Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

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Do titles matter?

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The other day, I found myself thinking about sex—in particular, about, once thought to be the most valuable domain name on the Internet, until it was caught up in a legal battle so epic that it inspired its own book. Ultimately, after the site’s previous owner went bankrupt, someone paid $11.5 million for the rights, but the site, as it currently stands, is a ghost town (although still not safe for work). And it isn’t hard to figure out what happened. In the early days of the web, investors were furiously snatching up what seemed like lucrative domains, all common words like Clothes or Books, never expecting that our most heavily trafficked sites would have names that sound like complete nonsense: Google, Yahoo, Twitter, Bing. In fact, of the sites I visit daily, none has a domain name consisting of a single recognizable English word.

In hindsight, it’s clear that investors simply misunderstood how people would surf the web, assuming that they would find products and services by randomly typing words into the address bar, adding “.com,” and hitting return. It’s quite possible that some users are still doing this, but for the rest of us, Google provided a much more effective approach. It didn’t really matter what a site was called: as long as it appeared prominently in your search results, you’d find it, even if it was called Kazaa or Flickr or Picasa, rather than Music or Domain names ceased to matter when one’s primary interface became the search engine, rather than the address bar. If the web had been like browsing in a bookstore, with site after site scrolling by, a domain like might have been an asset, but that just isn’t how we use the Internet.

These reflections were inspired by an article by John Colapinto in this week’s New Yorker—which is truly an excellent issue, by the way—about Lexicon, a company that does nothing but invent names for products. Lexicon’s triumphs include Pentium, Swiffer, PowerBook, and Dasani, and they’ve transformed the art of naming into a science, down to analyzing the meaning of p vs. b sounds, and quantifying the desirability of alternating vowels and consonants. The real question, though, is whether such names matter at all. Here’s Bernd Schmitt, a marketing professor at Columbia Business School:

Would Amazon be just as successful if it was called Nile? My guess would be yes, because the name is just a starting point for a brand. The most important branding decision is more about brand strategy, distribution channels—where are the customers you want to reach?

And yet it’s hard to believe that names don’t matter. Colapinto points to great novels that nearly had bad titles: would The Great Gatsby have become a classic as Trimalchio in West Egg, or Farewell, My Lovely as Zounds, He Dies? The answer seems to be no—although it ignores the fact that nearly all the great classics of world literature have bad titles—but it only brings us up against a related question, which is whether the function of a novel’s title has also changed.

Because the way we’re searching for books is changing as well. In the old days, many of us found books in the way that early speculators in domain names assumed we’d find things on the web: by browsing, essentially at random, among a vast but finite range of choices. When you’re trying to catch the eye of someone glancing casually over the thriller section of a bookstore, say, the title and cover become essential. Now, though, browsing in its pure sense is on its way out, and we find books in the same way we find everything else: through search queries, recommendations from other readers, and suggestions from sites like Amazon. The title and cover, then, seem much less important than the book’s metadata—its plot summary, its keywords, and even, in many cases, its searchable contents. (Interestingly, and for reasons I don’t entirely understand, the movie industry seems to be moving in the opposite direction, as witnessed by grindingly literal titles like Horrible Bosses and Bad Teacher.)

So do titles matter? Yes, obviously, for readers who still browse for novels in bookstores—and whoever you are, I thank you. They also matter, less obviously, for professional book buyers at bookstore chains, who essentially judge books by their covers when deciding how many copies to order. As for the rest of us, my own impression, having spent a long time thinking about titles for my own books, is that titles have a neutral or negative effect. A good title, in itself, won’t make a novel easier for an online browser to find, but a bad title might turn off a reader who found the book in an Amazon search. Titles, like covers and typography, are an index to quality: a bad title and design usually means a bad book, because a publisher that is sloppy about such issues is likely to be sloppy about more important things. Titles and covers still matter, then—but less as a way of attracting readers than as a means of sealing the deal.

Written by nevalalee

October 5, 2011 at 10:19 am

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