Try Out Your Title
If you’ve ever been to New York City (or any large city) in the downtown area, you’ve seen the afternoon street vendors trying to get your attention. These vendors have a few seconds to catch your attention and make a possible sale.
This week’s New Yorker magazine reminded me about this quick sales technique. “Selling the News” by Ben McGrath writes about the challenge of reading either the Times or the Post and the way to cut to the essence of the headlines saying, “For those without a staff, and without the time or the patience to muddle through more than one paper, there is Carlos, a young man of indeterminate origin and background (“I’m from everywhere and nowhere,” he says), who, for the past several months, has stood at the southwest corner of Forty-second and Eighth, by the entrance to the Port Authority Bus Terminal, greeting evening commuters with a simple one-line digest of the latest in world affairs: “Bush nominates a lady with zero experience to the highest court in the land!” or, “Archeologists find proof that Jews existed!” Carlos is one of about two dozen men stationed in the area each afternoon who offer morning newspapers at half price, but he seems to be alone among the venders in his old-fashioned conviction that the news must be sold rather than simply bought. Unlike his forebears, the old barking newsboys with their evening editions, Carlos, who wears a fedora and a neatly trimmed mustache, has no “Extra!” for anyone to read all about. He relies on his ability to cut through the blather, pinpointing essential truths that busy nine-to-fivers may have missed over their morning coffee.”
You can compare headlines in a newspaper to the titles for your book or magazine article. Each one serves the same function. The title grabs a busy reader and draws them to start reading your article or your book proposal or your manuscript. As an editor, a title will draw me into reading your manuscript. Too often a writer will simply include the title as an afterthought or slap something into place. Some times the query or proposal doesn’t even have a title. It’s a key mistake that some writers make with their submissions. You need to actively work on the title for your article or book proposal. Try out your title on a few people—and see if it draws them to your book. It’s a good test. Act like a newspaper hawker who has to sell papers. You are trying to sell your book idea or your magazine article. Does your title have what it takes?
I’ve been thinking about these newspaper salesmen because I’m off to New York City tomorrow for several days. It’s the mid-year board meeting of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (my first one). It should be another great learning experience for me and I’ve got a series of meetings scheduled for Friday. Maybe I can get a new entry about the writing life written on the road.