The first trick to create perfect book titles is not to get too attached to them. The writer often agonizes over the title, finally settling on one she thinks is perfect for the book, only to have the editor dismiss it, with a seemingly insensitive flick of the wrist. Since the author has been living with that title for years, she can’t imagine the book going by any other name. When my editor told me, under his breath, as if he didn’t really want to tell me, “We’ve got to work on the title,” I had to hang up the phone. It took me three days to call him back and hear him out.
And what does “perfect” mean when it comes to book titles? It means a title that gets the book noticed and sold, remembered, repeated, reviewed; one that makes the book easily found, gets it shelved in the proper section of the bookstore, and not mistaken for a similar title; one that intrigues without confusing, that stands out as fresh while also giving off some sense of what the book is about; one that’s not so much of a downer it repels readers. A perfect title is not necessarily a beautiful title, or a clever pun, or one with double meanings which become clear only after you’ve read the book.
The job of a book title–and a book cover, too–is to get potential readers to pick up the book and take a closer look at it. And then to buy it–publishing books is, after all, a business, and even nonprofit artsy small presses want to sell their books. So the title, and the cover, are pieces of real estate that really belong to the sales, marketing, and publicity departments of your publisher. The author, with guidance from the editor, owns what’s inside the book. But it’s usually best for the book to let the experts have their way, or at least their say, with the front and back covers. If they’re good, these people know their business; they talk to booksellers at bookstores all over the country, and they know what titles are moving.
My first title for my memoir was Every Girl Has Her Story, which was quickly rejected by publishers who felt–rightly so–that readers would not be compelled to pick up a book about the mundane life of an Everygirl. As I revised the book, and focused it more on the effects of poverty on the soul, I re-named it How to Have Not, with each chapter title a sarcastic directive for remaining poor (“Start With Parents Who Marry by Accident”). Oh, I thought I was so damned clever. Then, after I struck a deal with a publisher, came that phone call with my editor. He let me know that I wasn’t so clever after all; that, in fact, there was a whole slew of How To titles for non-How-To books; that the title would get my book shelved in the real How-To section of bookstores, instead of the memoir section, and that readers looking for memoirs would overlook it. “How do you feel about just To Have Not?” he asked me.
After three days, I felt fine about it. Soon, I felt more than fine. I felt honored to share a phrase with the Hemingway title To Have and Have Not. I liked how short and easy to remember it is. I loved its quirky abruptness, the way it made people stop for a moment, thinking, “that sounds familiar” and “that sounds different” at the same time. And I appreciated the way it hinted at the content of the book. It was, in the end, the perfect title.