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November 1, 2012

"One of the things that academic authors get very vexed about is the title of their book. They also often get very concerned about what goes on the cover," declares Pat Thomson, professor of education at the University of Nottingham.

Writing for the London School of Economics' Impact of Social Sciences blog, Professor Thomson explores the importance of taking an intelligent approach to the naming and presentation of one's book to ensure maximum impact. She begins with a confessional.

"A while ago, I co-edited two handbooks for doctoral researchers. My co-editor and I decided to alternate the order of names so that she would be first editor on one, and I would be first on the other." However, this "democratic and fair distribution of attributions" only served to land the volumes in trouble.

"What we hadn't considered was that in university bookshops, and in bookshops catering for university students, the books were often filed alphabetically," she writes.

The result? Rather than being seen as a pair, the texts were often placed as separate titles on separate shelves. "Whether this ultimately affected sales isn't really clear," she adds, "but it was an interesting thing for all of us to think about!"

As for a book's appearance, Professor Thomson has experienced design challenges. After penning School Leadership: Heads on the Block?, a title that looked at the poor treatment of headteachers, discussions commenced about how the book would look.

"I was particularly concerned about the cover... and after much toing and froing between the designers, the publisher and me, we decided on a pretty graphic picture of a head-like chap slumped against a wall looking very stressed. I loved it," she writes.

However, there was a problem. "Heads don't want to read about hard times," Professor Thomson found. "It turns out that people who teach and research leadership largely recommend and buy the triumphal books. That's why there are so many of them."

Ultimately, buyers were not attracted in great numbers to either the title or the cover - despite the fact that both aptly represented the argument made in the book.

"It was actually the nature of the book rather than its title or cover that was the issue. However, this might have been less obvious had we chosen a less graphic title and cover," Professor Thomson admits.

She adds that "clever titles" that "don't give much away" can be used, but mainly by "star" academics "whose name alone is enough to sell their books. For the rest of us, the clever bits are at best left for strap lines."

Covers, it seems, are less important. Despite one of her later books having a cover "so awful I can't bear to put the picture of it here", Professor Thomson says this made "no difference to sales".

"I've learned that book covers probably don't do much other than reinforce the message given by the title and the contents. What matters most is that the cover design allows the title to be read clearly when the image is compressed to the size it appears in catalogues and online."

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