Judging a book by its cover doesn’t only mean judging the design—readers also make judgments based on the title.
Everyone is warned at some time or another to not judge a book by its cover. Regardless of this age-old adage, the reality is that a book’s cover is instrumental in persuading potential readers. Design is important, but authors and publishers may not be considering the impact of a title. And a new study suggests that the title might play an even larger role for the reader than we think.
Sara Bartl and Ernestine Lahey explore the functions of a title in their study “‘As the Title Implies’: How Readers Talk about Titles in Amazon Book Reviews.” They discuss three typical roles that a title plays: referential (acting as a proper noun that gives identification), commercial (persuading readers like an advertisement), and hermeneutical (providing expectations for the content).
Although all of these roles work together in different ways, such as the referential matter also providing commercial value for a publisher, Bartl and Lahey hypothesized that readers would prioritize one of these roles over the others. To test this hypothesis, they took millions of public Amazon book reviews and filtered them down to those that discussed book titles. Those reviews were then uploaded to a corpus to produce collocates, or words that frequently appear near a specific word.
Of the 50 identified collocates that frequently co-occurred with “title,” 21 were verbs that reference the hermeneutical function of the title, such as “implies, indicates, misled, and promises” (2023, 218). Along with this, a reported 25% of the reviews commented on the inappropriateness of a title, indicating that readers were using the title to anticipate the content of a book. Bartl and Lahey commented, “This suggested to us that readers expect titles to fit the content of their attendant texts and deem it worthy of comment when this is not the case” (2023, 214). Ultimately, the results of the study pointed to this contextual or hermeneutical importance of a title in the minds of readers.
Readers instinctively begin to formulate a world from the moment they read the title of a book. This world is then adjusted or completely replaced as they actually begin reading the story (Bartl and Lahey 2023, 225). Readers’ satisfaction depends on how much adjusting they have to do while reading, and dissatisfaction occurs when the world they build from the title doesn’t match the book’s content. Titles are essentially promises and can build trust between a reader and an author. If those promises are kept, the reader will return not only informed but satisfied. So when it comes to a book’s title, authors and publishers should carefully consider what hermeneutical promises they are making.
To learn more about the role of titles in book engagement, read the full article:
Bartl, Sara, and Ernestine Lahey. 2023. “‘As the Title Implies’: How Readers Talk about Titles in Amazon Book Reviews.” Language and Literature 32, no. 2: 209–230. https://doi.org/10.1177/09639470221147788
—Adi Marshall, Editing Research
FEATURE IMAGE BY POLINA ZIMMERMAN
Find more research
Read Eli Gibbon’s Editing Research article to learn about elements of titles that increase reader interaction: “This Titling Tip Could Save Your Academic Paper.”
Check out Rachel Robert’s Editing Research article for more information on how design elements are influential on book covers: “Seeking Attention: What Covers Attract Readers?”
Read Christina Schmidt-Stölting, Eva Blömeke, and Michel Clement’s (2011) article to find out more about potential physical factors that influence the marketing success of a book: “Success Drivers of Fiction Books: An Empirical Analysis of Hardcover and Paperback Editions in Germany.” Journal of Media Economics 24: 24–47. https://doi.org/10.1080/08997764.2011.549428