Publisher Emmanuel Haldeman-Julius sold somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 million staple-bound books between 1919-1978. They were part of a series he called Little Blue Books. If a book didn’t sell well Haldeman-Julius would get rid of it. But then one day he thought, “Maybe the titles suck?” So, he’d change them.
Guy de Maupassant’s book sold 15,000 copies as The Tallow Ball by but when Haldeman-Julius changed the title to A French Prostitute’s Sacrifice it sold 54,700.
Oscar Wilde’s Pen, Pencil and Poison sold 5,000 copies. The title changed to The Story of a Notorious Criminal and sold 15,800 copies.
Théophile Gautier’s book sold 6,000 under the title, Fleece of Gold, but 50,000 as The Quest for a Blonde Mistress.
Haldeman-Julius noticed that even a couple of words in a title could make a difference. The Mystery of the Iron Mask sold 11,000 copies. The Mystery of the Man in the Iron Mask sold 30,000.
Haldeman-Julius provided these sales figures decades ago in books and articles cataloging his success. His fans included Gore Vidal, William S. Burroughs, Saul Bellow, Jack Kerouac, and Margaret Mead. You can read more about this fascinating man at Haldeman-Julius.org.
At the risk of stating the obvious, Haldeman-Julius proved that titles are vital to the success of a book.
The truth is that beautiful titles often die ugly deaths and ugly titles often bloom beautifully. I have changed titles to no avail and I have changed titles to stellar sales. While it isn’t a given that a better title results in moving product, there is no denying a title’s powerful pull toward purchase.