Thursday, September 1, 2011

What's in a name? Do killer book titles matter?

Thanks to my fellow Ngaio Marsh Award judge Graham Beattie of the always-informative Beattie's Book Blog, yesterday I came across an interesting blog post (from Katie Ganshert - an aspiring author from the US Midwest) about the importance of finding a great, not just good, title for your novel. In her blog post, Gansher talks about her struggle to find a great title for her first novel, and how all the options she considered had to be measured against three key criteria:
  • It has to represent the story: "I want a title that is unique and meaningful to not just a line in the book, but to the entire story," says Ganshert, who is looking for a title "chock-full of meaning".
  • It has to be intriguing: "I don't want it to sound like a million other titles already published on Amazon. I look for something different. Original. Not cliche. Something that elicits a sense of intrigue," says Ganshert, who used an example of  SUMMER SNOW (juxtaposition of snow in summer catches attention).
  • It has to sound good: "Titles shouldn't make tongues twist or noses wrinkle. They should be pleasing to read and say," says Ganshert, who is a fan of alliterative titles.
The blog post, from an author who isn't a crime writer, got me wondering about the importance of a good title for crime and thriller novels. It also got me reflecting on the titles of the most recent books I've read. In all honesty, I don't think I picked any of them from the shelf because of their title, but rather because of their author, or a recommendation, etc. But can titles be important? Like book covers can be important?

Here are some of the most recent books I've read:
  • SIX SECONDS by Rick Mofina (currently reading) - a geopolitical thriller. Clearly, six seconds refers to a race-against-the-clock aspect of the novel, although I haven't yet discovered if there is any secondary or layered meaning to the title also.
  • THE AFFAIR by Lee Child - a prequel to the Jack Reacher series, where Reacher is still an Army MP, involved in a murder case outside an army base in America's rural South. The title is simple, not that unique, but can denote a couple of different things about the book.
  • THE ACCIDENT by Linwood Barclay - another terrific 'suburban suspense' novel, that is kickstarted by, you guessed it, an accident (a DUI traffic accident) - but is it an accident?
  • RETRIBUTION by Val McDermid - the latest Tony Hill and Carol Jordan book, which sees the return of serial killer Jacko Vance who escapes from prison, and is after, that's right, retribution.
  • THE RIDGE by Michael Koryta - a supernatural thriller with plenty of interesting characters and mysterious happenings, all tied to a mountain ridge.
  • THE COLOR OF LAW by Mark Gimenez - a modern-day ode to To Kill a Mockingbird, where a high-flying wheeler-dealer Texas corporate lawyer is forced to defend a black hooker who's accused of killing an important senator's son. While issues of racism arise, as becomes clear through Gimenez's interesting legal thriller, in modern times, it's the colour of money, even more so than skin, that really segregates people now.
So it seems that most of the crime fiction titles aren't too poetic or multi-layered - they are quite direct and on point, having meaning to the story without necessarily being that unique or memorable. Does this matter? I'm not sure. I must say, I am a fan of some of James Lee Burke's novel titles - PURPLE CANE ROAD, INTO THE ELECTRIC MIST WITH CONFEDERATE DEAD, CIMARRON ROSE, CADILLAC JUKEBOX, etc - I really do love the poetry and 'sound' of those titles, which always end up having some meaning tied into the story, although not always what you expect. But I don't think it necessarily harms most other crime fiction titles from not having that same level of uniqueness or poetic 'sound'. What do you think?

I did have a period of reading last year where it seemed almost every book I read had 'Blood' somewhere in the title - but I guess with crime fiction certain words, or images, will of course crop up again and again.

Then of course there are some authors who have themed titles throughout a series - for example, James Patterson's earlier Alex Cross novels all had the nursery rhyme/children's poem or song element - ROSES ARE RED, KISS THE GIRLS, ALONG CAME A SPIDER, POP GOES THE WEASEL etc. And sopme of Val McDermid's novels have titles taken in part from poems by TS Eliot - WIRE IN THE BLOOD, THE MERMAID'S SINGING, etc.

Does a good title matter? Or only if you are a lesser-known author? As a reader, are you drawn to a title, like you might be to a cover (meaning you might pick a book up, or investigate it more online, potentially giving the author more chance to convince you to buy it)? Does it matter more for some types of novels than others? What are your favourite crime titles? I'd love to get your opinions and examples on this matter.


  1. OF COURSE they matter! It's apparent from all kinds of studies and surveys that book titles, in all genres, are important to potential readers.
    Emphasis on potential, also possible buyers. What is much less certain is what constitutes a "good" or "great" title.

    That's like the rules for good writing. There are three but nobody knows what they are.

    For every "rule" of good titles, there are a thousand successful exceptions.

    Brookins rule: The title must evoke the story.

  2. Titles are quite low on the list for what draws me to a book. I'm generally looking for crime fiction, so the style of the cover is a better guide to charting a path between Night Prowler (fluffy tabby cat on a windowsill with flowers) and Night Falls (montage of handgun and body sprawled on wet city street). Christopher Brookmyre has interesting titles (A Big Boy Did it and Ran Away) but it's the bright and funky cover design that tells me the book is readable.

  3. Hm.
    Authors definitely matter much more to me. A few boring or silly titles have put me off, but reviews, authors and covers are the aspects that draw me in.

  4. NB: I think my reading crime fiction in 3-4 languages makes me ignore titles more than most readers. Some books have marvellous titles in one language and ridiculous titles in another. So that may explain why they matter so little to me.

  5. Craig - I would say with Dorte that the author is much more important to me than the title is. If I don't know the author, then I choose based on recommendations from people I trust. The title really isn't so much of a draw for me.

  6. Craig,

    Authors and subject matter are what I look at to decide. There are exceptions, of course, but generally titles are not that important.

  7. personally, I can't remember the last time I bought or decided to read a book based on its title - but there probably have been times I've been browsing in a store where a particular title has caught my eye and made me investigate that book further (pick it up, read the back etc). It's hard to know - maybe not as important with crime novels?