Have you been beating your head against the wall looking for ways to entertain, engage, inspire and inform your audience? Well, don’t kill the messenger, but here’s some bad news for you: you’ve been wasting your time. What does it take to entertain, engage, inspire and inform your audience? The answer lies in the past. In the choices made by others like you were who struggled to connect with an audience. And the lesson that lies back there in the past is quite suggestive.
The most important thing to be found on a book cover these days is the name of the author. If the author is popular and well-known, the name of the person who wrote a book will exhibited in a much larger font in a more prominent position than the actual title of the book. It was not always thus. In fact, selling a novel by making the name of the author that appeared on the cover larger than the title is a relatively recent invention in the world of publishing. If you don’t believe me, take a gander at this collection of first editions of incomparably famous novels and and pay special attention to the size of the title compared to size of the (famous) authors’ names.
Those looking to entertain, engage, inspire and inform audiences might believe that the value of a catchy title is not as vitally important anymore. The very same title that would have wound up in the dollar bin at the grocery store if the nobody recognized the author’s name will be the runaway bestseller of the year if the author is a celebrity. Regardless of the content of the book. Evidence for this can be found in the sales figures of novels by authors Richard Bachman and Robert Galbraith. That is to say, the sales figures of those novelists before it was discovered that they were in fact, respectively, Stephen King and J.K. Rowling.
Clearly, success is entirely dependent on name recognition. But does the evidence really support that conclusion? Maybe the inability of Bachman and Galbraith to entertain, engage, inspire and inform audiences until their true identity was revealed not as clear-cut as it seems. Maybe the reason that “Thinner” and “The Cuckoo’s Calling” tanked was not because the cover sported the names the names Richard Bachman and Robert Galbraith. Maybe the reason those books initially failed to entertain and engage readers was due to those other words on the cover.
What difference does a title make when it comes to inspiring sales? And what can you learn about marketing anything from the value placed on titles? Consider whether the following books everybody knows by name even if they’ve never read them–and most people probably haven’t–would have informed the world of literature to the degree they did if the authors hadn’t made one very significant change.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy Remember the “Seinfeld” episode where Jerry convinced the inexplicably gullible Elaine that the original title of “War and Peace” was actually “War: What is it Good For?” That title might make Leo Tolstoy’s backbreaker a bestseller today, but one imagines that the novel would be not be nearly as inspiring to college professors. What if Leo Tolstoy had gone with one of his original title choices: ” All’s Well that Ends Well ” instead? Yeah, just like the Shakespeare play. And that’s the really weird part: Leo Tolstoy is nearly as famous for his contempt for Shakespeare as he is for “War and Peace.” What was up with that tentative nod to the Bard?
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Hard to imagine “The Great Gatsby” being called anything else. Well, not really. Let’s be serious for a moment: does anyone really think that Jay Gatsby is all that great? Even so, you have to admit that “The Great Gatsby” probably inspired more readers to pick up Fitzgerald’s novel than would have ” Trimalchio in West Egg.” What does that even mean? And here’s the important lesson to take from this footnote in literary history. Can you imagine word of mouth for Gatsby’s tale getting off the ground at all if it had depended on one person telling another about this great book they read called “Trimalchio in West Egg.” You want to engage your audience? Don’t give them a title that makes them feel like an idiot when they try to repeat it.
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
You are probably already aware that the final line spoken in the film version of “Gone with the Wind” was the intended title of the novel. “Tomorrow is Another Day” lacks the evocative grace of “Gone with the Wind” but it sure as heck is at least equally apt. What seems far less likely to become the runaway bestseller of the 1930s that was turned into the most successful movie marketing gimmick for the most successful movie of the half-century is a book called “Tote the Weary Load.” Of all the would-be titles for all the classic novels ever written, surely “Tote the Weary Load” must rank at or very near the top in terms of being the one least likely to engage, inspire or inform anyone enough to ever allow them to be entertained.
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
John Steinbeck came up with more than a few great titles in his time and “Of Mice and Men” ranks up there with “The Grapes of Wrath” as among his best. Add in “East of Eden” and “The Winter of Our Discontent” and you’ve got a writer who clearly knows the power of engaging an audience. So, then, what on earth could have prompted him to consider, however briefly, calling his short novel about friendship ” Something That Happened.” Seriously? “Something That Happened” as the title of a novel? Or even a novella? Just ask Joseph Heller how well a title like that goes over. His follow-up to the massively successful novel that informed an entire generation, “Catch-22,” was titled “Something Happened.” Not quite the same thing, but close enough. “Catch-22” sold bazillions of copies and “Something Happened” sold about five copies. Thankfully, John Steinbeck recognized the potential for disaster that eluded Heller.