Titles are almost as troublesome – and important – as covers. I’ve been told that for some readers the title is even more important than the cover. A good title is by definition intriguing, catchy, evocative, memorable and raises more questions than it answers. They don’t, however, at least in theory, have to be all that closely related to the subject of the book. I frequently hear phrases and think, “That would be a great title!” without even a ghost of a story in my head.
For example, when living in Nigeria I travelled with our regional medical officer, Dr. Jan, to visit an island just opposite Lagos and the busy port of Apapa on which, we were told, 50,000 people lived without medical facilities. When anyone on the island was seriously ill either a traditional herbalist was consulted or the patient had to be put in an open boat and transported across to Lagos or Apapa. While this was bad enough, the island was the suspected lair of local pirates that preyed upon the busy shipping lanes into Lagos/Apapa and especially those ships awaiting a berth at anchor off-shore. Since Nigeria is second only to Somalia in terms of the number of piracy incidents and 80% of the armed attacks on ships in Nigerian waters occur in or around Lagos, these pirates had to be taken seriously. The Regional Security Officer was understandably reluctant to let Dr. Jan and I take a small power boat across to the island for our visit with the traditional ruler and his council.
Eventually he approved and we set out with two Nigerian policemen armed with AK47s as escort/protection. We were landed next to a massive, wooden canoe into which we had to clamber and then walk to the bows to jump off onto the sandy, litter-strewn shore (no such thing as a dock or pier in this village). We walked between the one-story, plastered houses with tin or palm roofs and open doors and windows, scattering the chickens and goats. We passed the school where the children sat in open rooms on wooden benches facing greying chalkboards wearing neat, clean uniforms. Finally, at the Traditional Ruler’s house, we left our security escort outside to sit on mismatching old sofas in front of his armchair raised on a wooden pallet and listen to the Traditional Ruler relate the woes of his community with respect to medical care. Then we traipsed back the way we’d come and climbed again over the canoe to our boat to return to modern, bustling Lagos. And what does all this have to do with titles? Well, the name of the island was Tomaro, so we had just literally taken “The Boat to Tomorrow.” The perfect title! In fact, I proposed it as the title for a book about Dr. Jan and all the work she has done in communities like this. She certainly should write about her life, but she is too busy bringing medical care and education to those who need it most to write a book. So the title is just going to waste….
And then there is the whole issue of mindless search engines. Nowadays, so many books are sold on line, that titles really have to be related enough to the topic to enable search engines to find them by subject. If a reader has just read a great book on the American Civil War, example, and wants to find another, he/she is most likely to go to amazon.com and search by topic, typing in phrases such as “Civil War,” “Confederacy,” “War Between the States,” etc. Gone with the Wind would probably never get a hit – if it wasn’t already so famous that someone has manually put in a tag for it.
But tags can be tricky. That’s why publishers now suggest a catchy title followed by a descriptive subtitle, but search engines can be very finicky and I’m not sure the subtitle option works as well as descriptive titles.
To help me understand reader perspectives on titles, I’d like to hear your opinion of my titles. Please rate the titles below on a scale of 1 (bad/dislike) to 10 (super! I’d pick up a book with this title even if I knew nothing else about it). A score of 5 should indicate absolutely no feelings one way or the other. Thanks for your help!