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What's in a name?

23 April 2007

According to a recent American study, quite a lot in terms of influencing book purchasers' decisions. Readers were asked what prompted them to buy a book and told they could choose more than one answer. 45% chose familiarity with the author and clearly authors as brands are a major feature of the bestseller lists.

The writer Douglas Adams had a theory that a short surname and slightly longer second name would work best for authors. But Richard Wiseman has argued recently in the Bookseller that thriller writers at least are most likely to succeed if they have longer surnames than first names, as in Dan Brown, Ian Rankin or Ian Fleming.

Wiseman also went on to point out that researchers at MIT have shown a linguistic effect, relating to where in the mouth the vowel sound is produced. Names with 'front-sounding' vowels, such as Craig and Ben, would do better than those with the 'back-sounding' vowels found in names such as John and George. It looks as if authors with these names, including Dick Francis, have done well and there may be some truth in this as regards thriller writers.

No-one has yet done a similar study on women fiction writers or genres such as romance, but it would be interesting to see whether a romantic-sounding name has helped these writers' careers. Good names such as Danielle Steel, Catherine Cookson and Rosamunde Pilcher come to mind.

But those who are dubious about the real effect of all of this will have their cynicism reinforced by the fact that the American survey put a friend's recommendation as the most potent factor at 49%. This reinforces what we all know, which is that word-of-mouth is the most potent of all marketing tools.

There might be a certain amount of irritation in certain quarters relating to the other results of the survey. Advertising scored only 21% and place on the bestseller lists just 17% (this one is a bit hard to believe, but we don't like to think we are influenced by mere bestsellerdom). The jacket copy scored a quite high 32% and but jacket design only 12%, although it could have a greater effect in terms of encouraging us to pick the book up in the first place.

The big surprise is that the figure for reviews is only 22%, which will cause reviewers to realise how little effect they have. Reviewers probably only influence the more upmarket heavy book buyers - readers in general are more than twice as likely to be guided by personal recommendation.

The moral seems to be that writers need above all else to get word-of-mouth going for their work. A good name may help to build your brand. But all the tricks of the publishing trade will not work unless readers genuinely enjoy your book when they read it, and recommend it to others. It's quite comforting really.