One of the issues facing fantasy writers is the ability to come up with a title. Conventional wisdom says that in order to sell books, your title must tell the reader immediately what type of book it is. While I agree with that in theory, I think it’s also selling the reader short.
There have been several best-selling fantasy books that don’t have an overly descriptive title. I’ve yet to walk into a bookstore and see one that has “Contemporary Fantasy” emblazoned across the cover. Two of my favorite books of recent years, Kings of the Wyld and Bloody Rose don’t say anything like that—and by the way, if you haven’t read those, you should.
Let’s go back a bit. The year is 1954 and a little book called “The Lord of the Rings” is published. Surely it must be focused on the jewelry industry, right? That sounds ridiculous, now, but who knew then what Tolkien’s book was going to become? And it achieved iconic status without telling you that it was a fantasy in the title—and by the way, if you haven’t read that one, leave my site immediately. Go on. I’ll wait for you to shut the door.
“But James?” you say. “What about contemporary fantasy?” (For the record, I often have conversations with my readers that take place almost exclusively in my head. You guys are really nice! Except you, over there in the corner. Who hurt you?)
Well, let’s take a look at that.
As of the date of this writing, six out of the top ten best sellers under contemporary fantasy on Amazon don’t have any mention of magic, fantasy, wizard, sword and sorcery, or anything like that. One of them is simply titled “Rhapsodic”. And these are all top sellers, meaning they’re sending out a whole bunch of books. People are snapping them up!
Now, having said that, it brings up two other points.
First, they all have covers that somehow scream fantasy. The girl with the sword and her hands on fire, the closeup of what looks like a dragon’s wing. And, strangely, quite a few men who forgot their shirts. These are all covers that one would look at and know what kind of book they’re getting. In fairness, several of them have subtitles or series names that do include those types of descriptors.
The second point is that while six of the ten do not have the self-explanatory type of title, four of them do. And that’s not a bad percentage. It obviously doesn’t hurt to have them.
But I still stand by my point.
While I firmly believe that an author doesn’t need to spoon-feed a potential reader, that doesn’t mean I think he or she can get away with a horrible title.
Let’s look at the first book of my Duke Grandfather Saga. The title is Tales of a Nuisance Man, but chances are you know that already. If you didn’t, you should go check it out. It’s amazing. Life changing really. One of the best books of the last… okay, you get the idea. I’m schilling my own book in shameless self-promotion.
Anyway, where was I? Oh, right, the title. I’m the first one to admit that on a blank sheet of paper, that title is pretty stupid. Tales of a Nuisance Man? What the hell is that supposed to mean? What’s a Nuisance Man? What kind of book is this anyway? Who let the guy who wrote it near a keyboard when he should obviously be in therapy of some sort?
I get it. It doesn’t say much. Sort of like, oh, I don’t know, Silverlock? Which is one of the best, most underappreciated, fantasies ever written. Or, how about Watership Down? What’s down? Why is it down?
I picked up Silverlock in junior high and have read it many times since. Why? Because of the cover. It showed all these figures that I knew. Robin Hood, and some sort of knight, and the Mad Hatter, and a castle in the background! Why, this looks like a fantasy adventure! Perhaps even a humorous fantasy!
Watership Down had a rabbit on the cover, so it was obviously about animals. That was enough to make me take a look at the back and see what it was all about.
Is Tales of a Nuisance Man a hook enough to draw someone in? Probably not. But when the big green guy with pointy teeth and a deadly-looking mace are factored in, a potential reader suddenly knows what they might be in for. And if they’re into that sort of thing, they will—hopefully—turn it over to read more.
There’s another maxim in publishing, especially in independent publishing, that’s about covers and cover designs. Simply put, it’s to look at the covers that are selling in your genre and emulate them. Sounds pretty easy, and it’s probably sound advice for a lot types of fiction. The aforementioned shirtless guys are great attention grabbers if you’re into that sort of thing.
Fantasy tends to be a little different though. I’ve spent a significant amount of time in my local B+N, looking at covers of contemporary fantasy books. And I can tell you that they range all over the place. From simple text, maybe with a graphic, to full-blown landscapes. Hand-drawn beautiful artwork to what appear to be manipulated stock photos.
The ones I pick up and take a look at as a reader are also all over the place. If the cover catches my attention, I check it out.
What I’m saying here is that fantasy readers seem to be in a bit of a different boat. We like a lot of different things, and lot of different covers work. Especially, if you have a cool fantasy book title.
You should care because if all you look at when searching for your next great read is a title, then you’ll miss out on some great stuff out there. You need to look at least a little bit deeper. Not such a big deal when you’re browsing the shelves at a bookstore or your local library. Maybe not even that important when you’re scrolling down through the offerings on Amazon. The covers are there, albeit much smaller.
But me? I’d rather look at something that has a cool name, even if I’m not one-hundred percent sure what it’s about. That’s what the cover image and the description are for.
Cool fantasy book names are something that should grab you enough to draw your interest and get you to look at the cover. From there, I’m sure you can tell by the big ogre with the mace that it’s a fantasy. You don’t need me to spell out for you that “Hey, here is the first book in one of the best completed fantasy series.” You get it. It’s an ogre, it’s fantasy, go read it.
Having said all that, if you think up any cool fantasy titles, let me know. Maybe I’ll use it…