attention, and I always admire a clever turn of phrase, I just never seem to able to come with them. And I don't seem to write the kind of stuff that would be good for that kind of title. I really like BARB'S UPCOMING HOLIDAY NOVELLA TITLED GOLD, FRANKINCENSE AND MURDER. Perfect title for a cozy!

  16. Jen, there was a website going around that was supposed to be like a title generator. They had advice like starting with a verb, some other stuff. I'll have to look around and see if I can dig that up. It was a fun little exercise.

  17. I have everything on my shelf from one-word titles to titles with a word count of something-teenth!

    Some of the titles I have right now are:

    Fairer than Morning
    The Shadow of His Wings
    Out of the Whirlwind
    Blue Skies Tomorrow
    The First Gardener
    A Conspiracy of Ravens
    Written on Silk

    The list goes on and on and on...

    Great post!

  18. Fun topic. I am not good with titles. A few years ago, I read that romances "sell better" if there is Baby or Cowboy or Bride in the title. That's old info, though, and I don't recall any statistics to back it up.

    Thanks, Lisa!

  19. Faye,
    I noticed a lot of your titles had to do with the setting. Do you draw inspiration from nature?

  20. Susie, that tidbit may have been a self-fulfilling prophecy. After all the majority of romances I see have one of those words in the title. Seems like they would have more chances to hit the bestseller list!

  21. I love the Cat Who books, too! Did you guys know she died last month? I think she was in her 90s.

    Two books I bought strictly for their titles:

    Nibbled to Death By Ducks
    Surf-Girl School

    I LOVED Surf-Girl School. It totally lived up to its title. I am terrible at thinking up titles.

    Fun discussion, Lisa

  22. I meant to tell Anita, I love your book titles for your own books. Very nice.

  23. Suzie, I would pick up Nibbled to Death by Ducks too. I'm already intrigued!

    It was sad to hear that Lillian Jackson Braun passed, but she was in her 90s, still writing from what I understand though!

  24. Ah, titles, the bain of an author's existence. You come up with something you think is great, and nope, it won't fly. My upcoming Regency series had all titles that came from old English sayings with a twist like Once Bitten, Twice shy. Once Widowed, Twice Shy. But the vampire craze put an end to that, alas. Fortunately, my publisher came up with A Necessary Deception, which is a great Regency title, aand, for the CBA, has people saying, "But I thought CBA heroine's couldn't be deceptive." Of course I'm giving nothing away. No one but my editors and endorsers ahve read the final version of this story. Not sure I'll ever get such a great title. Lady in the Mist gives a bit of a Gothic feel, which the story has. Heart's Safe Passage? Well, not my favorite, though the cover is great. Still it works because it says romance and ship and danger in three words, which had to take a lot of work.

    Some people know they came up with a different title, which I firmly put my foot down on and was ready to play primadona author for the first time to see nixed it was so bad. Fortunately, I didn't have to. Had a better weapon against it than an artistic temper tantrum.

    Bt don't believe they will put it back on the author. They only pretend to put it back on the author. for my second Regency in that series, I'm considering suggesting A Necessary Flight. Since she's an aeronaut (balloonist) and is running away from...things, too, there's an itsy bit of a chance they'll use it. Anyone care to take bets on that? Oh, wait, I'm against betting. Still... Anyone want to go for the odds?

    The bottom line is, like covers, titles are something about which authors have little say in the end.

    PS: Amazing how a little title like The Glassblower garnered so much attention. Sometimes simplicity, if it about a unique topic, works. Less is more and all that.

  25. Ooh! Interesting! I never thought to survey my titles, Lisa... just a minute...

    Of the books on my shelves (not counting the ones that were given to me as gifts or which I bought because they are already a favorite author) almost ALL of them are single word titles, or titles with "the" and another word, like Peretti's "The Oath."

    Apparently, when it comes to book titles, I have an extremely short attention span. : )

  26. Laurie Alice, I was thinking in part of the whole struggle to settle on Heart's Safe Passage when I was writing this post. It's not an easy thing. As for odds on them using your Necessary Flight... I'd say five to one against.

    But then, I've been surprised before!

    Thanks for stopping by.

  27. Niki, maybe it's not so much a short attention span, as that journalistic impulse to make sure it has punch. How do your ms titles compare to the ones on your shelves?

  28. Lisa, I think it's amazing Lillian Jackson Braun was still writing. Her characters and the following they had is probably what kept her young at heart. I'd say her titles were all pretty intriguing.

    As for Nibbled to Death by Ducks, it was written in the 90s I think. I can't remember if it was good, or even the plot. I just remember the title. Does that say something about my sick sense of humor? ;)

  29. This comment has been removed by the author.

  30. If I'd read more carefully, I wouldn't have needed to delete that comment. Just ignore me...

  31. Suzie, if it does, then I have to take a share in whatever it says because I find it funny too!

  32. hello Lisa , you have done great job it's very nice blog .... thanks for publish ... GOD BLESS YOU


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