The Business of Publishing: Title Development

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This is the fifth post in a series of articles for aspiring publishers. The series is written by Joe Biel, the founder and owner of Microcosm Publishing and author of A People’s Guide to Publishing.

Title development is what determines a book’s packaging. It’s the magic combination of title and subtitle, the design and content of the cover, the book’s pricing, and any other information that informs a potential reader’s decision when standing in a bookstore or hovering over a Buy button online. It’s easy to think of these things as superficial; but the packaging of a book, not its content, is usually what makes or breaks it in the end.

Many publishers get their start because of a personal project that is close to their heart. There are 4,000 new books being published every day, one thinks, so why is my project, or my talented friend’s not one of them? This is a story that I’ve heard over and over across the last twenty years. Once people get started publishing, though, or before they start if they’re a more cautious type, the realization inevitably hits home that talent and having something to say aren’t enough to make a book succeed.

Let’s assume that your book’s content is good and you have the technical aspects of publishing well in hand, and that both you and the author are ready to promote the final product. These things are all important, but even doing them all perfectly are not enough to make a book succeed without careful attention to packaging.

The most frequent things that happen to ruin the chances of a good book are:

1) There is already a book just like it with a bigger marketing budget.
2) It’s really unclear what benefit, if any, the book offers to the reader.
3) The field is crowded with relatively similar books that offer the same thing at relatively the same price and value. So everyone gets a piece of the pie, but no one’s piece is large enough to satisfy their needs.
4) The way that the book is packaged turns off exactly the kind of reader who would enjoy the book.
Fortunately, the solutions to all of these problems are relatively easy if you have some time, a cooperative author who can be flexible in their vision, and a few people to talk through the ideas and development with you.

First a note on what not to do. Many publishers of all sizes cut corners in title development by creating simplified versions of existing books at lower prices—an easy trick, at least until enough other people catch on and do the same thing. In fiction especially, many publishers, including self-publishers, are intent on fighting their way all the way to the bottom. “I’ll give away my eBook for free for 90 days, then I’ll make it 99 cents for the next 90 days, and finally raise it to $2.99.” This approach can be effective when proper marketing is being done alongside it. But it does not address the basic need of distinguishing the book from others like it. Instead, it’s fostering a bidding war to see who is willing to work for the lowest pay.

Instead, think about what drew you in to your favorite books; go find those books on your shelf or in a bookstore or library. Pick them up, open them, examine every part of them. Ask yourself: What is the cover like? How do the title and subtitle combine to tell a compelling story for why you want to read the book? If you were seeing the book for the first time, what would you think was inside it? Who would you buy it for as a gift?

Think of how you could tell someone what this book offers them in five seconds or less. Then do the same thing for the book you are publishing. You may have a few different pitches depending on whom you are talking to. Different people and groups have different interests and concerns and you’ll want to think of each of them. Write the best ones down and be consistent from here forward when you talk about your book.

Here are some initial questions to work out:

1) What need does this book fulfill?
2) What are the other books in the genre doing? What are they not doing?
3) How can we distinguish from these other books and package the book clearly to show readers how it is different?
4) As someone interested in this genre, what would you want to read about that hasn’t already been done (or hasn’t yet been done at this price)?

It is a good idea at the outset to ask the author to respond to these questions in depth (including details about comparative titles), preferably before they have even finished writing the book. As the publisher, you must yourself develop a good grasp of the answers for each title and communicate them to everyone else involved in producing the book. Every decision that needs to be made about the book’s content, design, marketing, and production can refer back to these questions. If you ever become uncertain about the direction the book is taking, return to these questions.

A successful example of a well-developed book is Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present. When it was published in 1980, history books were assumed to be unbiased and centrist, as if neutrality were possible while telling the story of the victors. The title of Howard Zinn’s book clearly challenges this assumption and communicates that it’s a retelling of American history with a left or radical perspective and that the voices heard would be those of the disenfranchised. Hundreds of thousands of copies later, it’s clear that this approach has worked.

Now for an example of a less-successfully developed title. Take a look at the cover of Eric Schlosser’s sophomore slump, Reefer Madness. I see you rolling your eyes, and well you might. But give the book a chance. It’s not a story about stoners, or a laugh at antiquated anti-marijuana campaigns, or an argument that we should all smoke weed. It’s actually an economics book, examining the history of some of the biggest black markets in the U.S.—including strawberries, pornography, and yes, weed. But while the book is absolutely fascinating to read, there are some serious packaging errors here. If you picked it up and wanted to read something about weed or thought it might relate to rebuke the scared straight film of 1936, you’d be disappointed. And if you wanted to read a serious history of underground economies and didn’t have a friend to tell you what this book was actually about, you’d pass by it every time.

So don’t make the mistake that Simon & Schuster did. Realize and accept that as a small independent publisher you will likely have the smallest marketing and publicity budgets of all similar books. Your packaging must compensate, so you will need to spend extra effort developing your book to clearly dictate—visually, emotionally, and linguistically—exactly what benefits it will offer the reader. Be straightforward, but don’t forget to have fun with it, too—puns and humor tends to work well. Readers tend to be wiser than your average person and respond well to feeling like they are on the inside of the joke.

On the other hand, it’s also easy to overdo it. Many publishers attempt to do too much with a book cover, creating a dizzying array of elements, words, and emotions, leaving potential readers puzzled about what exactly is being offered. A good way to start is to brainstorm a list of things that the book offers and things that it makes you feel and focusing on the one idea that both appeals to the widest range of people and best summarizes the book in one concept.

You don’t need to hire a professional photographer or illustrator to create elements or design your book cover but it’s a very good idea to either learn what you are doing compositionally or work with someone who has those skills.

Try to assemble your final title, subtitle, and cover image. Write out your five-second pitch and put it on the top of the back cover, or maybe on the bottom of the front cover if you don’t have a blurb from a more famous writer. Blurbs from other writers can help sell a book in the trade, especially if that writer’s sales numbers are great, but they don’t always carry much weight with readers, who are skeptical and now seem more inclined to pick up a book based on their interests than a celebrity endorsement. That is, unless you know Oprah, in which case please send me her producer’s phone number.

Spend some time in the bookstore. Look at the books on display as well as the ones in the genres that you are working in. Buy the ones that inspire you. Consider what is already out there and research competitive titles in print thoroughly before you make any final decisions. It’s better for everyone if you produce something truly new, yet similar to what is already out there. While the classic pitch of “Nothing like this has ever been tried before!” sounds tantalizing, it is likely not true and, more important, it does not inspire confidence or sales.

If you can, let the final composition sit for a month and try not to look at it during that time. You’ll see it with new eyes if you let it sit. Then look at it both as a thumbnail on your screen (100 pixels x 200 pixels or so), printed out at full size, and at about 3” wide or somewhere in between. Get someone else to look at it, too, someone who’s completely unfamiliar with the project.

Try to detach yourself from its development and production and think about what would make you most excited about it if you didn’t know what the content was. Often making a few quick and easy changes will vastly improve your development before it’s too late and you are hearing this same feedback from stores explaining why they think it wasn’t more successful.

Sometimes your vision for the book will come so naturally that it only takes a single draft and the idea comes to you clearly and immediately. Even when this has happened to me, I am sometimes so excited that I still overlook important details like making the title as readable as possible, omitting a word, or forgetting the difference between “everyday” and “every day.”

Learn from my mistakes! Good luck!

This has been a guest post by Joe Biel of Microcosm Publishing. It is the fifth entry in The Business of Publishing, a series of posts for aspiring publishers.