How much do book titles matter?
Unfortunately, I would have to say that titles matter, sometimes a great deal but but maybe not quite in the way the question means; I find myself focused more on series nomenclature. For example, Tamsyn Muir’s Nona The Ninth just dropped and we’re all just shivered to our very timbers about it, but its unexpected arrival between Harrow The Ninth and the forthcoming Alecto The Ninth causes a wrinkle: What was once The Locked Tomb Trilogy has now officially become The Locked Tomb Series, and for reasons I can’t fully explain that change just sounds so generic and boneless to me. Maybe it’s just years of BookBub and Daily Kindle Deals subscriptions and its endless barrage of The Arglebargle Series and The Butt-Toucher Chronicles and The Sequence Of Romance Novels In Which A Ranch Is Run By An Improbable Number Of Shirtless Brothers; it’s certainly not fair that an appeal to novelty can swing so much lumber in a game with so many balls, but we are creatures built to notice patterns, which means noticing when things don’t fit the pattern.
Almost any unique series-nomenclature is enough to draw the eye; the sequels to The Sisterhood Of The Traveling Pants are styled as The Second/Third/etc. Summer Of The Pants, and that’s just automatically more memorable and intriguing than The Traveling Pants Series, not only because it’s impossible to confuse with anything else but because it displays at least a hint of personality; similarly, Tom Ripley’s adventures/antics/murders across Patricia Highsmith’s oeuvre is referred to collectively as The Ripliad, The Way Of Kings and its descendants comprise The Stormlight Archive, Martha Wells’ lovable sociopathic sentient military AI who just wants to watch TV records its hilarious hatred for us all in The Murderbot Diaries, all of which are enticing and unique names indicating both a sense of identity and that they consider themselves part of a complete work, not just an endless string of sequels to a first book that sold well.
Inversely, there are plenty of fantastic series that could easily doom themselves to obscurity by having names that, despite their uniqueness, are still bafflingly garbage; e.g. The Dead Djinn Universe (P. Djèlí Clark’s amazing afropunk magitech alternate 1920’s Cairo), Set In The World Of The First Law (Joe Abercrombie’s fantastic followup to his exquisite The First Law Trilogy), and The Craft Sequence (Max Gladstone’s incredible theological heist/stock market novels).
I realize that titles and covers and branding and similar are not always up to the author, and I have no response to that.
Have you ever read or not read a book based on the title alone?
I actually have to do this frequently because of the particulars of my way; I consume a fairly large volume of comics, and I trawl the Comixology release schedule at least six months out to do preorders, see when I need to read a previous volume by in order to be current, for the new volume, and harvest blurbs and authorial information to do some pre-work for my weekly lists. (That’s right: I have a document filled with six months’ worth of upcoming comic release info; it’s the only way to stay ahead of the game.)
But what this frequently means is that I’m placing orders well before cover art is available and taking a mighty big gamble based on title; sometimes this is due to what the title indicates (yeah obviously I’m buying Blade Runner 2019 thanks), but is frequently based just on the bonkersness of the title itself (Skull-Face Bookseller Honda-San, Bubba Ho-Tep And The Cosmic Blood-Suckers, Heterogenia Linguistico, God Hates Astronauts Vol. 1: The Head That Wouldn’t Die!, Generic Kowloon Romance).
As for not buying based on title, I think this falls into two categories: those that have titles revealing their obvious lack of appeal to you (Ann Coulter’s In Tr*mp We Trust: E Pluribus Awesome!, Author’s-Kink-Specific Fifty Shades Of Grey Ripoff #914, or The Politically Incorrect Guide To Islam), and those against whom we hold a grudge not even for linguistic or subject-matter reasons, but because we find their fans or cultures distasteful and might otherwise have enjoyed them if we gave them a chance (The Book Thief, The Kite Runner, A Prayer For Owen Meany, Twilight). I honestly don’t think the first kind is even a problem; if we’ve learned anything from the past few years, it’s to believe someone when they tell you what they are. As for the second kind, 90% of that is just a matter of getting over yourself and deciding not to let your baseless prejudices (as opposed to the aforementioned based ones) prevent you from experiencing things outside your normal wheelhouse; the thought of detective fiction once not only bored me but made me feel anxious and depressed with its trappings of dusty, bored suburban homes filled with nothing good to read, but ever since a long-lost friend turned me on to The Dresden Files, I’ve branched out and am now an avowed fan of (admittedly niche-genre) detective fiction, such as The Fletch Mysteries, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, Disco Elysium, and The Rabbi Small Mysteries. My life would be considerably less rich without those, and if I’d allowed my eye-rolling for the humble PI to outweigh the fact that Harry Dresden is also a fucking wizard, I would probably never have encountered them. As discussed in above re: titles mattering, I also have a strong disinclination toward generic or non-descriptive titles just because they seem low-effort or indicative of flatness, but if I’d let that stop me I would never have read some of my other favorites, like Giant Days, The Lies Of Locke Lamora, or my favorite book, Cannery Row.
Do you like long or short book titles better?
I have a deeply stupid bias on this question, especially for someone who is enjoying the hell out of R.F. Kuang’s Babel, Or, The Necessity Of Violence: An Arcane History Of The Oxford Translator’s Revolution which, re: the above question, I would’ve bought based on that title alone even if I hadn’t already been a huge fan of R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War trilogy.
Any reader of my site or just person who knows me is familiar with my long habit of tracking every book I read in monthly and annual lists (or they might’ve just read the last Let’s Talk Bookish I did, which was on that very topic); either will clue you in as to my feelings on title length, because I gotta write this shit down.
That’s just a function of the way I recordkeep, obviously, and has no bearing on anything, but since when have we let the fact that things “aren’t real” and “have no power over us” and “seem like a cry for help” stop us from letting them control our lives?
Do you think the title has to connect to the story in some way?
Nope! Or rather, not a preexisting one; the pattern-seeking, connection-making nature of the human mind ensures that by the time we finish a book, we’ll be able to cobble something together, whether literal or metaphorical. I’m not gonna name any, for fear that the connection is actually very obvious and I’ll just make a fool of myself. Nice try, internet; you gotta get up a little earlier in the day to make me admit The Name Of The Rose doesn’t make any sense as a ti–FUCK, HOW’D YOU DO THAT, YOU WIN THIS ROUND YOU RASCALS, POINT INTERNET.
What are some of your favorite book titles?
I’m just gonna rummage through my Books Read lists and grab some shinines; let’s have a gander:
- The Way Of Kings (my other favorite book)
- Sex Criminals (because it doesn’t mean at ALL what it looks like)
- An Arsonist’s Guide To Writer’s Homes In New England
- Full Dark, No Stars
- Downtown Owl
- The Diamond Age, Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer
- Dave Barry Slept Here: A Sort Of History Of The United States
- Transmetropolitan, Vol. 9: The Cure
- Ms. Marvel, Vol. 7: Damage Per Second
- All The Wrong Questions #4: Why Is This Night Different From All Other Nights?
- The Sandman, Vol. 10: The Wake
- Bitch Planet, Vol. 2: President Bitch
- The Scarlet Gospels
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, Part Five: Mostly Harmless
- The First Law Trilogy, Book 3: Last Argument Of Kings
- Kaijumax, Season Three: King Of The Monstas
- Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles
- The Goon, Vol. 4: Virtue, And The Grim Consequences Thereof
- The Goon, Vol. 8: Those That Is Damned
- The Goon, Vol. 12: Them That Raised Us Lament
Look, Eric Powell is just great at volume-titles, okay.
So that’s me! What about you all? When did you get over hating books just because they were popular? What embarrassing trends did you notice in your lists of favorite titles? Will that Relatable Heroine ever manage to tame the heart of one of the brothers who runs that shirtless ranch, and if so will it be the cop, the firefighter, the Navy SEAL, the doctor, the bad-boy billionaire CEO, or the ones that are each of those except they’re werewolves? Lemme know in the comments!
Until next time, take care of yourselves, take care of each other, wear your goddamn masks, and when you think about it, The Ripliad would’ve been a better name than Alien Quadrilogy.
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