Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Non-Fiction Sidebar: What's in a Name? Book Titles, Product Names, and Predicting Consumer Behaviour.

   What's in a name? Would the makers of Ambien or Febreze sell fewer units if they'd named their products Aldazane or Bufian? Or, would the Insight and Leaf become household names if the North American marketing divisions of Honda and Nissan had opted for different naming strategies? And would you, shopping online or wandering through shelves of books, choose against considering a new Margaret Atwood novel simply because she'd titled it Journey Through Doom and Gloom instead of The Year of the Flood? (Okay, and probably in contradiction to any point I might be making here, I'll admit now that I was once offered a copy of a novel called The Shadow of the Wind and could not get past what I thought was the most idiotic of titles.)
   I'm wondering about that today because I read Deborah Copaken Kogen's "My So-Called 'Post-Feminist' Life in Arts and Letters" while negotiating with a publisher about the title of a book project.
   One of the intriguing elements of Kogan's article was the account of her largely unsuccessful struggle with publishers about the visual content of her books. While she shared her insights and preferences with her market-eying publishers about jacket design and the titles of her books, she appears to have repeatedly met a wall: the expertise of marketers trumped her own ideas every time, the supposition being that they (possessing the wisdom of marketing experience and the book smarts from degrees in Marketing) could better predict, or had special insight into, the mysterious processes of consumer behaviour. Kogan wanted Newswhore. Random House, she relates, told her Shutterbabe. She asked for Shuttergirl or Develop Stop Fix instead, but was told No and that, furthermore, she had no say in the matter. A few years later she ran into pink ghetto problems; she wanted the book to be blue and categorized as a memoir, while her publishers aimed to select pink and market it to women as a parenting book. Guess who won?

   I have had nothing close to that mixture of bad luck and closed-minded publishers. I submitted my first novel to my publisher as The J.H. Manuscript and was told the title was enigmatic without being interesting and that it seemed obscure. In retrospect, The Age of Cities really does look better. That said, it's anyone's guess if one title would have sold better. I'm doubtful.
   More recently I've been working with two other editors and four handfuls of contributors on After NAFTA, a scholarly book whose basic concept and title came to me in a dream. As did the subtitle: "Contemporary Canadian, American, and Mexican Dystopian Literature." 
   Maybe because the title appeared in a dream I took it as some kind of mystical sign and was emotionally invested in keeping it. Naturally, then, when the marketing people at the press told me that one result of a lengthy meeting was that the title had to go, I did a quick cycle through the Kübler-Ross model (dwelling a tad too long at Resentment, which while technically not a step in the model seems akin to Anger) before moving on. 
   Unlike Kogan, I initially received no pressure from an alternate title I actively disliked. Nor was a design foisted on me that made me feel powerless, manipulated, and miscategorized. The press merely asked for a new set of title options and I generated some. 
   For Round #2, though, all of my titles were rejected. The publisher's counter-proposal, in turn, made me dig in my heels. Despite highly dramatic imaginings—such as tearing up my contract and walking away with my dignity intact—my better, diplomatic self offered another set of titles. Ultimately, we agreed on Blast, Corrupt, Dismantle, Erase: Contemporary North American Dystopian Literature, and everyone's happy. 
   That said, if we'd run with After NAFTA or A Common Future (which was the publisher's suggested title), would the title make an iota of difference? Are consumers truly affected by the words that comprise a title and do supposed marketing experts truly possess the insight into consumer patterns that enable them to 'hook' gullible buyers with a special, nearly magical formulation of words? I'm guessing experts would like to think so. 
   Sitting here in my H&M sweat pants, Nike socks, Obey hooded pullover, and American Apparel T-shirt, I'll remain skeptical.


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