Listening to Frances Spalding on Start the Week last month reminded me of a small obsession: the value of memorable words in a book title. She thinks a good title ‘acts as a capstone’ to a work, and must be ‘wholly at one with the book’. That may well be true, but for shameless unit-shifting reasons, I say a good title is also a memorable one. And a memorable one almost always includes at least one decent noun.
Animals, objects and famous places are easy to remember. And if you can remember the title of a book, or at least a bit of it, then you can ask for it in a shop, or find it online and recommend it to a friend – that critical word-of-mouth factor that creates so many bestsellers.
This was wittily exploited by Penguin in their adverts for Two Caravans by Marina Lewycka:
This is clever for a number of reasons: most importantly it reflects perfectly the way readers actually talk about books. It doesn’t plunge immediately into detail about the plot, because readers don’t. It’s not over-reverential about the author, because readers aren’t. Instead it invites us to recall that we liked the last one so we’ll probably like this one. We can’t remember the last one’s title, or the author’s unpronounceable name, but it’s the new one from that tractors woman and we’ll probably give it a go.
A straw poll of booksellers reinforces the impression that book buyers need all the help they can get remembering book titles.
Dillons alumnus Mike Atherton (not that one, another one) remembers being asked for ‘that motorbike thing by Shaggy Vera’ (The Motorcycle Diaries, Che Guevara). Marie recalls the classic ‘it has some sushi on the front.’ Stephanie tells me that in her days at WH Smith ‘A Cross on the Nightingale's Door’ was nearly as popular an enquiry as the correct title (Across The Nightingale Floor). Wendy reports the priceless ‘set in Greece, about a man with a banjo’ from the Captain Corelli era.
And at the risk of turning this into a post mocking book buyers, I can't resist including this lovely scene in a shop witnessed by Shona Cook, a Canadian publishing friend (the ‘me’ is Shona):
Customer: I need to get that book about cookies. It's something about cookies.
Clerk: Cookies. Okay. (types into the computer) umm... there are quite a few books about cookies here.
Customer: Well it was on TV the other day. My wife saw it on TV.
Clerk: Um. Okay. There are really a lot of books about cookies. Can you tell me anything else about it?
Customer: It's something about making money and cookies. I don't know. She was going on about it at dinner but I wasn't really listening to her.
At this point, I realize which book they are looking for and turn to the clerk.
Me: I think the book you want is called The Smart Cookie’s Guide to Investing
Him: YEAH. THAT'S IT.
Clerk: Thank you.
Me: Your wife is a lucky woman.
And, rather than get properly back to the point, here's a story from Lucy Mangan, one of our own authors, ex of Waterstone's in Bromley, demonstrating that even a great title won’t be enough for some customers: ‘There's the one who came in saying he didn't know the title (‘Fine,’ I said, moving to the database screen) – or the author (‘Less fine’) but he knew it was ‘this shape’. He drew a rectangle in the air.’
And that brings us nicely on to what happens if you don’t have a memorable title.
Despite the outstanding efforts of India Knight and The Lutyens & Rubinstein Bookshop among others, I reckon the (absolutely brilliant) Important Artefacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris: Including Books, Street Fashion and Jewellery by Leanne Shapman will always be hampered by its impossible to remember title, despite the fact that the title is an ingenious and integral part of the novel itself. I have had about thirty conversations about it and no one (including me) has yet managed anything closer than ‘you know, the novel written like it’s an auction catalogue’. Test for yourself how hard this makes things: try and find it on Amazon twenty minutes after you’ve finished reading this.
In fact Amazon, and the importance of online search, makes a distinctive, memorable title more vital than ever. You'll need to get at least one word right to find the damn thing online.
A great title, as Frances Spalding puts it, will ‘catch passers-by’, but a bestselling title will stay in the mind of the passer-on.