Friday, January 13, 2006

The right title for a bestseller

Finding the right title for your literary masterpiece has long been considered a black art. For example, some thirty or forty years ago I came across a theory that the best title for a stage play consisted of a dactyl and a spondee. In other words, two words which, when pronounced, come out in the rhythm dah-di-di dum-dum. Long, short short; long long.

And now I suppose I have to think of an example, and the old brain is decidedly slow this morning. But, er... pause for thought...

How about Lesbia Brandon. Not a stage play, of course, but the unfinished novel by the nineteenth-century poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, a novel which so terrified his lawyer (with its incestuous theme, cross-dressing and so forth) that he pretended to lose several chapters, to discourage Algernon from ever finishing it and from trying to get it published.

Other examples, roughly speaking, would include Clifford Odets's Waiting for Lefty and William Gibson's Two for the See-Saw. Also my own stage play Artists and Models.

When we come to novels I know of no specific theory of titles as such. But now, thanks to Vince Vawter, who gave me the link, I can point you to some research into the titles of bestsellers which may, conceivably, lead you to fame and fortune. Or then again, perhaps not.

The research was evidently commissioned by Lulu.com, an outfit which will print your book for you in any one of a variety of formats. And, since they are in the business of encouraging writers to publish their books through the Lulu facilities, Lulu decided that it would be appropriate to offer some advice on titles which would maximise sales. Here's what Lulu says:

The Lulu Titlescorer has been developed exclusively for Lulu by statisticians who studied the titles of 50 years' worth of top bestsellers and identified which title attributes separated the bestsellers from the rest.

We commissioned a research team to analyse the title of every novel to have topped the hardback fiction section of the New York Times Bestseller List during the half-century from 1955 to 2004 and then compare them with the titles of a control group of less successful novels by the same authors.

The team, lead [sic] by British statistician Dr. Atai Winkler, then used the data gathered from a total of some 700 titles to create this "Lulu Titlescorer" a program able to predict the chances that any given title would produce a New York Times No. 1 bestseller.

The fruit of this work is presented here, in the form of the Lulu Titlescorer: a program that you can use to gauge the chances that your own title will deliver you a New York Times No. 1 bestseller.

Now, no wish to be unnecessarily rude about something which is little better than a bit of fun, but the last sentence is clearly nonsense; it will seriously embarrass Dr Winkler if he ever sees it. The Lulu web site itself says that using the Titlescorer software will deliver a result somewhere between 9% and 83%, which would suggest that almost one book in ten gets to the top of the NYT bestseller lists; at a minimum.

Furthermore, Lulu seems to have leapt to the absurd conclusion that it is titles alone which determine bestseller status. So, it's all nonsense, as I say. However, the Titlescorer might conceivably give you a few leads as to whether you're on the right track or not.

Just for fun, I ran a few of my own titles through the machine. This year's novel, which you will hear much more about soon, is entitled How and why Lisa's Dad got to be famous. This, Lulu reckons, has a 10.2% chance of success. My earlier novel, Passionate Affairs, written under the name Anne Moore, had a 41.4% chance in theory, but in practice didn't make it.

And, of course, you can amuse yourself by passing some famous books through the machine and seeing what it produces. The Historian shares my 10.2%, and Fleshmarket Close ditto at 41.4%.

From which you learn that these apparently precise figures of 10.2% and 41.4% are not precise at all.

Oh well. It's quite amusing for ten minutes.

Before I forget: There was a time, some thirty years or so ago, when Robert Ludlum was having a run of successes such as The Matlock Paper, The Prometheus Deception, and so forth. This led to a whole rash of books with similar titles. But it got to the point where my then agent said to me, 'For God's sake don't give me a book with a title that goes The Adjective Noun. The market's sick of them.' Even though the Lulu Titlescorer rates them at 35.9%.

18 comments:

Dr Ian Hocking said...

I've spent a great deal of time trying to come up with a title for my novel-in-progress. For me, the title needs to communicate genre (action thriller, soupcon de scifi) and capture something about the theme. A reviewer in the magazine SFX said that naming my first book 'Deja Vu' was like William Gibson naming his most famous book 'Computers' instead of 'Neuromancer'. Git. Anyway, my new book will be called 'Flashback', so there.

kitty said...

I ran DICKHEAD MUST DIE through the titlescorer twice. The first time I said the 1st word was a name, which received a 14.6% score. The second time I said the 1st word was NOT a name and the score jumped to 34.8%. Go figure.

archer said...

Bourne Identity saturation or not, I still like The Yucky Blucky Fruit Cake.

redchurch said...

I would go with a title featuring the hero's name and central concept or McGuffin in the story.

Examples:

Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone
Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom
Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.

It doesn't matter if it's a book, a movie, or a video game. Specific titles trump generic ones.

Mark Coggins said...

I, too, did a posting about the LuLu title utility which you can find here:

http://riordansdesk.blogspot.com/2005/12/titles-revisited.html

I found a rather interesting title that scored at the highest possible level (83.1) and also ran the bestselling mystery titles on the LuLu site through the utility to see how they would fare (not so well).

By the way, great blog.

Stephen said...

I too blogged on the title scorer, and concluded that Jane Austen owes some of her success to canny titling. Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility apparently each have a 59.3% chance of being best-sellers, with Emma only a little way behind at 45.6%.

Ivan Prokopchuk said...

I am not known for being especially brilliant or original, so I have to research, researh, research.
Stuck for a title for my tragicomedy of a culturally displaced person trying to hold it all together in Toronto, I went in search of a title. I ended up in Long Island, New York where some staffers at Newday were deliberately trying to put out a best seller by committee.
Here is what they came up with:
Naked Came the Stranger. Kinda
racy for groupthink!
Not to be outdone, I immediatly seized on that title and added something of my own: Naked Came the Ukrainian.
My son almost blanched and over here in Calgary's blogland, one female webhosts penned, "What would your mother say?"
Happily my mother's not too adept at English.
What a way to make a living!

Bernita said...

My title, The Conyers Falchon, and Brown's The DaVinci Code came out to the same - about 39%.
Pause here for choking sounds.
However, I am not updating my wardrobe, engaging a photographer or planning any tours any time soon.

arty.me said...

Brandon (/-) and Lefty (/-) are spondees? Cor blimey mate, scansion is more open to interpretation than I thought. :-)

For The Trees said...

So, intrigued, I went to Lulu's Titlescorer and put in the names of my novels. The first one hit 75%. The second book's title hit 62%. The third book's title hit 35%. I didn't like that number, so I went back and re-ran the title using different nomenclature in the blanks.

Voila! I hit 75% that time! So I ran the next two novels' titles through and didn't have to fudge, I got 62% and 75%. Sweet Jesus, I'm a bestselling author! And all I've done is put up three novels on Lulu!!

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!

Ivan Prokopchuk said...

Bernita, faithful pen pal.
I am a Ukie.
If I knew what a Conyer or a Falchon was I'd seize immediately on the title.
Who knows, they might not immediately seize on my titles too.
The Taras and the Bulba?
All Gogol-eyed over here.
Ivan

Bernita said...

Ivan, my golden one, should we meet this way?
The Falchion is a famous sword wielded by a Conyers knight to slay the Sockburn Worm.

Ivan Prokopchuk said...

I dunno. I once slew a tapeworm by stealing a can of Agent Orange from Camp Petawawa. I took a teaspoon of it and for a long time couldn't get over the feeling of having to walk alone again.
I should really respect your Celtic mythology though. It's really powerful stuff and is certainly all over Hollywood.
It's just that I kept snoozing throught English classes and my head seemed to hit the floor when Oona met some troll dude named Orgoglio, who, I think, tried to dine upon her.
Oh what the hell. Even Borges can be silly too when he talks about
Bustos Domenctz trying to find a safe path that avoids peril and "leads straight to the Minotaur."

Jim said...

Many years ago, as a student researching river hydraulics, I visited Sockburn.

I had already forgotten what a falchion was and neglected to check for worms ( certainly present ), but a woman with a dog told me the Arcadian hamlet was private property and bid me depart.

Excellent blog! Thank you.

Ivan Prokopchuk said...

Jim,
I tried to hit your highlighted site, but I guess you were putting someting up.
Looks like Bernita opened something up her with her Conyer's Falchion. Interesting that you had actually visited the place.
Makes me think of the time I hit
an "empowered" woman's website with an off-the-wall comment.
And yes, a woman with a dog told me her web hamlet was private property and bid me depart.
Shades of Anton Chekhov trying to be a blogger! Keep meeting women with dogs.
Have these empowered women any idea of who I am?
Have they any idea of the kind of person they give short shrift to?
Are they blind, lazy or just stupid?
I have three million words in commercial print (though like the late Chet Atkins, I am still trying to play guitar).
Anyway Jim, I was trying to hit your site to see if you had any more gems like your last paragraph above to get the old dander up.
I think you know something.
Ivan

Bernita said...

~pained~
Do I HAVE to explain that the Worm was a dragon?

Ivan Prokopchuk said...

Bernita (with love and cuddly hugs):
Even my ex-wife used to think I was so hip that even my goldfish travelled in seminars.
Of course it was a dragon.
Just old Ivan trying to be cute.
(Sorry Grumpy, we'll get back to the straight and serious soon).
Ivan

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