Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Naked & The Damned

With the advent of print-on-demand technology, self-publishing, and e-publishing, it’s never been easier to publish a book.  And it’s never been harder to sell one. 

Nearly gone are the days when you could hope to see your book on a bookstore shelf.  In fact, if your book is on a bookstore shelf, you’re either already a famous author, or you trundled your own copies to your local bookstore to sell on spec.  The new reality is online.  Online is where books sell, but unless you have a great title, your book won’t be among them.

Write whatever you want, and write it well.  Figure out your online presence, your platform (that’s actually a whole topic unto itself), but central to any successful publication endeavor are a good cover and a good title. 

A good cover is harder than you think, and that’s where most self-publishers understandably get hung up.  Art is hard.  Art is what artists work hard to get good at.  A stock photo of two people holding hands on a beach with a 24-point Comic Sans title isn’t a good cover, and it isn’t going to generate any sales for Beach Lovin.’  And you shouldn’t have called it Beach Lovin’ in the first place, because it’s a dumb title. 

You’ll need to drop some money or some talent up front to get a good cover.  Otherwise, you’ll pay later in the form of lackluster sales and soul-crushing disillusionment.  Good covers might be hard, but good titles are not.  The problem is that we spent so much time working on the story, we neglect to put in the work to come up with a good title. 

Case in point:  Disney Movies, the folks who created Monsters, Inc, The Little Mermaid, and Toy Story, suffered a collective corporate embolism recently.  How do you take a story about a civil war soldier who gets teleported to Mars, and call it John Carter

Sorry, I just fell asleep there for a second.  Seriously, even calling it “The Guy who Got Teleported to Mars” would have been a step up.  If you ever write anything about Mars, rule number one is that the title must contain the word “Mars.”  Rules number two and three: the title must not contain the words “John” or “Carter.”

So the trick is to figure out what your story is about, and then take whatever time you need to develop a title that will grab a reader’s attention.  In today’s competitive publishing world, unless you can hook a reader with your title, it isn’t going to matter what you wrote because nobody will read it. 

That also means that you can indulge any obscure interest you like, and people will read your story if it has a great title.  For example, I’ve always wanted to write about two great passions of mine: semi-aquatic riparian zone rodents, and naturism.  My working title was “Semi-Aquatic Riparian Zone Rodents, and Naturism,” or SARZRN for short.

SARZRN - Chapter 1

Gary stepped softly, the rocks cool to his bare feet.  Rounding the next bend, he spotted the first beaver of the day.  He crouched down behind a boulder, chafing his backside against another boulder.  The beaver was huge, fifty pounds at least, its hair matted with mud and sticks.  Gary focused his camera and snapped his first shot.  Hearing the shutter click, the beaver threw its head back, startled.  “Easy,” Gary whispered.  “Easy.”

If you’re like me, not only do you love writing about riparian-zone rodents, you love reading about them too.  What’s going to happen to Gary next?  You want to know, don’t you?  But if you’re still like me, you should already be thinking about a better title.

SARZRN - Chapter 2

Pausing to apply yet another layer of sunscreen to his stomach, Gary watched the beaver swim out to the middle of the stream where two others made quick work of a pile of saplings, building their dam.  Suddenly, they stopped and turned toward the far bank.  “What’s this?”  Gary whispered to himself as a hiker came down the trail to the edge of the stream.  She was gorgeous. 

“Good morning, beavers,” she shouted, her voice piercing the morning silence, shattering his calm and sending the animals scurrying in every direction.

Gary watched in panic as she stomped across the stream, splashing his beloved beavers.  “Please,” he begged.  “Can you not make so much noise?”

She drew back, startled.  “Who are you?”


“Hi, Gary.”  She extended her hand.  “I’m Flo.  Why are you naked?”

You’re thinking love interest, aren’t you?  And let’s face facts, this is already the most fascinating story about beavers you’ve read in weeks.

SARZRN - Conclusion

“I’m a nudist,” Gary said, moving in for a hug, “or a naturist as we prefer to be called.  What about you?  What are you doing out here in the riparian zone, which means ‘by the stream?’  Are you lost?”

“No,” she said, holding up her book.  “I just came out to find a quiet place to read.”

Gary leaned in to read the title.  “Beach Lovin.’  Is it any good?”

“It is, but few people have heard of it, and sales are dismal.  What are you doing out here?”

“I study beavers in their natural habitat.  It really excites me.”

“I can see that.” 

Gary smiled and held her hand.


The moral of the story is as follows:  you can write whatever you like, but nobody is going to read it unless you hook them with a good title.  My beaver story is better than most, but you’d probably never give it a second glance unless I gave it a better title, something like “The Naked and the Damned.”

And if you get a chance, stop by my blog - it’s all about 18th century Dutch tax law.  You can find it at 


Jewel Amethyst said...

I guess you must understand my dilemma ... needing a great title and creatively handicapped in finding one.

You are right, a great title is just as much about advertizing and selling the book as the promotional blog tours, book signings, twittering, facebooking and the likes.

I have avoided movies (and I know others who have too) just because the title sounded silly.

William Doonan said...


I do understand your dilemma. I've been thinking about your story - it sounds great, but like you, I'm having a hard time capturing it in just a few words.

Sean Patrick Reardon said...

I think titles are even more important than the cover, as are the jacket blurb! Nice post!

Sunny Frazier said...

With tongue firmly planted in cheek, you made your point. Dam you, Bill Doonan!

Cora said...

I agree that titles and covers are very important. To me, cover is most important. It is what initially catches the eye. Then title, then blurb, then first page. But that's me.

john M. Daniel said...

Bill, perhaps you've heard the all-purpose title, guaranteed to sell to many niches:


William Doonan said...

Thanks, Sunny, Sean, Cora and John.

That's quite a title, John. I'm trying to envision the book cover!

Melanie Jackson, author, editor, piano student said...

There's no FBI in this Canadian novel of some years back, but -- erm -- the rest of your title is all in there, John Daniel. Bear, by Marion Engel. And you thought Canadians were quiet and well behaved.

deadpaintersgallery said...

Shouldn't that be "The Naked and the Dammed?"

Charles Gramlich said...

I agree. titles are critical. I know cover art is too, although I wish it wasn't.

marja said...

Beyond the quality of writing in a book, you hit the two most important issues of selling a book. Good job!! And thanks for the reminder.

Liane Spicer said...

I swear I would never have noticed John Carter in the movie lineup if my boy Willem Dafoe hadn't been in it. (I tend to keep an eye out for his movies.) Just typing the title there made my eyes glaze over.

You're really good at getting your point across with humor, aren't you? I'm signing up for one of your courses.

What? You don't teach LITS? Or writing? I'll take an archaeology elective. Any one will do. :D