My boyfriend was a groomsman in a wedding last weekend and though I knew some of the guests, I was meeting most of the people there for the first time. In the adult world this usually means answering one question over and over again “What do you do?” and in my case—as part of the answer to this question is “I’m a novelist.”—the inevitable follow-up question: “What is your book about?”
Even though I’ve gotten increasingly good at answering this question, it still makes me feel a little put on the spot. There will always be a part of me that screams I don’t know, never mind, STOP ASKING ME! as though the question is a threat, as though the person’s response to my answer might be “Well that sounds like a dumb book, why did you write that?” I ask the same question of fellow writers I meet, by the way, it’s the utterly obvious and polite question to ask really, what else do you say in response to “I’m a writer”?
If you want to be a professional writer of books, you need to be able to answer this question, first to yourself, then to the agents you’d like to represent you, to the publishing house you hope buys the book, to the readers you hope to draw in, and to every person you ever encounter socially for the rest of your life until you are so famous you can just say “Oh hi, I’m J.K. Rowling.” And there’s no further explanation needed.
In many ways the entire process of packaging and marketing a book is an attempt to answer this question. The cover copy should obviously tell the reader what the book is about, but so should the images on the cover itself, the book’s title, and even the font of the book’s title.
Titles have been on my mind quite a lot lately as we’ve been trying to come up with a new one for my book. On the one hand, brainstorming about titles can be a fun exercise, and it’s awesome to have such bright bookish minds weighing in; on the other hand, the whole discussion makes me want to take a long nap. This book has been in my life for thirteen years. I’ve had dozens of drafts and working titles over those years: short dramatic ones, long overwrought ones, pseudo-intellectual obscure ones pulled form lines of poetry. At this point, I feel like a bride who has tried on too many wedding dresses.
And a book’s title is important with a capital “I”—you dream of people calling it by its name. “Have you read The Book yet? You must. It’s so good.” But what name should that be? Out of the 80,000 words that comprise the final book, how do I choose two or three to introduce it to the world? One simple phrase to answer the eternal question: “What is your book about?”