In developing a previous post on this blog (“On The Level(s)”), Athol and I fell into a colloquy on the use of the letter “X” in naming. I liked the name (but not the content) of FX Network’s Brand X, starring Russell Brand. Athol mentioned The X Factor, which I thought sounded like a ripoff of The X Files…and we were off to the races.
It occurred to me that any letter of the alphabet might have its own resonance, which could be leveraged in naming. “X”, with connotations of adult content on the one hand, and the unknown on the other, seemed like an especially strong candidate. I thought of comic books and movies about X-Men, and then I remembered…
In the thick of James Bond mania in the mid 1960s, the very talented writer of (mostly) science fiction, Robert Sheckley, came out with a spy novel, The Game of X. Sheckley took Hitchcock’s theme—ordinary man, wrong place-wrong time, finds it in himself to perform extraordinary deeds—and took it just as far as it could go. The Game of X tells the story of an average Joe, who, through a combination of extraordinary luck and perfect decision making, becomes a super secret agent. The general effect is as though Jimmy Stewart had morphed into Roger Moore by the end of North By Northwest.
Hmm…books with capital letters in the title…our next stop has to be Sue Grafton, who started her series about spunky female P.I. Kinsey Milhone with A is For Alibi, and has since worked her way through V is for Vengeance. (BTW, if you’re wondering about our choice of words in the title: turns out that “Xenocide” is not actually a word, though it has been used as the title of a 1991 science fiction novel by Orson Scott Card!)
How do I judge Grafton’s choice, purely as a marketing technique? I’d say pretty good, and we have that rarity in marketing: a side-by-side with something close to scientific precision.
Karen Kijewski is a California-based author of a series of mysteries featuring tough-as-nails Sacramento resident amateur sleuth Kat Colorado…any of this sounding familiar? It should; if you read either Grafton or Kijewski, you’ll find yourself on to the ultimate Amazon “If you liked this…you’ll also like that.” IMO, the Kat Colorados are every bit as good (and individual) as the Kinsey Milhones… so why is one much more famous than the other, even though they’re working the same territory in a way we haven’t seen since The Beach Boys and Jan & Dean?
Here’s one theory: take a look at the following table…
…and ask yourself the following question: I’m looking to pick up a work I know I’ll like at an airport books store, between flights; how can I remember whether or not I’ve already read a work by one of my favorite authors?
Answer: Grafton gives you an ordered taxonomy of titles, and helps you out. Kijewski…not so much.
I first ran across the airport bookstore theory a while back when I read an article about how the novels in the Travis McGee series (by the late, lamented John D. MacDonald) got their names. (Since his passing, his works no longer dominate airport book shops, so some “high concept” for our younger readers: imagine Robert B. Parker’s Spenser gets an epiphany that he has no earthly reason to put up with New England winters and his over-educated girlfriend, and moves his operations to a Florida houseboat. A little over-simplified, but you get the idea.)
For purposes of comparison, consider these five McGee titles:
- The Turquoise Lament (1973)
- The Dreadful Lemon Sky (1974)
- The Empty Copper Sea (1978)
- The Green Ripper (1979)
- Free Fall in Crimson (1981)
Though the colors are not in any particular order (cf. Grafton), they have the advantage of cuing people whose memories and thought processes are more visual than verbal; you don’t even need to remember the title of the last one you purchased, just whether or not the color on the cover looks familiar.
Let’s finish it out with one more recommendation of a personal favorite…and maybe yet another sensory-based title sequence. Though I’m far from a feminist, I can certainly enjoy a well-written work about a strong female protagonist, be she Kinsey Milhone, Kat Colorado…or my all-time favorite in this category, Chicago PD Lieutenant Jacqueline “Jack” Daniels. The truly amazing writings of J.A. Konrath include, among others:
- Fuzzy Navel (2008) – 5th in Jack Daniels series
- Dirty Martini (2007) – 4th in Jack Daniels series
- Rusty Nail (2006) – 3rd in Jack Daniels series
- Bloody Mary (2005) – 2nd in Jack Daniels series
- Whiskey Sour (2004) – 1st in Jack Daniels series
Trust me on this…check these out.
Well, time for me to get back to the old Mechanical Turk, top up my Amazon account so I can order up a new “Jack” Daniels—even though Konrath has somewhat broken the pattern by calling #7 Shaken. Good or bad marketing? We shall see…