Chip MacGregor

August 24, 2010

When Good Titles Go Bad – from Amanda Luedeke


Going Nude: How I Kicked an Addiction, Gained a Dress Size, and Discovered the Real Me

The above title is a fictional example of a writer being too clever for her own good. Sure, it has everything. It’s perfectly-structured, in that the subtitle properly explains what the book is about, while the main title merely suggests at awesomeness. It has wording that makes passersby do a double-take. It’s catchy, relevant and zeroed in on its target audience.

And yet … it’s the very type of title that is exactly what a publisher asks for but not what they want.

Let’s break this down:

1)    Shock-value Words. SEX! PORN! DRUGS! SEX AGAIN! This is a serious soap box of mine. I’m sick and tired of writers trying to grab my attention with shock-value words. The worst part is they usually appear just like that … lined up in all caps. The truth of the matter is, yes, publishers want a title that grabs attention. One that’s in your face and, to some degree, shocking. But they’re never interested in titles that are offensive. Or creepy. Or just plain in bad taste. Though GOING NUDE would maybe fly with some publishers, others would simply roll their eyes and toss it aside. Because shock-value words always come across as cheap. Not to mention they tell the publisher that the author’s plan for selling the book has everything to do with a great title and cover. (And in case you haven’t heard Chip’s story, that plan’s already taken… by the publisher).

2)    Unintentional negatives. Even though the title clearly indicates that the author’s increased dress size did nothing to damage her confidence, appeal, or looks, readers aren’t going to see it that way. Imagine yourself in a bookstore, desperately looking for the perfect book to give your sister who’s struggling with an addiction. Are you going to choose the title in which the author’s victory resulted in 10 extra pounds or the one in which it didn’t? Subtle negatives like these turn great titles into horrible mistakes.

3)    Author implications. Let’s pretend that no one cared about the above-mentioned issues, and the book gets published. The author, Jane B. Doe, launches an extensive promotional campaign and sees a good response. She’s easily establishing herself as a force in drug-rehab circles. And then it starts. Readers, social media and even bookstore reps start referring to her as “that one Nude author”. You know, the one who “got fat after kicking meth”. Radio shows, talk shows, and interviews begin dwelling more on what it means to “Go Nude” than they do on the issue of methamphetamine addiction in the US. They spend more time grilling her on whether she’s satisfied with her newfound "curves" than her newfound career, family and lifestyle. See where I’m going here? It’s not their fault for missing the point. They’re merely trying to fill up their interview time, and, having not read the book, are looking for the simplest, most interesting questions.

And that, my friends, is how good titles go bad. If there’s anything that can be learned by this, it’s the importance of supplying the publisher/agent/editor with alternate titles. Not only does that let them know you’re flexible, it helps frame the picture.

Now, what’s a better title for Jane B. Doe’s book? How about:

Coming Clean: How I Kicked an Addiction, Gained a Husband, and Discovered the Real Me

Got any better (or worse) suggestions?

–Amanda Luedeke is a literary agent with MacGregor Literary


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