About names he was completely wrong, old William Shakespeare. How badly he understood their vital importance.*
Juliet bemoans her forced separation from Romeo. The Montague and Capulet families are sworn enemies. Romeo’s a Montague, Juliet’s a Capulet, so as far as her family is concerned he’s an unsuitable suitor. But, she protests …
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
A specious argument, as I was to find out yesterday.
I was chatting to a Facebook friend, someone I’ve known a while from the writers’ workshop site I belong to. We’ve shared views a few times about book marketing, though neither of us has read the other’s book yet. The topic was men: ‘What do men do to get over heartbreak? How long does it take when you’re really really in love?’
I made a useful contribution: ‘Timescale – about 5 pages, with double spacing for paragraphs. Although of course men suffer forever.’ So then we got talking about books and I mentioned that my novel was all about a man trying to recover from heartbreak – a story told from a self-centered male’s point of view. “I’d love to see the book”, my friend said. “You can”, I told her. “It’s been posted on our website for the past few months – it’s called The Lebanese Troubles.”. This is what she replied:
“I’ll check it out. But I definitely wouldn’t have picked the relationship thing up from the title. I was thinking Hezbollah. You might want to rethink that.:)”
And there’s your problem, Mr Shakespeare. Names do matter. People notice. To be fair, you already knew that. After all, Juliet has a marketing problem too. How’s she going to sell Romeo to the family? As I recall, it didn’t go too well. But your themes for today’s product-focused, status-aware market are just … well, wrong. If I’d been your agent, I’d have got you to stay on message. Romeo’s problem is just branding: ten minutes on Twitter and he could have fixed it. And surely you’d do better to accentuate the positives. At the end for example, when the heads of the two families agree to end their feud, bring peace to the streets of Verona, and erect gold statues to R and J. So tell the story, beat the drum. ‘How our children helped to build a business empire.’ You’d have had no problem selling a mouth-watering title like that! Romeo and Juliet? A story of unrequited love? Who needs it?
The trouble is, I find it easier to give advice to a dead poet than a live author – especially if the author happens to be me. OK – so the title of my book might be turning people off. And the cover probably reinforces the Hezbollah view. The painting that I see as a wonderful, moving evocation of solitude and loneliness probably just confirms that the book is all about terrorism for those who arrive with their expectations pre-cooked.
“You can’t change anything’, I rage. ‘The title’s smart. It plays off the troubles of the key characters against the troubles of the war.”
“If that’s the way you want it.” I flash a winning smile, and then stick the knife in. “If you really only want four readers …”
“But what about the time I’ve invested in marketing the title? Top of Google searches for ‘Lebanese’ + ‘troubles’. And those wonderful reviews – did you spot there was a new one on Amazon yesterday – do I just throw them away?”
I raise an eyebrow. Offer no comfort.
We argue into the night … and then hit on a plan, a cunning plan.
“Did you notice that your post on ‘How to publish God‘ got three times more readers than anything else on the blog?”
“And how many views and replies there were on the Kindle Boards this week for the post ‘Vampires in Biblical Jerusalem try to assassinate Jesus of Nazareth’?”
“So people like to read about religion.”
“No, I don’t think they do especially. But I think everyone likes a controversial, daring headline, especially if there’s religion or politics involved.”
“What are you suggesting?”
“People think your book’s about Hezbollah, so put Hezbollah in the headline. Shake ‘em up.”
“But the book’s got nothing to do with Hezbollah.**“
“And that’s precisely what you’re going to tell them. ‘Not Hezbollah’.”
“And that’s your idea for the new title?”
“No, stupid! Keep The Lebanese Troubles to set up the Hezbollah expectation. Then in the blurb, on all your publicity, everywhere, just say ‘It’s not about Hezbollah’. I know we’re saying not, but it’s the H-word that will get their attention. They don’t want to read a novel about Hezbollah, but as a headline, it’ll get them reading on. Then just make sure you keep their interest. Lead them to the reviews.”
So that’s the plan, for now at least. I’ll give it a week or two to see if it makes a difference, and then report back. But you know what I really think? Better to choose a title in the first place that says ‘Please read me’ than one that says ‘You’re not gonna like this …’
*If the syntax seems familiar, then maybe you’re a W.H. Auden fan. I don’t know why, but I haven’t been able to get one of my favorite poems, Musée des Beaux Arts, out of my head for the past few days.
**If you are a student of Hezbollah and you’re interested in the origins of the movement, never fear. You can read The Lebanese Troubles that way too, if you like. You may also want to check out another recent release, Beware of Small States, a history of Lebanon written by David Hirst, long-time Guardian journalist and resident of Beirut.