Spine-Out Titles

Do those few words entice and invite readers?Andy Scheer 2014 12 16 crop

by Andy Scheer

Three little words. Maybe five. Never more than seven.

No matter how much time you spent crafting your manuscript, the success of your project hinges on whether it has an effective title.

Get used to this idea. It will hold true until you work yourself up the ladder to A-list status. At which point your name becomes the drawing card for readers, and the publisher displays it prominently on the cover even more prominently than your book’s title (Then, with your name in such huge type, there’s no room for a rambling title.)

So if you struggle to craft an effective title, keep struggling. In the end, you’ll have more readers to enjoy what you struggled to create.

Real-Word Retailing
This past weekend I indulged one of my favorite pastimes: browsing through used book stores. It’s retailing at the most basic. No end caps, no displays of the latest releases. And all the books are spine out. So everything rests on those three little words. Maybe five. Never more than seven.

But why bring up used book stores? Your book will be sold in wonderful Christian book stores like the one in your community … where there are attractive cardboard displays for books by A-list authors and displays of those authors’ latest releases … and everyone else’s work is placed on the shelf spine-out.

[cryout-pullquote align=”left|center|right” textalign=”left|center|right” width=”33%”]Before your one-sheet or your elevator speech close the deal, your title needs to pre-sell your book.[/cryout-pullquote]

And long before those three little words speak to a bookstore browser, they must appeal to the publication board, to the acquisitions editor, even to your agent. Before your one-sheet or your elevator speech close the deal, your title needs to pre-sell your book.

Tasks for a Title
In my conference workshops, I often describe some tasks for a title.

First, it needs to attract reader attention. Somehow, it makes browsers stop scanning and focus on just this one book. If someone’s eyes keep moving to the next book and the next, the insides could just as well remain blank.

Second, the title needs to inform or intrigue the reader. This is where nonfiction writers catch a break. If you’re writing to a felt need and have a distinct approach, you simply express that in a handful of words.

For novelists, not so easy. Some years ago, Frank Peretti said that instead of titling it “The Visitation,” he’d considered calling that novel “A False Christ Comes to a Small Wheat-Farming Town in Eastern Oregon”—so that when he told people the title, they wouldn’t ask what the book is about.

[cryout-pullquote align=”left|center|right” textalign=”left|center|right” width=”33%”]Does your title resonate with readers of your genre, perhaps create a word picture or echo a memorable phrase?[/cryout-pullquote]
Does your title resonate with readers of your genre, perhaps create a word picture or echo a memorable phrase? One nonfiction title that jumped out at me this weekend was a biography of zoologist Dian Fossey (the subject of the film Gorillas in the Mist) titled Woman in the Mist. On the fiction side, Hunting a Detroit Tiger prompted me to consider this early twentieth century “Micky Rawlings Baseball Mystery” by Troy Soos (author of The Cincinnati Red Stalkings).

Hate word play in titles? Complain to Diane Mott Davidson, whose titles about caterer and amateur sleuth Goldy Schulz include “Dying for Chocolate,” “The Cereal Murders,” and “The Grilling Season.”

Stuart M. Kaminsky wrote a series of detective stories set in Hollywood in the 1930s and ’40s in which his private eye took on clients including Clark Gable, Judy Garland, and Bela Lugosi. The titles for those three stories: Tomorrow Is Another Day, Murder on the Yellow Brick Road, and Never Cross a Vampire.

Great (or Grate) Expectations
No one buys a book or a manuscript based only on the title. Recently I declined the opportunity to work with a story set in a small-town bowling alley: “7-10 Split.” While I didn’t feel the prose worked, the title encouraged me to hope for the best.

Before I read a single word of a supposedly humorous novel that followed a character through med school, I was predisposed to turn thumbs down based on this title (it felt more like something written in the early nineteenth century): Reflections on the Charles: A Legend of Doctors’ Yearning in Youth.
[cryout-pullquote align=”left|center|right” textalign=”left|center|right” width=”33%”]Choose three words. Maybe five And make them sing.[/cryout-pullquote]
And this morning I glanced at a query in which the prospective author didn’t provide a title at all … an easy rejection.

Give your book a chance. Think spine out. Choose three words. Maybe five And make them sing.

About Andy Scheer

With more than 30 years in publishing, Andy Scheer has provided freelance editorial services since 2010. He has edited fiction and nonfiction for publishers including Moody, WinePress, and BelieversPress, as well as for clients including Dirk Cussler, McNair Wilson, DiAnn Mills, Heather Day Gilbert, and Sammy Tippit.

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