It came as a blow to my chest. The first email I received from my editor, less than 24 hours after submitting my academic book proposal, made me want to crawl under a rock:
The proposal looks solid, and I would like to see the manuscript. Before you send it, though, I’m going to be slightly rude and tell you that your title is terrible. In the Google Age, titles have to be both search engine friendly and accurately descriptive. I hope this friendly advice is helpful.
His advice was, of course, spot on and ultimately very welcome. My title at the time, Display on Display, would not give readers an accurate and easily accessible sense of the important work the book was doing.
Namely, my editor was right to point out that our work needs to be discoverable by the audience we are hoping to reach and immediately classifiable in relevant fields.
But, now looking back on the process, I wish I had taken this advice one step further. I wish I had made my title and main idea what Dan Heath Calls “sticky.” According to his research, sticky ideas follow the “SUCCESS” formula: they are Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, and Story-based. In academic titles, the “Simple,” “Concrete” and perhaps “Unexpected” dimensions are likely most relevant.
To really do service to our research projects, they not only need to be discoverable by the right audience (as my editor pointed out), but they also need to be memorable and spreadable. Think about some of the canonical and recent texts that have spread rapidly across your field. I bet they have sticky titles, like the “Death of the Author” (Barthes), The Black Atlantic (Gilroy), and Multidirectional Memory (Rothberg).
Of course, the utility of “stickiness” is not limited to the realm of book publishing. Now, I regularly try to look for ways I can make ideas I present in my classes and other academic writing “sticky.” But, if you’re publishing your first academic book, I urge you to spend serious time making sure you get the name of your book and your main idea right. It might mean the difference between others engaging your ideas and them being lost in obscurity.