- I Don’t Read That: Rejection, Feral Fiction, and Publishing
- Introducing Cosmorans: Appearance
- The Incredible Freedom of a Supportive Reader Community
- Polling for the title of my next novel?
Okay, so first of all:
Book titles are bullshit
There, I said it. They are hugely subjective, they need to fit on a cover yet also be unique, and no amount of research has convinced me that anyone has really figured them out. Big publishers favour simple, boring titles that won’t upset anyone. Sometimes the more bold novels have long, sentence-like titles that take up the whole cover or else are hard to read. Usually the title tells you very little about the book, beyond genre from the convention or keywords.
I include myself among this. My titles are, in my opinion, quite weak. But looking into this further has only convinced me that all titles are weak.
But as a self-published author, a title is also a key piece of sales strategy. And after despairing over the title of my work-in-progress novel (then titled Avari) for far too long, I decided; to hell with it. Let’s see what everyone else thinks.
So after making it clear that I was not going to abide by the results, I set up a poll and asked everyone who voted to explain their thinking.
And friends, it was really interesting and really stressful and clarified very little at all. I also think every author should do it at least once.
Above are the results of my poll. They bear very little resemblance to the results during the first half of the poll. Maybe folk from certain countries have different tastes than others, and that skewed the results. I find it hard to speculate in that regard as I have no hard data there.
What I do have are the results of 104 folk from fedi’s opinions on what I should title my book. Many of them replied with their reasoning, which was somehow both extremely illuminating and utterly opaque. What I am not going to do is cherry-pick replies and praise or mock them. What I am going to do is discuss trends in reasoning I saw. In many ways, the poll was a lot less useful than the responses. When choosing a title, it turns out I think the qualitative data is a lot more useful.
I don’t like that title for personal reasons
This was a pretty big category. It was not rude or irrelevant; it is a piece of the puzzle in its own way. People bring their histories to any title, and in a vaccum, that title reminds them of a book they didn’t like, or maybe it looks like a parody of something else, or maybe they read an article about titles with that structure being overdone.
Individually, personal reasons for disliking a title aren’t really relevant, but if it’s trend—even if the reasons are all different—perhaps the vibes are just off. And ultimately, a title is all about the vibe.
I had 104 respondants. That’s not a statistically significant pool, but it’s not nothing, either. The title that got the most personal dislike was ‘The Old Goat and the Alien’. Which was also the most popular title.
I find that title kind of boring
This is similar to ‘personal reasons’ and yet also a concrete thing. Maybe a title feels too generic. Maybe it just doesn’t really tell you anything about the novel. A lot of feedback fell into this category and if I’m honest, it made perfect sense to me. ‘Avari’ got a lot of this; as a fantasy character’s name, it’s a made up word. All it tells you is that the story is going to be SFF. But the title that got this the most was the second most popular title—and the title that lead the poll for most of the polling period. ‘Starfire and Stardust’ got this the most of any other title. Interestingly, this seemed to be something that recommended it to other people—not that it was boring, but that it was familiar. It sounded like something that already exists, or you would expect to find in a bookshop. Generic can be good if you want to know what you’re getting, and for many people ‘Starfire and Stardust’ was very clear on what it was selling.
So…it was boring but it was also pleasantly familiar. Professional, even.
That title confuses me
Sometimes a title gives you nothing at all, or worse, actively confuses you. ‘Avari’ got some of this, but ‘Fruitfur’ took the cake. Multiple people told me that the title ‘Fruitfur’ elicited a ‘huh?’ from them. And while several people also said that once they read the context for that title in the worldbuilding and story, they liked it a lot more…but. Well. The results bear out. With books, we do judge by the cover. And I think we pretty clearly judge by the title, too. ‘Fruitfur’ was the least popular title by a landslide, and while I am still really attached to it as the perfect title from the perspective of the story…a title that is only good once you’ve read the book is not exactly going to sell itself.
Thus, I wiped away a tear and let it go.
But let’s stop looking at why people didn’t like certain titles, and instead look at why they did.
That title makes me expect a story like X
This category covers positive associations…but not necessarily all the associations I was looking for. A lot of people responded with what kind of story they expected from a certain title. There were two titles that got this the most. For ‘Avari’, that was SFF of some kind with no qualifiers. For ‘The Old Goat and the Alien’, many people referenced fables or traditional storytelling or referenced authors that write the same.
For me, the problem was that the story I have written is neither a fable nor written in a traditional style. And that’s the most popular title, too.
Maybe I should have written a fable?
That title matches the mood of the book
The most important category of responses. I told people I was writing a cosy, slice-of-life space fantasy set on a planet of big sparkly animals, centred around meeting a human traveller. So whether they voted for a title or not, it mattered which titles they felt best matched that description. ‘Avari’ got some of this, almost always qualified by the fact that they associate it because it’s my WIP title and that’s how I’ve been talking about it. ‘Starfire and Stardust’ got a lot of this, and I think rightly so: the title is extremely sparkly, a bit fantasy, a bit space, and multiple people reported that it felt cosy. But the one that got this the most was ‘The Old Goat and the Alien’. And that surprised me! In components, it matches the description of the book—afterall, it’s a book about an ancient goat creature meeting an alien. And it has a fun twist in that the alien is the human. But I hadn’t thought of it as particularly cosy. It turns out, most people who voted for it, do. To the point where someone all-out described a cover that I was just then describing to my cover artist, and had told nobody else about.
So if I want a title that matches the mood of the book, there are two titles that stand out.
And unfortunately, nearly everyone who voted for one actively disliked the other.
So what do I choose?
Well…by the time the poll ended, I was feeling more confused than ever. The most popular options were also the most disliked options. The least popular options were confusing or utterly neutral. I want to sell these books! I don’t want people to dislike them purely based on the title! But I feel like my titles in the past have been decidedly neutral. Surely I can do better than that? Surely I can choose a title that, even without the cover, makes you feel something about the book?
I disike conflict. I like clarity. I looked at these results and thought, ‘I should just keep Avari. It was my WIP title and it doesn’t seem like it’ll ruffle any feathers’. But it also felt like…if I’m going to do that, why did I do this poll? Surely I have learned something from this experience?
And the more I thought about it
the more I thought ‘well…it’s kind of clear, isn’t it?’
Because the poll had a clear winner
and one title in particular seemed to make people feel things, one way or another
one title wasn’t being ignored
And ultimately, as much as I claimed I wasn’t going to abide by the results of the poll…I’m a crowdfunded author.
Maybe it’s time to do things a bit differently and see if it works out.
So…provided it will fit on the cover once I receive the cover art…I will be titling my upcoming novel, a queer, cosy, slice-of-life space fantasy, ‘The Old Goat and the Alien’.
Thanks so much to everyone who voted and responded. I think I learned a lot about titling from this. Titles are still bullshit, of course, but they do matter. And all of your responses moved me. This was a really difficult decision and somehow making this poll made it even harder. But it was a really fun experience, too, and I’m grateful for it.
Hopefully, I’ll see you again when ‘The Old Goat and the Alien’ goes live on Kickstarter. And if you didn’t vote for that title…I hope you won’t hold it against me!
This post, like all my work, is made with thanks to my supporters on ko-fi. If you’d like to support my writing, streaming, and creation, please do consider tipping or getting a membership.