I have a confession: I long for a world where the content of a book speaks for itself — where the reading experience is entirely subjective and organic, where a reader actually has to read Book C by Author Number 62925 before deciding what “kind” of book it is.
I know: I’m in la-la land. Readers want to know who wrote the book. But would I have a different audience if I published under, say, Ally Simpson instead of Alafair Burke? And readers want to know a genre. But am I mystery or thriller? Women’s suspense (whatever the frack that means) or procedural? And readers want to know some basic information about the plot. But should the jacket description of 212 emphasize the stalking of a college student, the murder of a celebrity bodyguard, or the death of a real estate agent who was leading a double life? These choices we (or our publishers) make about what to put on the book jacket send signals to readers about the contents of the book before they’ve even broken the spine.
Arguably that signal begins with a book’s title.
I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I struggle with character names, but when it comes to titles, the struggle reaches epic, paralyzing proportions. Why? Because I withdraw from every decision that purports to typecast the book I have written.
I’m in title hell right now with my next book, my first stand-alone. I ran a couple of contenders past my kitchen cabinet advisors (i.e., Facebook friends). The comments cemented my gut instincts: one sounded thrillerish, one sounded chick-ish, and both sounded vaguely familiar. “[Suggested title] sounds like a cheesy book I wouldn’t read under threat of bodily harm,” said one. Another reader said one title sounded like a Harlan Coben novel, the other like Nora Roberts. Same book, two pretty different impressions.
See? This is why I hate the pressure of a title. Pick a couple wrong words, and you just might lose the readers who would have loved that book.
But here’s what I’m learning about titles: They don’t exist in isolation. They are backed by an image on the jacket, and, as the cliche goes, a picture says a thousand words.
Consider some recent examples:
Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell. I’m not sure what the title on its own would say to me, but the quirkiness of the jacket “matches” the tone of the book.
Then there’s One Day by David Nicholls. Kind of bland. Kind of makes me want to sing “One day, one where, we’ll find a new way of living,” but I do have an annoying tendency to break out in song, regardless of lyrics. But check out the 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 how about “Caught” by Harlan Coben? Pretty good title. I always like those one-word things. But take that single word, and drop it against this background:
Then read this first sentence: “I knew opening that red door would destroy my life.” Awesome!
I recently finished a little book called The Glass Rainbow by some guy called James Lee Burke. I confess to talking some serious smack about that title when I first heard it. The Glass Rainbow? The only book I could imagine was a memoir of Kurt Hummel’s early years:
But add the jacket art, and The Glass Rainbow suddenly looks like a JLB novel. Read the book, and the title truly works. (Blatantly nepotistic plug here: The book’s fabulous and just came out last week!)
So folks, I’d love to hear your thoughts about some of your favorite book jackets and titles. Send links to images if it’s not too much work. And, oh, if you happen to have a good standalone title for someone who writes sort of like me, let me know!
(I’ll be on a plane today on my way home from a wedding in Santa Fe, so I may be slow to post replies, but I can’t wait to read your comments!)