The [Occupation]’s Wife or Daughter

One of a books key selling points is its title. The first thing a buyer notices when browsing the shelves or the internet is the cover, and from there, their eyes will be drawn to whatever dramatic script the publisher’s chosen to declare the name of the novel. That key phrase is what will make the buyer pull the book off the physical or metaphorical shelf, and if you don’t have a good title your book is doomed from the very beginning. So how and why do publishers pick a “good title,” and why do those titles appeal to the audience. There are clear trends we can analyze to try and answer that question.

Surely, there have been many formulas developed by big publishers as to how to write a compelling title. You can probably spot some of them browsing through any selection of Best-Sellers. There’s the one-word titles: Twilight, Atonement, Beloved, Pretties, It, Room, Holes. The simplicity of these titles is compelling and catchy, a one word summary of the heart of the book. Then there’s the reverse of that – the eccentrically long titles. Titles such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, all sound quirky and different, intelligent and interesting.

There is a third trend, one that, for lack of a better term we’ll call “The [occupation]’s Wife or Daughter” title. Books with titles that follow this formula have been popular for years, but in the past several years there have been several that have been bestsellers. In 2003, The Time Travelers Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger debuted at number nine on the New York Times Best-Seller List. Part of that success was due to an aggressive marketing campaign by the publishers, but it rapidly became a nation-wide favorite, and was made into a (mediocre) film.  

Kim Edwards’ The Memory Keeper’s Daughter was published in 2005, and quickly shot to number one on the New York Times Best-Seller list. The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch was published in Germany in 2008 and was so successful it was translated and published in America in 2010. The series had sold over 800,000 copies by the time the 4th title in the series was published in 2013. And of course, the New York Times best-selling novel The Zookeeper’s Wife, though published in 2008, is slated to become a major motion picture in the next couple of years.

This trend has been noticed by others, and has spawned a long list of titles that follow the formula.  There’s The Shoemaker’s Wife, The Chameleon’s Wife, The Mermaid’s Daughter, the list goes on and on.  Another bestselling book My Sister’s Keeper, was at least smart enough to twist the formula a little. But what exactly makes this formula such a compelling one? The simplest thing to note is the rule of three. A three-word title has punch. Next time you’re book shopping, look around and count how many you can find. There is another, more complex aspect to it though. None of these books are in the same genre. Time Traveler’s Wife is a romance, Memory Keeper’s Daughter is a family drama, Hangman’s a historical thriller, and Zookeeper’s wife is a true story from WWII, set in Nazi Germany. What does connect them is human relationships. People are always compelled by stories of human connection and drama. If you can inject that relationship directly into the title, people are going to be interested.

An interesting detail to note is the gender bias of the formula. In searching only one title feature a male counterpart – The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson. And an instance where the title read “The [Blanks] Husband,” was nowhere to be found. Whether this is from some latent bigotry, or simply because publishers are targeting a female audience, I can’t say. But it does provide an unexplored niche, and an opportunity for a publisher to do something new. So, when you see the new bestselling novel The Slug Farmer’s husband, you’ll know who’s taken advantage of it.

In the end, these titles aren’t everything. A badly-written book is bad, regardless of the catchy title. But it does impact that initial interest, it can be the reason you pick the book off the shelf. Some people buy books based on title and cover alone. So, next time you see a good title, ask yourself why it’s good. It could be that a publisher’s using a tried and true formula to live off another books glory.


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