In my previous post I discussed the strategies behind giving a title to a scholarly book. When it comes to trade books, written for popular audiences, it is a different ballgame altogether. Whereas scholarly books are meant to sound erudite and learned, or if they are meant to be “clever” then only clever to those on the academic inside who catch the allusions, trade books are meant to be witty and intriguing for a general reader, and a sign that the book will be really interesting and about something that the reader wants to learn more about. In the best cases, the reader – a non-scholar – should read the title and think, “Huh, I’d like to know about that!” or “Huh, I wonder that that’s about.” The trick is to be able to grab a reader’s attention without being overly sensationalized, and that’s a very fine line indeed.
It’s hard to know whether a title will accomplish its task or not. I thought my last book “How Jesus Became God” would be a real grabber. But I’m not sure it was. The best titles for my books have always come – unlike that one – not from me but from my publisher. My two favorites, I think, are Lost Christianities: The Battles For Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (published with Oxford as one of my first trade books; an editor came up with the title) (it actually was an editor with a different press who proposed the idea of the book to me and gave it a title, before I decided to publish it instead with Oxford) and Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (my first book with Harper, since Oxford at the time wasn’t sure they wanted it) (big mistake). There’s a funny story about that title, that I’ll tell at the end of this post.
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