This is what it looks like out my window these early December mornings. I think it’s beautiful, but I’m glad it doesn’t last all year! Some of the things I am pondering this week, other than the good news that the furnace is good for at least another heating season, are these:
With the growing dominance of distribution processes that involve databases, the invention of book titles has become more craft than art—or has pushed the art into haiku-like constraints. With so many books in the channels, the length of the title field in the wholesalers’ databases—29 characters—governs what words get chosen for titles and how those words are fitted together.
I’ve been working for several months, in random moments, on the question of how to title the one book that Nomad Press will release next year. I’ve kicked ideas around with the author, who fortunately has a pragmatic attitude toward titles. She wants the names her books carry into the world to be appropriate and effective, period. Me, too.
I’ve talked with friends. The author has solicited a brainstorming session in a listserve group related to the topic. My daughter has run the brainstormed ideas past her LiveJournal community.
When we reached consensus on a small cluster of alternatives, I dropped an e-mail to critical people at our trade distributor. (“Trade” means “selling to bookstores.” We also sell our books to yarn stores, which involves not “trade” but “niche” channels. The
niche channels tolerate more titling leeway, because while they handle a huge number of titles that number is tiny compared to the full North American book industry.)
One of the distribution folks reminded me of the 29-character limit. Each time I work on a title, I need to look up (or be reminded of) the exact guillotine point. In the important databases that are used by booksellers, each title is truncated after its 29th character. As one of these allies mentioned, every character counts, from the first to the 29th. For example, "the" is a waste of four characters (three letters and a space).
Back to the drawing board, or titling board, or tilting board, or jousting field, or whatever, although the work we have put into this task so far plants seeds that will ultimately yield the final solution when we figure out how to put the ideas into the necessary straitjacket.
Within 29 characters, we need to tell people what the book is about and we need to let them know how this book is different from all the other books out there that might be considered similar.
In this instance, the basic topic is traditional (or ethnic, or regionally based, or locally generated)
knitting styles. In language and architecture, this type of creativity is called vernacular, but that’s not a word most people would connect with the information that will be inside this book.
The book will be one of a series of three handbooks that provide a
step-by-step introduction to the concepts of traditional knitting. One
of my favorite books of all time discussed similar building styles for
houses and communities. Knitting without Designers? Nope.
As one of my
advisers commented, the word traditional consumes too many characters. Add knitting, because some form of that word is essential, and you’ve already used 20 of the slots (one is a space). You’ve got 9 left to convey what approach this volume takes to knitting and how it is different from other books on the topic, in or out of print.
Titles cannot be copyrighted. Technically a person could choose to repeat a title that’s been used before, perhaps for an out-of-print book, but in most categories, including knitting, that option is best avoided for many reasons.
If you have enough money for a major advertising campaign and/or a really famous author
and/or an extremely catchy phrase (preferably all three), you can get poetic with your title.
Sometimes, even without those additional marketing tools, you get really lucky and capture some
poetry along with your clarity. The title for the book we published on October 1, Arctic Lace, combines grace with practicality. Its title and subtitle appear in the databases as Arctic Lace: Knitting Project. The full title and subtitle are Arctic Lace: Knitting Projects and Stories Inspired by Alaska’s Native Knitters. Although there’s a lot of important information in the subtitle, even the clipped database portion gets the gist across.
Why is this so important?
After the author, publisher, and possibly illustrator have worked several years on the collaborative
project that becomes a book, the fruit of their labors has between one month and one year to make its mark within the trade marketplace—the average is three to six months.
The marketing process begins with sales reps, who need to convey the book’s concept succinctly to buyers at bookstores and chains. A sales rep may need to present as many as 2,000 titles per year to the buyers they work with. That’s 2,000 for one rep, who pays each buyer in his or her territory two or three visits a year, packing those books into just a few hours. Each buyer sees many reps. No single book on any list gets much time or attention. The title matters, along with maybe twenty-five additional words of description . . . and the cover.
Assuming the buyer decides to gamble on the book, the title plays a role when copies are received by the bookstore and the staff unpacks, identifies, checks off, and shelves them (along with lots of others). Having just helped stock a new bookstore with many thousands of books, I have a renewed appreciation for pithy, clearly descriptive titles.
The people in the bookstores need to convey the book’s unique qualities to potential readers—or, too often these days, those readers need to discover the book on their own. And readers who buy the book need to read it quickly and, if they like it, tell their friends about it. It helps if bookstore people and potential readers can remember the title easily, so they can look it up in the database and can recognize it when they are skimming a list that appears in response to a search.
If the book has not performed "well enough" within a few months, it is pushed off the
shelves by the new titles of the next season. The books from the previous season are returned to the publisher, for a full refund and frequently in damaged condition. (Returns are technically supposed to
be in salable condition.)
Yes, some classics continue to be stocked and to sell. Yes, in independent bookstores the staff members can make sure that favorites show up on the shelves year after year, and they can connect readers to those books with love and enthusiasm. A single enthusiastic staffer in a single independent bookstore can make a huge difference in a book’s life, extending it for years or decades past the first flurry and convincing other stores, through
numbers, that the book
is worth continuing to order, shelve, and recommend.
But mostly the supply of books is like a series of ocean waves, with each new wave
wiping the last wave’s imprint off the sand.
A book’s title and its cover are the two most critical tools in the effort to place a book in people’s awareness so that store buyers and then readers (readers being the most important link in this sequence) will check it out, talk about it, and give it an appropriately longer life, one that provides enough compensation to the author and publisher that they can afford—emotionally and financially—to make another fine book reasonably soon.
I’ve been told by someone with the experience to know that in order to make a financial go of this publishing business I need to release four titles a year, two in the spring season and two in the fall season. So far, while my own experience strongly indicates that this is correct, I haven’t been able to
figure out how to get that much work done correctly in a year. For now, I find I can meet my quality standards and release one or two books a year. The question of whether this particular independent publishing
operation is viable in today’s market remains open.
It’s very clear, though, that the title of our next book will matter a lot in determining its fate, and that we have 29 characters within which we need to work a bit of real-world magic.
Notes: (1) The cover directly above this comment represents an earlier book that we have published. It is comprehensive, where the new titles will be focused. The information in the new books will be graduated and the styles will be accompanied by three types of worksheets, intended for beginning, intermediate, and advanced knitters. (2) Also, a friend has pointed out that the title of this post needs a second, closing parenthesis. Actually, it also needs the letters E and S. It would then read like this: 29 CHARACTERS (INCLUDING SPACES). What appears at the top of this discourse is what would appear in a bookseller’s database, if the post title were a book title.
For an author’s perspective on the current distribution system and how it can drive what writers create and what we get to read, check out Holly Lisle’s recent post on her blog, A Pocket Full of Words. Look at November 29
and December 1.
Because of the genre in which she works, Holly has to deal with the mass-market paperback realm. That’s the most demanding sector of the trade. The mass-market process offers a slightly (but unfortunately just slightly) magnified view of what all types of books contend with today.
As Holly explains in her posts, a new mass-market title must prove itself in the marketplace within about four weeks. She also vividly describes what it
means for a book to sell "well enough" to dodge the returns process.
I went to my new local bookstore to special-order Holly’s Talyn, released four days ago in paperback. I need a break right now from my regular tasks—I need to think about something other than the title for our new book, in part because a radical change in focus can sometimes produce a
Wonder of wonders, I found two copies on the shelf! No special-order required. I think this happened because every one of the new staff members loves science fiction and fantasy (each has other specialties as well) and someone made sure this book was part of the store’s initial order. Yes, the copies were spine-out, but I found them easily and I didn’t have to wait. I could take the book home right away.
I don’t know yet whether I’ll enjoy this book. I haven’t had time to read fantasy or science fiction in
decades and I have no idea whether my brain will be able to stretch that far right now.
Our recent efforts to produce a title for next fall’s book indicate that my brain is not currently very flexible . . . and suggest that I may need to do some cognitive yoga. Readers of the hardcover of Talyn loved it. Holly thinks it’s one of the two best books she’s ever written, which ought to count for something.
And that reminds me: we’ve got to be sure that the new bookstore stocks James
Thurber‘s The 13 Clocks. It needs to stay available for more people to discover and treasure. So does Peter Beagle‘s The Last Unicorn. . . . Even if these books are spine-out, instead of face-out like the hottest titles-of-the-month, we’ll know where to find them and pull them off the shelf to hand to another reader in
search of a great book: “I think you’ll love this. It’s one of my favorites from a lifetime of reading. . . .”
One of my daughter’s friend W’s favorite books ever is Holly Lisle’s Hunting the Corrigan’s Blood. It was taken out of print by its original publisher. Although I found a copy through the used market, my purchase of that copy doesn’t put any groceries on the author’s table or help her write her next book. (Holly has recently made the book available herself, so you can now buy it directly
But the need to support working authors today is why I bought Talyn
yesterday at my local independent bookstore. I consider my purchase a vote in favor of creative freedom: Holly Lisle’s, that of the authors whose
work I admire, that of the authors whose work I publish and edit and coach into being, that of
the people who are building this independent bookstore within biking distance of my house, and my own.
Even the amaryllis I have started as a reminder that spring follows winter can need as much as three months to develop its bloom.