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Naming Your Baby: You Can Judge A Book By Its Title

Pub Date: Feb 1, 1997 | Columnist: Jim Hornfischer

"People who say you can't judge a book by its cover have never aimed to sell one."

Naming Your Baby: You Can Judge A Book By Its Title

By Jim Hornfischer, Agent for The Literary Group International and Former New York Book Editor

As I go about the business of twisting publishers' arms to render happy decisions on the clients I represent, I keep a mental short list of the all-time greatest book titles. This is no mere exercise in trivia, no sheep-counting ploy to keep myself awake while an acquisition board trudges toward consensus. No, in the Age of the Vanishing Attention Span, in the Land of the Forty-Thousand-Title Superstore, in the Day of the Great Unread Bestseller, a good title is the key that can unlock a book's success.

All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten

Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All

The names of these bestsellers by Robert Fulghum and Allan Gurganus rank high on my list. In one tight sentence Fulghum spoke to anyone weary of life's complexity and appreciative of childhood's formative power. Gurganus, a serious literary writer, applied a gloss of tabloid allure to his 350,000-word historical doorstop. Knopf laughed all the way to the Book-of-the-Month Club.

People who say you can't judge a book by its cover have never aimed to sell one. They may have read a few, may even have reviewed one. And that's very well and good. Just know that the bible of the book industry in 1997 is Publishers Weekly, which gleefully reports sales figures, not the New York Review of Books, which doesn't quote it. If this sounds like a sign of the literary Apocalypse, remember: A different kind of end-of-the-world story awaits the writer who fails to sell her books.

Now if your last name is Grisham or Updike, if you run a cult which buys from the bindery in bulk, you don't need to be that fussy. You can paste on the cover whatever sequence of alpha-numerics you like. Emblazoned in embossed foil relief at the top of the jacket, your book's title effectively is "Grisham" or "Updike" and you're free to title your books with randomly selected legal terms or odd pairings of animal names and Latin lingo.

The market isn't so kind to people who aren't the author of Rabbit Redux. I'm in that boat. After the Republican Congressional sweep I bowed to opportunism and decided to assemble a book of conservative quotations. (I wouldn't insult a real writer by asking her to do that.) Publishers wouldn't have paid such close attention had the title Right Thinking never popped into mind. But it did, and they did. I had a contract faster than Hillary can order an FBI file. When I first opened LGI's Austin office, a writer came to me with a strong proposal for a history of humanity's symbiotic existence with dogs. We didn't sell it until we changed the title from The Dog Lover's Book of Dog History to a more sharply angled The Lost History of the Canine Race.

Now Mary Elizabeth Thurston and I are laughing all the way to the Book-of-the-Month Club.

I represent an urban activist named Carl Upchurch. Turns out he had an easier time orchestrating the national gang peace summit in 1993 than he did finding a title I liked for his memoir. In the midst of my research on conservatism, I kept shooting down the title he was pushing, Convicted in the Womb. "People will hate it," I told him. "It sounds like you're blaming others for your problems." So we placed the book with Bantam as Let There Be Hope. When a year later the publisher decided something sharper- edged was needed, Carl had his revenge. Convicted in the Womb: One Man's Journey from Prisoner to Peacemaker is free on parole, in hardcover at a store near you. A conservative radio host who airs in 125 markets hates the title so much that he's just asked Carl to be a guest on the show. I doubt our flaccid original title ever would have gotten his attention.

In nonfiction, simplicity can be king. Clint Richmond and I probably tried too hard when we sold Pocket a book titled Photographs and Memories. The publisher knew better, retitled the book Selena!, and darned if we didn't move 650,000 copies–and straight into the No. 1 spot on the New York Times bestseller list.

Study what's selling. Let your right brain do variations on a theme. With the right title, your book will be a marketer's dream. He'll sell the heck out of it. And he won't even have to read it. Jim Hornfischer is a former New York book editor. He now heads the Austin office of The Literary Group International.

Copyright, Jim Hornfischer, 1997