Titles (Again)

 by Alafair Burke

We’ve talked a lot about book titles recently.

Gar got us all thinking when he catalogued the difference between a DAT (Dumb-Ass-Title) and a KAT (Kick-Ass-Title).  In his view, DAT’s use one ubiquitous, predictable word (e.g., the new TV show, “Revenge”).  A KAT draws the reader in, but does not rely on any secret or double meaning (Sophie Littlefield’s “A Bad Day for Sorry”).

Louise followed up with further refinements to the DAT recipe — puns and series unifiers — while defending the use of dual meanings.  

The timing of their posts couldn’t have been better for my purposes. Or maybe worse.  Because they came right as I was trying to come up with a title for the next Ellie Hatcher novel, and I happen to disagree with both of them.

I struggle with titles.  A lot.  I shared my inner title turmoil here at Murderati last summer.  As I explained then, I’ve come to realize two things about titles, and from those two things come some lessons that push me away from Gar’s and Louise’s conception of a KAT.

First, a title’s main job is to create a first impression — not of itself, but of the book it adorns.  An extremely unique title makes a bigger impression.  That means it better be a REALLY accurate impression of the novel’s contents.  Otherwise, it’s just as likely to turn off a well-matched reader as to make her say, Hmmmm (Louise’s test for a KAT).

For example, my first book was initially submitted to editors with the title The Final Verdict.  The acquiring editor’s only quibble was with the title.  The problem was the “feel” conveyed by the title. She thought (correctly) that it sounded like a courtroom thriller when my books (even those featuring prosecutor Samantha Kincaid) really don’t unfold in court.  I renamed the book “Judgment Calls.”  Maybe not a KAT, but at least it didn’t mis-introduce the book.  Lesson One: Make sure the title matches the tone of the book.

Despite that first experience with a title, a made a mistake two books ago.  I struggled like mad with the title of the third Ellie Hatcher novel.  I honestly don’t remember now all of the many titles that I considered and rejected, because I became so passionate about the title that stuck: “212.”  It’s the Manhattan area code.  I also made it the name of the luxury building where a murder in the opening chapters takes place.  It “felt” right to me.  So modern.  So New York.  It was so cool and perfect that some of my Facebook friends found this t-shirt for me to rock on book tour.

But here’s the problem: The title’s really cool if you happen to know that Manhattan’s the two-one-two.  If you don’t know that?  You wind up asking the author on said book tour why she called her book “two-twelve.”  You tell the indie bookseller who’s kind enough to handsell said author’s book, “No thanks.  I don’t read science fiction.”

Oops.  Lesson Two: Make sure your title isn’t so “inside” that it turns people off.

The second thing about titles is that, although they serve to create a first impression, they don’t fill that role alone.  Usually people will see the title in the bookstore or online so will also see the cover art.  They might also read the first chapter or the inside flap to have some minimal sense of the book’s “hook.”

Last year, I used Charles Nicholls’ “One Day” of an example of how title, jacket, and concept can come together.

As I said about One Day the title: “Kind of bland.  Kind of makes me want to sing ‘One day, one where, we’ll find a new way of living.'” But if you see this jacket?


Gets your attention, right?  Flip it over and learn that the novel depicts two people on one single day across twenty years?  Suddenly it’s a perfect title.

Or take Lee Child’s new book, “The Affair.”  I’m not sure what Gar and Louise would say, but does a two-word title that begins with “The” trigger the DAT rule?  Regardless, I happen to like one-word titles because they can easily address my lessons one and two by fitting well with the contents of the book and not turning people off. 

Simple titles can also be dressed up well with jacket and concept.  The jacket for THE AFFAIR — a haunting picture of empty railroad tracks — is interesting enough that people will pick it up.*

*Note: This post assumes, falsely, that Lee Child still needs a good title or book jacket to persuade readers to pick up a book.

Then you find out that THE AFFAIR is a Jack Reacher prequel.  1997.  A crime scene at a lonely railroad track at Carter Crossing.  This is the story of how Reacher became a drifter.  Awesome!

Lesson Three: Titles Don’t Work Alone.

So it’s that time of year again, and for the last month, I was struggling (once again) for a title.  The working title was TO THE GRAVE, but on the “fit” rule, I decided it sounded too much like either a vamplre book or a medical examiner book.  Then those excellent posts from Gar and Louise managed to get me all up in my head, struggling for a KAT.  

I came up with WHEN DARK COMES DOWN.  Pretty good, huh?  Maybe even kick-ass.  I ran it past some people who all loved the sound of it.  But when I asked them what “type” of book they imagined from the title, I didn’t like what I heard.  Noir.  Darkness (funny that, huh?).  Something about depression.  It meets Louise’s “hmmmm…” test, but those weren’t the right kinds of hmmmm’s.

Back to the drawing board, but this time I didn’t think about KATs.  I thought instead about the good fortune I’ve had this year with my first standalone.  I’m quite sure the title, LONG GONE, wouldn’t meet any tests for being a KAT.  But here’s the jacket. 

The hook?  Alice Humphrey thinks life is all well and good at her dream job until she shows up one morning to find the place stripped bare as if it never existed, vacant except for the dead body of the man who hired her. 

I was lucky enough to hear something like the following from an awful lot of people this year: “I’d never read your books before but there was something about that jacket.  I just knew I’d like this book.”

Keep your KATs.  I’ll take a well-fitting, well-jacketed simple title any day. 

I took to the Interwebs, asking my Kitchen Cabinet pals on Facebook and Twitter what “type” of book they thought of from the following potential titles: NEVER PROMISE, AFTER DARK, and LIGHTS OUT.  The feedback was excellent, but the “fit” wasn’t quite right.  NEVER PROMISE had too many readers thinking of sappy romance stuff.  AFTER DARK conjured up too many thoughts of hookers.  And LIGHTS OUT sounded like calamity during a black out.  It also had this my editor and me singing this awful ditty:

(Have fun getting that one out of your head.  You’re welcome.)

I went back to the drawing board once again, now armed with my market research about tone.  I imagined possible book jackets.  I read my draft jacket copy.

And then I named the next Ellie Hatcher novel: NEVER TELL.

KAT?  Probably not.  But it sounds like one of my books.  It sounds like this particular book.  It connects with content.  It doesn’t send a wrong message.  And those talented art people at the publisher will do something great with it.

So am I full of it, or am I onto something?  Despite the allure of distinctive titles, do you think you’ve ever NOT read a book because the title, albeit creative, turned you off?  And when you hear the title NEVER TELL, what TYPE of book do you imagine?  (Thanks for the feedback!)



24 thoughts on “Titles (Again)

  1. Christy

    yep, I'd say you're right on the money — at least when it comes to how I select books, and in particular from authors I haven't yet read — nothing is more disappointing to me than a title that poorly portrayed the book it's showcasing or a KAT that misrepresented the genre/content

    (and… I did think 212 was a sci-fi stand alone at first,….never occurred to me it was an area code



  2. Sarah W

    The first thing that comes to mind with NEVER TELL is a story about a secret and a cover up, possibly involving a child or young teenager, at least originally.

    Some titles do turn me off, but I think I'd pick this one up, even if I didn't know you'd written it. It begs the question, "Never tell . . . what?" and I'm a sucker for titles like that.

  3. Jake Nantz

    I like Never Tell. Then again, I'm from North Carolina and I immediately knew what 212 referred to, so I may not be the best test subject.

    My issue isn't so much the title, because I've got a title I'm itching to write the book for called "Prayer for the Wicked." The problem? The book I keep coming up with doesn't match the title. Then again, even if it ever gets as far as this stage in the publishing process, the title will probably get changed anyway, so I guess I should write the book I want and save that title for whatever hits me later, huh?

  4. Alafair Burke

    Thanks, Christy. I don't think I've ever bought a book even in part because of the title, so I haven't been stuck with duds. I have, however, passed on books because they didn't "sound" like something I'd like, only to be pleasantly surprised later when forced by friends to eat my vegetables.

    Sarah, your first impression makes me very happy.

    Jake, I do like that title, but, yep, I'd write the book first. I think I've renamed every book so far.

  5. Sandie Herron

    NEVER TELL. I think of secrets. Secrets that either can't or shouldn't be told. Secrets once shared will bring turmoil.

    What kinds of secrets will be determined by the personality and background of the person looking at the title. Kind of like those tests you take when they ask what this photo looks like and that photo and when you keep answering death, you know you're depressed.

    It could be don't tell about your date last night, don't tell about the affair you're having, don't tell anyone about daddy coming in your room, don't tell it was your fault for the car accident, don't tell you went for a ride with a man you didn't know, and on and on. It would all be up to the imagination of the reader at first. I think it's vague enough that it will then be your job as the author to steer the reader in the direction you want them to go. So in that way, it's a great title!

    BTW, I knew what 212 meant. I grew up in Jersey.

  6. Judy Wirzberger

    Never tell sends chills down my spine. I saw something, I saw someone, I can never tell. Too many bad things would happen if I told. It's terrible. "Never tell," she whispered as she grabbed my hand and pulled me through the molding leaves on that dark night twenty years ago. And I haven't. Until now.

  7. Pete Sandberg

    Hmmm, interesting as my daughter just got her first book picked up by an agent who insisted on a title change, so we've all been thinking about this a lot.

    I've been on a tear with Henning Mankell recently, and who knows about the Swedish titles, but the translation titles seem to be derived from some sometimes obscure piece of the story, and they seem to work just fine. Lee Child is now a guy who could simply call the latest "16" because, hey, it's his 16th, and it wouldn't impact sales a bit. James Patterson could call his latest 75, or anything at all, and I still wouldn't pick it up. James Lee Burke could just put "New Dave R Book" on there and I'd go a long way to get it.

    I'm not sure titles mean a lot unless the author is really new, and my daughter's agent was right on, it's now much better. The Child cover above is sort of telling; back in the day, the title would be primary and the author down at the bottom. Same for Long Gone, the important part is on top and RED.

  8. Alafair Burke

    Pete, That's a good point. I think my name got moved to the top with my 5th book, though I confess I'm not sure. Congratulations to your daughter.

    Sandie and Judy, Thanks for the feedback. My title is actually locked in now with the publisher, so it dawned on me I might be in big trouble if today's feedback had been really off. Phew!

  9. Louise Ure

    You made a good choice with NEVER TELL. But you guessed correctly that I would love WHEN DARK COMES DOWN.

    Incidentally, I, too, think that good design and cover art is as important as the title. And sometimes that part seems so far out of our control.

  10. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Never Tell is a thriller title. That's all I need to know.

    Some of my favorite books have the blandest titles – I know now it's because a one word title leaves more room for the author's name and the image.

    Titles have absolutely NO influence on my buying a book. I know this is wrong, but if it's a great title I tend to think the author shot his wad on the title and there's no book to go with it.

  11. Allison Davis

    Furtive, bad things happening, reluctant witness, definitely NOT a cozy but a thriller or dark mystery and secrets or cover up.

    Still trying to come up with a working title for the WIP so I am liking all the title discussions.

    I do judge a book by its cover moer often than not and you're right for the genre.

  12. Sheri

    I like your chosen title, Alafair, though I can't say I have ever bought a book due to it's title.

    What grabs me first is seeing a familiar author name, second is the cover, and if that's good I'll read the back blurb, and then first page.


  13. Jim Snell

    Seems like titles have gotten shorter over the years, and I'm wondering if that's so they can be printed larger on the book. Of course, that makes it even more tough to pick the right combo of words to convey what you want (or word). I think NEVER TELL works well.

    But I think my all time favorite title is THE WINTER OF OUR DISCONTENT by Steinbeck, which may have something to do with why I've read that book several times. (Although the title EAST OF EDEN ranks pretty high up there for me too – and it's fun to read his JOURNAL OF A NOVEL, THE EAST OF EDEN LETTERS and see the titles he thought about for the book before settling on EofE.)

    I think I've got the perfect title for my first novel, which I'm working on the rewrite of now, but we'll have to wait and see if it gets onto the cover of the book itself, I guess. Good luck with NEVER TELL – I think it sounds like a great title, and I'm sure I'll be picking it up before long.

  14. David DeLee

    I agree, NEVER TELL just sounds like one of your books. I'm also of the camp who's never been influenced toward or away from a book based on its title. I pick books by genre, author, blurb and cover art, not necessarily in that order.Yet, I struggle mightily with titles for my own work. Go figure.

    As for the TV show REVENGE. I thought it was a poorly named, uninspiring title too, until I watched the first few episodes (which I've quite enjoyed–a new guilty pleasure for me) and now I don't know what else you could call it. It is EXACTLy what the show is about.

    Good luck with the new book, though I know you won't need it.
    David DeLee
    Fatal Destiny – a Grace deHaviland novel

  15. Alafair Burke

    Maybe someone else can use WHEN DARK COMES DOWN. I like it a lot but just don't think it sounds like a book by me. Or maybe some year when I'm sad, I'll write a book that suits the title. Now that just made me go hmmmm.

    I'm glad Alex was the one to say it first. I think I might actually be biased against a certain kind of show off-y title, though it's hard to know. It's not like I buy books in the same haphazard way I used to before I was a writer.

  16. Gar Haywood

    Alafair: I couldn't agree with you more that a book's cover goes a long way toward heightening the impact of its title. The combination of a great title and great cover art is every author's dream convergence of the stars.

    But I think it's a little dangerous for a writer to rely upon his publisher's art department to come up with cover art that will compensate for a less than stellar title. As we all know, what you get from your art department and what you hoped for are quite often two different things. And generally speaking, you've got less control over cover art than you do your novel's title. An author would be better served to come up with a unique, memorable title and let the art department do what it will (while hoping for the best, of course).

    For the record, and this is just one man's opinion, I think all of your titles are perfectly fine, and your rationale for choosing them as described here makes total sense to me. However, as much as I love the man and his writing, I can't give Lee Child a pass on THE AFFAIR simply because that lackluster title is bolstered by intriguing cover art and jacket copy. No one will care that the title is a DAT—or, at the very least, a dud—for all the reasons you point out. Lee's fans are going to buy him no matter what kind of titles he chooses to attach to his books. But few of us have that kind of brand loyalty to fall back on, so we should probably make every effort to hang a great title on everything we write until we do.

    I keep trying to come up with the perfect analogy for my basic argument where titles are concerned, and here's my latest attempt:

    A woman carries a child to term for nine months. She twists her entire life into knots making sure it's born healthy. She endures sixteen hours of hard, excruciating labor to deliver it…and then gives the baby the first name that pops into her head. One that demonstrates none of the blood,, sweat and tears she's just invested.


  17. justaskmom

    NEVER TELL is what a pedophile says to a child, often with a deadly threat to the child's most-loved parent/sib/friend. When I read your article late last night, I told myself, "This is why you can't sleep! Your mind immediately goes to the darkest place possible." I even spent the last three days reading three light-hearted mysteries I enjoyed very much.

    What can I say…I look forward to this book.

    PS I only look at titles and cover art when browsing for new authors to try. I reject many based on the covers, but if a title grabs me, I'll read the back or comments inside. If still in doubt, I jot the name and title down in my phone to research later. I bought the new Harlan Coben based solely on that gorgeous simple glass!

  18. Reine

    Hi Alafair,

    No doubt that covers get my attention in the book store. Then the title. Then I read the back and flaps. But I always check my favorite authors and genre first.

    I love the cover art for LONG GONE! he way it is focused says so much!

  19. Kay

    When I'm in the bookstore, or browsing online, and I come across a new-to-me author in a favored genre, the title and/or cover get me to take a look. Then I'll read the hook and the blurbs. In the bookstore, I may then read a couple of pages. On my Nook, I may even read the whole "sample" before I buy.

    Covers and titles separate the wheat from the chaff for me. With SO MANY books out there, something has to do that.

    BTW, I love 212 and LONG GONE. LONG GONE was an AMAZING premise and NEEDS to be made into a movie. 🙂

  20. CarlC

    I was going to take a pass on commenting here, thinking proudly to myself that I NEVER pay any real attention to the title when selecting a book, except to be sure that it's not one that I've read by this particular favorite author. But then I happened to think of a few, new to me, authors that I got turned on to by a title that grabbed me. Mostly, I think it was strange, offbeat titles, like any of those by Tim Dorsey. How can you pass up at least taking a look at a book with a title like "The Electric Barracuda"? Assuming that others may be similarly affected by such a title, it seems that it's likely to be difficult for a new author to attach this kind of title to a book because publishers may want to play it safe. When that happens, though, maybe the author's first book gets passed up by potential readers because they don't get intrigued by the title.

  21. PD Martin

    It's funny how some books start off with one title and are ALWAYS that title in your mind and the publisher is happy too. And other books you can change the title many times during the writing process and still not quite find the right one. Or have to change it for other reasons (e.g. my first book title had to be changed because a TV show came out with the same title during the editorial process).

    I LOVE Never Tell. It definitely conjures up images of secrets – either a personal secret someone's carried for a long time or a cover-up of some description.

    Congrats on the title and the book!

  22. Alafair Burke

    About to go to sleep so I'll be quick with a response. I am feeling so super psyched about the title NEVER TELL in light of the feedback here. Let's just say that y'all's impulses are exactly what I was trying to tap into.

    I can't let stand Gar's fabulous analogy of a generic title to a woman who carries a baby to term only to saddle it with the first name that came to her head. I really believe that my own instincts about titles are colored by my experience with an unusual name. Alafair. That ain't simple or generic. And I suppose I've spent my entire life wondering if that first introduction — "hey, good to meet you, I'm Alafair " — didn't say more about me than anything I could ever say on my own behalf. I'll go ahead and confess that I've spent more than a few minutes wondering whether I might have had different friends, and different jobs, and different boyfriends if I could have been the same person saying instead,"Hey, good to meet you, I'm Katie."

  23. lil Gluckstern

    I like your title, Never Tell, and I grew up in NYC so I knew what 212 was. I gotta tell you, though, seeing Alafair Burke on a book jacket is going to make me want to read that book!

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