What’s in a title?

4 August, 2016

Writers in search of an agent (or editor) often complain that they are not getting any response.  There are many reasons for this, which we frequently address in this column.  But one particular irksome reason is that the query letters often feature terrible titles.  I mean truly terrible.  (I don’t want to humiliate anyone by parading some of these wretched titles here. I’m just trying to help.) Delbourgo006 high resWhen I see a query with a really unappealing title, I stop reading, which means I never really get to weigh what the writer is trying to convey.  This is because we have such limited time to review queries and we need to use that time wisely and well.

So ask yourself: Is my title clear?  This is especially true for nonfiction.  It should clearly lay out the subject and premise of your book.  For example, two of our clients, Ken Lloyd and Stacey Lloyd, wrote a book called IS YOUR JOB MAKING YOU FAT?  It explores the many reasons we eat at work–the sedentary nature of work, responses to stress, long hours, etc.  That title leaps out and is utterly clear.  Another client, a religious scholar, Barrie Wilson, wrote a book called HOW JESUS BECAME CHRISTIAN.  Great eye-grabbing title.  In the digital age, titles should contain search terms.  If not in the title itself, at the very least in the subtitle.  Cookbook author Missy Chase Lapine has an upcoming book called SNEAKY BLENDS (September, North Star Way/Simon & Schuster), which builds recipes around her signature fruit and vegetable purees.  I love the title because it echoes her original New York Times bestseller, THE SNEAKY CHEF, but also signals something new by deviating from “The Sneaky Chef” phrase in the title. Then, the subtitle does more work to explain the concept: Supercharge Your Health with More Than 100 Recipes Using the Power of Purees.  That delivers the promise of the book and tells you exactly what’s in it.

With fiction, a title can be more evocative.  Lindsey J. Palmer’s first novel for Kensington, about a young woman in the glamorous but cut-throat world of magazine publishing, was re-titled by the publisher:  PRETTY IN INK.  This is really clever and fun, which is also the kind of read Lindsey delivers, and it suggests the world of publishing without using a clunky word to describe it. It also tells us that this is women’s fiction.  Classicist Philip Freeman, who has published many scholarly and popular books about the history of the classical world, turned to fiction with his first mystery, ST. BRIDGET’S BONES, and then a second one, SACRIFICE.  These mystery novels are set in Celtic times and the titles are supported by gorgeous covers, thanks to Pegasus, his publisher.  Bestselling and award-winning novelist, Ben H. Winters imagines a contemporary world in which the Civil War was never fought and slavery still exists in his brilliant new book, UNDERGROUND AIRLINES, a clever play off the Underground Railroad, which also happens to be the name for the network in that tracks runaway slaves in the novel.  And debut author, Marilyn Simon Rothstein, got my attention with an unsolicited query for her humorous domestic novel, LIFT AND SEPARATE (Lake Union/Amazon Publishing), about a woman whose husband, owner of a lingerie empire called Bountiful Bosoms, abandons her for his 23 year-old 32DDD bra fitting model.  The title: sheer genius and hinting at both the humor and drama the novel offers.

So what’s an author to do?  Test your title over and over again with smart readers and writers in your personal network, and if you can, with some publishing professionals before you send out your query letter.  I promise you, you will get more traction with a truly great title.