Are there great book titles, or do great books make their titles great? And the question goes beyond the subject of book titles to cover the names of cars, companies, and rock bands. How do you find the perfect title?
There is a tendency with some organizations today, especially large multi-nationals and political parties, to run virtually every ‘marketing’ decision past ‘focus groups’ before going public. That process strikes me as a bit gutless and as prone to mistakes as any other system – but it does have the redeeming quality of making image consulting companies rich and also giving leaders someone else to blame if something goes wrong.
The story goes that Toyota chose the name of its luxury car brand that way. They hired the image consulting firm Lippincott and Margulies to run focus groups which eventually narrowed the list of possible names to Vectre, Verone, Chaparel, Calibre and Alexis. After further testing, Alexis became the front runner but later, after even more testing, it was shown that the name had too much association with the TV character Alexis Carrington from the 1980’s show Dynasty, so they monkeyed with a few letters and came up with ‘Lexus.’ Seems rather soul-less, but I suppose it was safe. If they had called the car ‘Mud’ would it have sold as well? Perhaps not.
But let’s think about this. Would a focus group have approved of the name ‘Apple’ for a company? Or ‘Beetle’ for a car? Or even ‘Beatles’ for a rock band? And what about books? Gone with the Wind – what on earth does that mean? For Whom the Bell Tolls – seems rather pretentious to me. Romeo and Juliet – why put the guy’s name first? – must have been some sexist who came up with the title. A Tale of Two Cities – must be a comedy. And what about that opening line: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” – would the writer please make up his mind – and by the way, the punctuation is wrong.
Do you see what I’m getting at? The titles of things are almost meaningless. Titles are just sounds that in many cases are given meaning by the work they represent. Apple is a rather dumb name for a high-tech company. But Steve Jobs once worked on an apple farm and he liked the Beatles (Apple records), so he and his partner Steve Wozniak decided that if they couldn’t come up with a better name after trying for a day, they would go with Apple. A focus group would have come up with “FirstTech” or “ComputerWare”.
Back to book titles: There are ways to mess up a book title. You can make it too long or you can make it offensive or just plain stupid, but short of that, it’s the words between the covers that makes the book great, not the title. A great title alone will not get you on anyone’s best seller list, but, in fact, a great book will make even the title “Mud” sound perfect.
Well, next week, it’s onto the world of high finance and a discussion of the movie Inside Job, the winner of the 2010 Oscar for best documentary.