YOU CAN'T sell a book that isn't picked up---anymore than you can baptize by mail!
The title sells the book---with help, of course, from what's inside and how it looks and where it is displayed. But the best book in the world, without a good title, hasn't a chance---unless it has a captive audience! Titles also sell evangelistic programs also, of course, with help from what's inside.
All of us are concerned these days about how to reach the vast, diversified, uncaring masses who need a message from the throne and don't know it. Not only are we not hitting the target, we aren't even aiming at it. We write books for Adventist Book Centers. And then we seem to think that if we generate a little gust of Madison-Avenue wind it will blow some of them right into the airports and supermarkets!
Marketing is much in our thinking. If we could only get some of our books into these paper back outlets certainly they would sell by the millions we think. So advertising methods are discussed by the hour. But Jesus told us we ought to do some things and not leave other things undone!
There is now a growing awareness that special attention needs to be given to the content of a book if we are to reach these non-Adventist markets. The audience we want to touch is definitely not a captive audience. Names familiar to us are not familiar to them. The name Ellen White, dear as it is to us, rings no bell at all in minds that have never heard of her.
One problem with some of our books today, and articles as well, is that they have the ring or perhaps I should say the dull thud of rehash. Some articles written today could easily be interchanged with articles written a half century ago and it would be difficult to tell which is which. There are dear saints who will read every one of our papers from cover to cover. And maybe all of us ought to. But personally, when the first paragraph or two makes me feel that I've read the article years ago, 1 turn the page. Undoubtedly I miss some good things tucked away in the latter part of these articles.
But that's an important point. If you have something to say that is vital or unusual or especially urgent, put it up front in the first paragraph. There was a day when every sermon began with a text of Scripture. And I'm all for saturating our material with Scripture. But it doesn't hurt to shake up the sequence a little. Do it a little differently. If you don't capture the interest in the first couple of paragraphs you may not have a chance to capture it anywhere else!
Need Contemporary Approaches
Don't misunderstand. Truth does not change. Truth must not be tampered with. But there are a thousand ways to approach truth. We need to find contemporary approaches. We need to talk about things people are interested in today. Truth is always up to the minute. But are we? Some preachers are still using the invention of the reaper as one of the signs of the times!
Certain words and combinations of words have been used so much and for so long that they don't register. People don't hear them. The good writer doesn't use big words necessarily. The best writers are those who use plain, simple, short, understandable words, but combine them in fresh ways.
I found the book entitled The Jesus Story, by William Emerson, Jr., especially helpful in this matter of fresh words. Bill Emerson is the former editor of The Saturday Evening Post. He calls the synagogue a meetinghouse, for instance. And he speaks of Jesus hiking here or there. Read it if you feel you need to get out of a word rut. Why should we keep talking about a sanctuary in the wilderness, or a tabernacle? Why not a portable temple--in the desert or on the plain?
Our leaders are aware that books for the vast non-Adventist public need to be specially prepared, not just dressed up with a new cover. They feel that the creation of such books is urgent. The thought is that men who are expert in certain fields should be asked to write these books. This is good. But I hope those concerned are equally aware that being highly qualified in an area does not necessarily make a man a good writer. A degree, even in journalism, does not necessarily convey creative writing ability. Fortunately, we do have men who not only know their subject but can write it down.
Right here I would like to include one of my favorite Ellen White quotations. I have it framed. "All who engage in ministry are God's helping hand. They are co-workers with the angels; rather, they are the human agencies through whom the angels accomplish their mission. Angels speak through their voices, and work by their hands. And the human workers, co-operating with heavenly agencies, have the benefit of their education and experience. As a means of education, what 'university course' can equal this?" --Education, p. 271.
The education and the experience of the angels! This is the help I need. Don't we all?
Must Capture Attention
But now back to titles. No matter how well written the book, no matter how fresh and con temporary the approach, if the title does not capture attention it doesn't have a chance! Why? Because a book isn't sold without first being picked up. And a book with a poor title isn't picked up. It isn't turned down. It just isn't considered.
Through the years some have had the idea that if only we could get a book like The Great Controversy into the bookracks it would reach the masses who need to be reached. But would it? Is it really only a marketing problem?
There is no book more worthy of being on those racks. But just picture what it would have to compete with. Titles like The Boys on the Bus; The Billion- Dollar Sure Thing; The Dogs of War; The Wall Street Came; The Secret Life of Plants; Reincarnation; Inside the Flying Saucers; Gods From Outer Space; Witchcraft, Magic and Occultism; The Psychic World of Peter Hurkos; You Can Communicate With the Unseen World; I'm OK, You're OK—and on and on, even a series of three books called Her, Him, and Us!
Now into all this we manage to place a book called The Great Controversy—or perhaps still less appealing to the modern mind, The Triumph of God's Love. I wouldn't want to volunteer for the experiment, but I rather think that if I were to stand around and watch one of these bookracks for a week I wouldn't see the book picked up once!
Non-Adventist writers seem to be catching on to the importance of a good title. In fact, a lot of books in Christian bookstores today have nothing to recommend them but the title. As proof I wish I had a count of the number of books I have purchased because of the title even good chapter titles only to find them not worth ten minutes of reading time.
Take the spectacular popularity of Hal Lindsay's The Late Great Planet Earth. The title, he said in a television interview, was adapted from The Last Days of the Late, Great State of California. The book is not especially well written, nor is it doctrinally sound. But its phenomenal sale has demonstrated three things: 1. What a good title will do. 2. That people today are so eager to know about the future they will buy most anything that promises to inform them. 3. That people will read a book saturated with Scripture.
Why aren't we paying more attention to titles? Why is a title so often considered as simply a necessary appendage to be tacked on the front before the book is printed, or something we dash off at the last minute in preparing a handbill?
Don't Stop Until Satisfied
In my work with the It Is Written telecast I have particularly enjoyed the involvement with titles. Sometimes they tumble out. Sometimes I have written whole pages of suggested titles the other day almost a scratch pad full. The only rule: don't stop till you are satisfied!
When our office was located in the South Building at the General Conference, occasionally I would take two or three suggested titles around on our floor and take a little survey. I remember that in the case of one of Elder Vandeman's books his suggestion of Hammers in the Fire won out over a couple of suggestions of mine. Of course, the Insurance Service was on our floor and one of the men told me they were always interested in any thing concerning fire!
One of our favorite titles through the years has been "Red Stairs to the Sun." This is from the red sandstone steps at Petra that lead to an ancient altar of sun worship.
In the last series of programs taped, these titles were included: "Prophets in Paperback," "The Truth About Exorcism," "The Day the Cat Jumped," "The Blood on the Doorpost," "Automatic Nightmares," and "Do You Care Who Heals You?"
This brings up a question on which there is room for more than one opinion. Is it better to use a title that arouses curiosity but does not reveal the content? Or is it better to tell people exactly what you are going to talk about? Personally I like titles that stir curiosity. But that is probably more preference than conviction.
The choice should be decided, it seems to me, on the basis of what is most likely to lead people to pick up the book, read the article, dial your pro gram, or come to your meeting. Among the titles just mentioned, probably "Prophets in Paper back" is an example of a title that both tells what it is about and arouses curiosity. With the present popularity of exorcism and faith healing certainly a direct mention would have more drawing power.
There may come a day when the second coming of Christ will be much in the minds of the public. But at present, if you wish to talk about the return of Christ, wouldn't "The Day the Cat Jumped" possibly have more appeal than "Will Christ Return in Our Day?" or "Remember Pearl Harbor"? If you want to know what a jumping cat has to do with either one, tune in the program and see!
"The Blood on the Doorpost" we thought was an appropriate title. It deals with the plagues of Egypt and the seven last plagues. And it is given a contemporary flavor by Velikovsky's attributing of the plagues of Egypt to natural causes, and David Wilkerson's doing the same thing with the plagues of the future.
Some of the titles now in preparation for the next taping are: "The Hypnosis of Despair," "Bow or Burn," "Fire Trucks and Floods," and "The Night Freight to Orion." This last is about life on other worlds and is adapted from astronomer Carl Sagan's chapter title "The Night Freight to the Stars." "Burning Bushes and Barefoot Men" is a program on the Sabbath, and we owe our thanks to Marvin Moore for his willingness to let us use the tie with the burning bush in the way he presented it at the recent editorial council.
For some time we have wanted a program on prayer. Of course, it could be called "Does God Answer Prayer?" or "Why Some Prayers Are Answered and Others Are Not." We tentatively decided on "You Can Dial Direct," but ended up with "Blink a Star If You Hear Me."
Titles for Public Meetings
Just a word about subject titles for public meetings. Those directly engaged in this type of evangelism know best the mood of the public and what will bring the people out. But certainly these subject titles are deserving of real effort. Busy men should guard against the temptation to get by with second or third generation hand-me-downs. The titles selected should capture interest without being sensational. They should not be cheap. And they should be honest. They should not lead people to feel they have been tricked. Nor should they give the impression that Dr. So-and-So has just returned from Egypt when the truth is well, you know how it goes!
I would like to mention one other matter about which I feel deeply. It is not directly concerned with titles and yet certainly it is relevant to the preparation of material for the contemporary mind. It seems to me that the sequence of subjects in our approach to the public, written or spoken, is sometimes too rigid. We think we have to present this before that, and that before this. As a result, many people hear only introductory subjects and are never even aware of some of the most important parts of our message. They just don't get that far. Or we don't. Why, for instance, should we be so hesitant to share the Spirit of Prophecy? Don't others have a right to know what we know? Other people today don't hide their prophets. Why should we?
Not only are we traditionally rigid in our sequence of subjects, but we tend to feel that each doctrine must be kept carefully labeled and in its own pigeonhole. Wouldn't it be all right to let them mingle a little bit? I have been absolutely intrigued the last year or so with the possibilities in taking some subject of contemporary interest and fastening perhaps two doctrines into that framework.
For an example, a recently produced It Is Written program is called "Cadillacs Aren't For Kids." This is about freedom and responsibility, and it focuses on the fact that freedom is for people old enough to handle it responsibly. That's why driver's licenses are not issued to 9-year-olds and why even a 16-year-old must first have an instruction permit. This is an opportunity, of course, to bring in the law of Cod. But it is also perfectly natural in this setting to point out that Adam was given only a temporary license to live, and that permanent, irrevocable licenses to live are not given out until Christ's return and then only to those who have proved they can be trusted with never-ending life. Here a second doctrine the non-immortality of man is brought in very logically and without a ripple.
In another instance--"The Impersonation Game"--
the framework is impersonation and deals with both Satan's impersonation of the dead and with his final impersonation of Christ again two doctrines in a contemporary setting.
We are all in a great work and in a critical hour. Certainly no group of God's servants have needed the benefit of the education and experience of the angels more than we!