Saturday, 12 September 2020

What's in a title?

There's much more to getting one's novel to the reader than merely writing, editing and proof-reading the text. I learnt a number of lessons by publishing through Amazon Kindle - this post is prompted by just one - the title.

I originally called my first novel 'A Woman Wept'. That title had the merit of being the last line of the book, it touched directly on an important, though not pivotal, moment in the story and, at just three words, was pretty snappy and memorable. Up close – and by that I mean from the viewpoint of the author who'd sweated over the story's structure, the grammar, the development and the editing – it seemed not a bad title. Then I stepped back, figuratively speaking, and tried to see the title from the viewpoint of a putative reader considering mine from a list of ten or more novels on an Amazon page. That gave me a completely different perspective. I found myself conjuring images of kitchen-sink dramas, of depressing if worthy tales of domestic, family tragedy, personal loss – and suddenly the title didn't seem nearly as suitable as I'd first thought. I don't know if it's true but I wouldn't be surprised if the big commercial publishing houses don't have whole departments devoted to inventing titles for their authors' works. That surmise seems to be born out by a quick look down the list of best-sellers, most of which have titles of the snappy variety. Then again some traditional authors get away with what would otherwise be unsaleable titles; take Peter Weiss, for example. His book The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade is highly considered by critical readers.

So, in the tradition of 'brainstorming sessions' so beloved by companies when I was working for one, I cleared my desk and my mind and tried decide what my story was about at its core and then work on a title that was relevant, snappy and saleable. I won't spoil the story if you haven't read it but at its heart is an unresolvable difference between a father and his stepson. Many people would think that merely accepting that the difference of opinion exists and allowing each party to live their lives without reference to each other would be a practical solution, but not only would that not make for an exciting story but we've all heard or know of people who can't be that sensible. Much of the story relates ways in which the protagonists exercise their disagreement and seek vengeance for the supposed hurt. Starting from that line of thought I eventually found a delightful quotation from Machiavelli, 'Never do an enemy a small injury'. That had a degree of sarcasm that appealed to me but as a title the clause didn't score high on the 'snap-ometer'. Yet I felt it was close and finally chose my title by reducing the quotation to 'A Small Injury'.

But my publishing education still wasn't over. I designed the cover, added a subtitle for the first only time and published to Amazon. Very quickly the company decided the book met their various criteria and my debut novel was published. Unfortunately, in my ignorance I'd not run the title through Amazon's search engine. That would have shown clearly what I still had to discover when my novel went on sale. I searched on the title within the 'books' filter and was thrilled when my book appeared at the top of the first page. What was less thrilling was that among other books the Amazon search engine considered met by the search term, 'A Small Injury', was a selection of books aimed at veterinary surgeons explaining ways to treat injuries to small animals! Oddly, I haven't yet received a message from a vet explaining that my book was probably the least helpful volume he'd read before operating on a small animal.

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