The Director Dish: Judging a Book by Its Cover

You can judge a book by its cover; in fact, I hope you do because we
spend a lot of time honing the titles and cover designs for our books. With
more and more people purchasing books online, it’s even important than ever to
grab them with a good title or compelling cover.

In the online world of search
engine optimization (SEO), a title needs to come up if a consumer is looking
for a book on a certain subject. That’s why I’m such a stickler for non-fiction
book titles (except perhaps, memoir) to say what the book is about.

In a recent meeting about titles
for forthcoming books, I raised the point that a particular title didn’t tell
you what was the book was about.

“Well, if you read the book,”
someone said, “you’ll know why the author wants this title.” I countered, “With
that title, I’m definitely not going to read the book.” We settled on keeping
the title, but with a very descriptive subtitle that captures what might come
up when someone searches that subject online.

Different genres have different
conventions for titling. It’s okay to go for a snazzy title paired with a long,
long subtitle on a sports or business book. (That seems to be the acceptable
approach now, anyway.) Personally, I love it. A recent favorite of mine: Banzai Babe Ruth: Baseball, Espionage, and
Assassination during the 1934 Tour of Japan
.
How could you resist a book
like that? Apparently you can’t because it’s been a hot seller for us. Of
course, some books don’t need a subtitle; the title says everything. I love 501 Baseball Books Fans Must Read before
They Die
.
End of story.

Religious books are tough to title.
You have to convey why the book is unique but remain respectful, while
explaining what the book is about. I’m particularly proud of the title we came
up with for —well, I don’t have to tell you what the book is about because the title
and subtitle say it all: From Gods to
God: How the Bible Debunked, Suppressed, or Changed Ancient Myths and Legends
.

Fiction and literary memoir are a
bit more challenging. We seldom change the title that the author submits; it
would be like changing the title of a painting. Our memoirists, in particular,
seem to be quite skilled at titles. For example:

Borich
Schrand 
Castro_IslandofBones

What makes these books even more enticing
are the incredible covers our designers created. On Borich’s book, a tattoo of
the world; on Schrand’s book, a wonderful graphic of eyeglasses with book pages
instead of lenses; on Castros’ book, a beautiful seashell against a soft blue
background.

As hard as it is to nail down the title,
sometimes the cover can be a bigger challenge. The design team, in conjunction
with marketing and the acquisition editor, start with the author’s cover and
design notes. Then we rank the importance of the title, subtitle, and author
name. A well-known author gets his/her name more prominently featured than an
unknown one. A baseball book with a long subtitle might be designed around
accommodating all those words. A biography?  We favor the subject’s name, either in the
title or subtitle as that’s who the book is about, after all we favor a photo
of the subject on the front cover.

At the end of the day, the most
important part of a book is what lies between the covers. But one of our jobs
at the Press is to make you want to pick up that book and read it—and that’s
why we get judged—at least partly—by our covers.

-Donna

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