“A Rose by any other Name…”

A recent reader of this blog asked a terrific question: can a great title alone attached to a proposal attract a publisher? The answer is a definite yes—which belies a famous passage from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet;

So Romeo world, were he not Romeo call’d,

Retain that dear perfection which he owes

Without that title…”  [Romeo and Juliet, 1594]

It’s a good thing Shakespeare never had to write a business book in a terribly challenging business environment like the one we have now. In the business book world, the title is one of the most vital parts of what we call “the package,” and the package is one of the key determinants of success. Without giving too much away, I can say that I have acquired books throughout my career because they had clever, timely and compelling titles. Of course, there is almost always more to it than just the title. A great title usually means that the author has hit upon something else that is also important—such as an untapped need or market niche, a terribly interesting concept, a great counterintuitive concept, etc. In other words, titles do not live in a vacuum, they are a part of something larger.

Last week in a blog post called “The Titling Process: Unlocking Some of the Mystery,” I explained to what degrees a publisher goes to in order to come up with  what we would deem a great title for a book. We spend days, weeks, and in a select few cases even months trying to come up with an ideal title that is simultaneously intriguing and informative. A good title does both: it captures the imagination of the target audience while also telling the reader exactly what the book hopes to accomplish.  Often the latter is accomplished in the subtitle, and not the primary title.

Let me give you an example of a book in which we agonized over the subtitle for many weeks. The final title and subtitle of this book turned out to be:      

It’s Not about the Coffee: Leadership Principles from a Life at Starbucks, by Howard Behar with Janet Goldstein

We came up with the primary title for this book (It’s Not about the Coffee) almost immediately, but the subtitle took many weeks before we all agreed to it (Publisher, marketing, and author). The subtitle seems straight forward enough, but it was a huge challenge getting everyone to agree that this was the best subtitle for the book. Every word was scrutinized, weighed, and debated. The issue was that the lead author, Howard Behar, was on the board of directors and for many years a senior executive with the company. We, the publisher, wanted to convey that this book was being written by a real Starbucks insider, yet the author was so humble that he did not want to advertise that fact. Also, it’s not the Starbucks way to brag about one’s level on the company’s org. chart. That’s why this subtitle turned out to be the perfect compromise. “…A life at Starbucks” conveyed a few things, not the least of which was that the author spent part of his life at Starbucks, at least planting the suggestion that the author spent many years at the company, which suggests that he may have been someone quite prominent there (he was the executive that built Starbucks international stores and operations outside of the U.S.).

And the book did indeed have a happy ending, selling tens of thousands of copies, garnering several positive notices, and being translated into more than half a dozen languages. With those kinds of results, all of the Sturm and Drang associated with the titling process was indeed worth it.          

  

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