Before we get into the meat of it, let me try a magic trick. Ready? Okay, my eyes are closed… You and I have never met before, right? Right. Okay, let me concentrate here. I’m sensing something… Yes, it’s becoming a little clearer now. I see you at a desk. Not now, but at some time in your past. You were doing something at that desk. Drawing? Maybe writing? It’s hard to tell – these visions don’t give me details – just vague impressions. But you were definitely doing something at that desk, and quite intently, too. I’m going to take a leap here and guess, but were you perhaps working on a book of some kind? A fantasy novel or maybe a comic book? Graphic novel, even? Amazing, huh? Aren’t you shocked? How, you might ask, was I able to guess so much without ever having even seen your face? My eyes are closed for crying out loud!
Okay, enough of the hokey stuff. Obviously, you came here because you either have a book or you plan to have a book, and you were hoping to learn some secret about how to get people to pay attention to it. That’s a tall order, you know. According to Wikipedia, there were 328,259 books published in the USA during 2010, and approximately 2.2 million books published around the world, and I don’t think that number even counts self-publishing. That’s almost 900 new books per day in the US and over 6000 per day around the world. The numbers are staggering. And yet, we pursue the dream anyway. We timidly add our measly little 1 to the total and hope that somebody will pick it up. Sure, in an optimistic world, they would do more than just pick it up. In that “it could happen but it will never happen to me” kind of world, they would go beyond just picking it up. They’d actually buy it. Then they’d tell all their friends about it and then book time on Oprah or Ellen or Letterman so they could tell the whole world to buy it. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s just focus on getting them to pick the damned thing up…
So let me ask you, why exactly did you come to my site just now? I don’t mean “What need do you have that brought you here?” We’ve already established what your need is – you want people to notice your book. What I mean is, “What made you decide to visit my blog today?” All glib possibilities aside, the answer is simple: I told you that I have what you need. In fact, I didn’t just tell you that I have it – I promised you that I have it. I guaranteed that I have it. And I do. The proof lies in the fact that you actually came here. Getting you to come here to read this article is the online equivalent of getting you to “check out my book.”
And I did it all with my title.
If I had titled this article: “The importance of getting the title right,” some of you might still have come, but nowhere near as many. And if I had titled it, “Studies in mauve and melancholy,” no doubt some strange few might still have been lured in by its artistry (or maybe by its sheer befuddling oddity) but I would not be getting visitors by the hundredweight. Accurate titles are not enough, and artsy titles might satisfy your inner Shelley, but they aren’t going to do the job they really could be doing for you.
No, for the really big impact, you have to give your intended audience something truly audacious: a promise. A promise that what awaits them within is not just something they’ll enjoy – it’s something they need to read. I don’t know about you, but there are some titles out there that just grab me by the eyelids and scream into my frightened pupils: READ ME! Think Pride, Prejudice and Zombies, or Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Whether the story or the writing are any good is entirely beside the point. Titles like that are just compelling as hell. But this isn’t a new phenomenon. Who could resist the apparent contradiction of Steal This Book? How could anybody possible turn their backs on a combination of Zen Buddhism and motorcycle repair? Good titles like these don’t just damage your eyelids – they tantalize, they taunt, they sneak into some portion of your conscious mind and insert themselves like a roughened tooth that the tongue of your brain just can’t help revisiting day in and day out until you finally say, “Enough!” and race to the book store so you can at last satisfy their incessant call.
But how, oh, how do we do that?
Good question.We’re not all Seth Grahame-Smith or Robert M. Pirsig. And to be honest, I’m not sure that it can actually be done after the book is written. Maybe sometimes. If you’re lucky. In truth, I think these things need to be planned in advance. If you’re one of those tortured-soul writers who seek divine inspiration and enslave themselves to the whimsy of their muse, you might want to look away, but I have another secret to share with you. Consider it a peace offering for the rather manipulative way I brought you here. Ready?
Your book is a product. It’s supposed to be for sale.
I totally get that you’re a writer, not a sales geek, and that selling the book is somebody else’s job, but you do realize that somebody has to sell this thing, right? Would you make dancing shoes with rusty nails sticking up through the insoles? Would you sell teddy-bears with exposed high-voltage wiring where the button-nose is supposed to be? Of course not. Yet for some reason, many writers think that their publisher’s sales force should be able to make hay from a romance novel called “Towards Enlightenment in the Dawning Renaissance of Taxation and Accountancy ” because the author thought it sounded cool and now has become used to it.
This is exactly why when the editor loves the book and sends the contract, she is reluctant to give the author any creative control. After all, he’s the guy who proposed that idiotic “Taxation” title. Clearly he knows nothing about actually selling books. So the lesson is, don’t make the sales job harder than it already is. Remember those 900 new American books each day. Each and every one of them is competing for attention with the same people you want to reach. With all that working against you, why would you not give the sales team something they can actually sell? And let’s not just do a half-assed job at it, okay? Let’s start at the very conception of your book, at the very beginning. Treat it as though it was a product you were hoping to sell, because that’s exactly what it is. And every great product starts with a great concept. For us, though, with our new-found sense of commeraderie with the sales force, it isn’t enough that we start our book from a great premise. Nope, we’re going to boil it down even further. If you want to write a book that makes people take notice, then start your writing before you start writing. Before the premise. Before the backstory of the grizzled veteran and the plucky street punk even has time to form. Put all your energy into writing the most important 3-6 words your book will ever have. Come up with the world’s greatest title. The rest will be easy.
Discussion: So with that kind of setup, I’m dying to hear your take on the titles that just keep haunting you until you check out the book. Maybe we can learn something further from the list.