The challenge of the title

by Russ Roberts on August 2, 2007

in Books

I want to thank everyone who commented on the recent post asking for reactions to potential titles for my next book. Here I’d like to tell you a little bit more about the book and try out some new candidates and get your reaction again.

The challenge is that the book is both a novel and a primer on a variety of economic topics. So a title that describes the plot of the book, The Prince and the Provost, say, tells you nothing about what you might learn.  A title that describes the economics the book will teach you tells you, How Prices Sustain and Expand Our Standard of Living (to highlight one of the main themes) doesn’t alert you to the book being a novel and maybe a little more pleasant than your standard non-fiction treatise.

My last book, The Invisible Heart, had an ideal title. It captured the economics (that the invisible hand is more compassionate than you might think) and a key part of the plot–that one of the main characters, Sam Gordon, is actually a pretty decent guy even though he’s a believer in capitalism and markets.

So let me give you the basic outline of the plot of this book and then you can react to a few more titles. In laying out the plot, I’ll mimic what the back cover blurb might look like. Dashes indicate where the title would go:

Tuesdays with Morrie meets The Wealth of Nations in this offbeat novel by economist Russell Roberts. In the spirit of his first two books The Invisible Heart and The Choice, —————— is the story of Ramon Fernandez, a Cuban-American tennis prodigy on scholarship at Stanford University. Ramon is having dinner with his girlfriend when an earthquake shakes the campus knocking out power for hours.  Finishing their dinner by candlelight, they set off in search of flashlights, batteries, milk and ice, but everyone is sold out, save one giant retailer that is fully stocked but is charging double their regular prices. Outraged at this gouging, Ramon finds himself involved in a campus protest against the retailer, a significant donor to Stanford. Ramon’s involvement in the protest draws the interest of the Provost, Ruth Lieber, who is also a professor of economics at the University.

For reasons Ramon cannot understand, the Provost starts finding him on campus and engaging him in conversation about economics. Along the way, Ramon (and the reader) learn about about spontaneous order and the role that
prices and entrepreneurs play in creating and sustaining our standard of living. Ramon learns about the marvel that is the market and how our choices can seamlessly merge with those of our neighbors without anyone being in charge, creating the endless possibilities our lives can embrace. Ramon is surprised to discover that economics is as inspiring to the soul as it is to the pocketbook, but it is only at the end that he and the reader discover just what is motivating Ruth Lieber’s interest in him. Part primer, part drama, and part tribute to the power of teaching ——- is the story of a teacher, her student and what we all can learn about the hidden order that surrounds and sustains us.

The best titles capture the essence of a book and are easy to remember. The challenge of this title is that I hope that the book is more than a dry treatise on economics and that the fictional element gives the economic lesson a poetry that it might not otherwise have. You want the title to convey more than just that the book’s about economics. That is what is missing or at least partly missing from The Price of Everything. (BTW, right now there is a chapter with that title where Ruth tries to answer the charge that economists know the price of everything and the value of nothing.) There are two other attributes of an ideal title. When you finish the book, you come to understand a deeper meaning of the title. It enhances the satisfaction you get from the book. And finally, the ideal title, helps you, the reader of the book who I hope will love it, get a friend to read the book who might not otherwise pick it up. So imagine finishing the book I’ve described above and telling a friend about it. "You should read it," you explain. "What’s it called," your friend asks. "_______" you reply, "it’s about ……" The title should help you finish that last sentence in a way that makes your friend want to read the book. So here are some more candidates (including some from the last round). Please use the comments to vote or make other suggestions. Remember, there can be a subtitle that talks about the economics or the fiction depending on which is emphasized in the main title:

The Price of Everything
How Little We Know
The Goose that Lays the Golden Eggs
The Uncharted Journey
The Sum of the Parts
Consider Her Ways, Be Wise
The Rest of the Picture
A Price Too High
The Prince and the Provost
The Poet of Possibility
The Poet of Prosperity
The Secret Symphony
The Secret of the Unconducted Symphony
The Tree of Knowledge
The Untold Story
Endless Possibilities

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Sam Grove August 2, 2007 at 6:56 pm

The Price is Right

Sorry, couldn't help it.

Patrick R. Sullivan August 2, 2007 at 7:16 pm

My favorite lesson in economics, since it's so short, is the Aesop fable in your list. So, maybe 'Sauce for the Goose'.

Andy August 2, 2007 at 7:21 pm

If the provost ends up making advances towards Ramon, I'd go with 'A Price Too High' and a subtitle about how price is relative and everything has a price.

If the retailer theme is more central to the story, then maybe the 'Price is Right' or 'The Price of Everything.'

Hard to say without have read the book, but the Price is Right sounds very good.

Unit August 2, 2007 at 7:21 pm


this might be too much of a copycat, but it sounds like your novel is part "Campus-novel", and one of the most entertaining ones is David Lodge's "Changing Places: A tale of two campuses". So what about "Changing Prices: A Tale of two Lives"?

Unit August 2, 2007 at 7:28 pm

Also, I haven't been able to make this work but the word "priceless" has been used a lot in commercials of late. So something like "Nothing is Priceless" or "Priceless Knowledge", …. Sorry for not sticking with the ones you provided.

Tim Vock August 2, 2007 at 7:32 pm

How about, "Out with the Bathwater"?

It could allude to people disliking temporarily high prices, and so throw out the free market that makes things available and cheap. It could also allude in some way to the relationship between Ramon and his new mentor.

David August 2, 2007 at 7:50 pm

Costly Lessons.

The Todd August 2, 2007 at 8:02 pm

I really like, "How Little We Know," which I feel has great economic significance in addition to story significance.

Dan August 2, 2007 at 8:14 pm

I always thought "The Cost of Living" would make a good title for an economics novel.

CRC August 2, 2007 at 8:21 pm

I like "The Price of Everything".

tw August 2, 2007 at 8:21 pm


I'd try to play off a tennis term that can have double-meaning given the economics situation: "The Price Racket" or "The Price of Service"….something along those lines. Neither one is perfect, but if you can get the tennis tie-in that can also lead into/refer to the "price gouging" situation, it'd be ideal.

Unit August 2, 2007 at 8:23 pm

One more and then I stop:

"The Price of Knowledge: A Tale of Survival and Discovery"

lowcountryjoe August 2, 2007 at 8:23 pm

Nice to see how the 'symphony' angle is emerging as I see that you've taken someone's sugggestion of a symphony without a conductor and modified it. In that suggestion from the previous blog entry, the person, if memory serves, had the word 'harmony' proposed in a hypothetical title — and I really liked that.

I'd suggest that you drop 'secret' and go with something such as A Harmonized, Unconducted Symphony. It's pretty obvious that your inclination is to go with the symphony and I'm onboard with it too, FWIW.

Randomscrub August 2, 2007 at 8:42 pm

Given your Hayekian tendencies, I'm frankly astounded that "The Spontaneous Symphony" isn't up there yet. Alliterative and Hayekian! Although I wish I could come up with a way to retain the "unconducted" part as well, I think the spontaneity is something you'd like to emphasize.

I'm also partial to "The Price of Everything" and "The Sum of the Parts."

Brad August 2, 2007 at 8:43 pm

Match point: The price we're willing to pay. (With apologies to James Blake's "Breaking Back").

Unit August 2, 2007 at 8:45 pm

Comic relief: A quick search in Google showed that "The Price of Knowledge" would compete with newspaper articles about rising college tuition (college element there), a movie about life in Bhutan and this youtube video:

Biomed Tim August 2, 2007 at 9:11 pm


I felt the same thing after reading the Invisible Heart, but I almost wish that there was absolutely NO MENTION of the word "economics" anywhere in the title or the front/back cover.

The reason is that I think people who will benefit the most from reading this book (as well as the Invisible Heart) are also the types of people who will be turned off by the word "economics." In fact, that was the only thing which prevented me from buying multiple copies of IH and giving it out to my friends because I knew they wouldn't read it as soon as they saw the back cover.

It sounds like the economic content is solid in the novel so I think you should just let the story speak for itself, without telling readers that they're getting an economic lesson out of it.

I strongly believe you'll attract more readers that way.

Jeremy August 2, 2007 at 10:52 pm

Gouged: How I learned to stop worrying and love the market

Stephen W. Stanton August 2, 2007 at 10:56 pm

Undercharge your enemies
-Gouge the ones you love-

Shortage of Compassion

Tough Love for Fun and Profit

Well-Intended Famine

Nice guys screw up everything
- Needy folks finish last –

The Profiteer
-An American Hero –

Robin Hood Sucks
-The poor really need price gouging-

"That Greedy SOB saved my A–!"

Expensive Blessings
- Disaster Recovery via the Profit Motive -

Ten Dollar Twinkies
- Totally ordinary and worth every penny –

Getting Hosed
- Good news when you're on fire –

Sold Out
- Your Money's no good thanks to some "nice" people –

Through the Nose
- Some things are worth paying Extra –

Bill August 2, 2007 at 11:18 pm

Now that you've shared a bit of the story, and particularly the beginning, how about:

"The Priceless Candle."

References to light hidden under baskets would also be in order.

Sam Grove August 3, 2007 at 12:25 am

An Invaluable Lesson

Ironman August 3, 2007 at 12:28 am

Sigh… I'm going to regret this:

The Price of Enlightenment

I believe this title works on just about every level you'd like it to.

Now, some questions:

1. Is there some sort of secret blog that you'll grant the provider of the winning title with full access?

2. Will there be a graphic novel version?

3. Did part of your research include riding around town looking for batteries with Cuban tennis prodigies?

Sanjiv August 3, 2007 at 12:30 am

I really like the ones involving the symphony theme, especially, "The secret of the unconducted symphony." Somebody earlier had suggested "Spontaneous Symphony" which is nice but I feel that the word "unconducted" is quite important. So, "The Secret of the Unconducted Symphony" is my pick. If you feel that this doesn't convey anything at all about what the book might contain, maybe you could go with "Markets: An Unconducted Symphony."
My two cents.

t freak August 3, 2007 at 2:18 am

"The book is called: "The Back of a Spoon". It is about stories about common things in daily life, just like a spoon, but with a different angle of view from what people commonly see it. And to understand the economic theories is just as easy as to turn around the spoon. Do you want to try it?"

Unit August 3, 2007 at 2:46 am

Some more:

"Signals of Hope"

"Follow the Signals"

"Unscripted Recipes"

"In Need of a Friend"

"On the Shoulders of Many"

"A web of Ties"

Bear with me, it's really late…

dipayan August 3, 2007 at 3:00 am

A Price Too High sounds sufficiently "novelish" while retaining the central argument of your book

Pretinieks August 3, 2007 at 3:52 am

A Journey [For Two] Beyond Free Lunch

Arnold Kling August 3, 2007 at 7:40 am

One thought:

"Not According to Plan"

Another thought: every good story needs a villain. If your story has a villain–the leader of the campus protest, perhaps the villain can have a tag line, motto, or slogan that can be the title of the book. The slogan could be something like "No Profits in an Emergency" or some such (I really haven't thought much about the slogan)

John Reed August 3, 2007 at 8:14 am

More Than Its Parts
A novel of counterintuitive cooperation.

Joe Martin August 3, 2007 at 8:23 am

I have to put in a vote for "The Secret Symphony". I agree that Unconducted Symphony or "The Secret of the Unconducted Symphony" are more accurate, but they're also clunky.

"The Secret Symphony" has a poetry that makes me want to pull it off the shelf and take a look. The other two are also good titles, but don't have the same minimalist elegance.

Just my two cents.

CD August 3, 2007 at 9:23 am

My favorite, as suggested by one of the previous commenters, is "The Spontaneous Symphony". To me, the word 'secret' involves central, underground coordination.

Arash August 3, 2007 at 9:23 am

I prefer "The Price of Everything" as I did before on your previous post (together with "The Ties That Bind" which obviously did not make it). "The Price of Everything" fits both, the novel dimension and the economics level. It is an eye-catcher which would get my attention in any bookstore. I could tell a friend to buy "The Price of Everything," since it is about "the boundaries of our existence, because it reveals the subtle principles which govern our everyday life but which is nevertheless a book written in splendid and comprehensive prose. It is a novel you can learn from and have fun" (… I guess). But here is the problem: From the Econ-tribe, I am not representative for your potential audience. Perhaps it is better to choose a title which we econs do not prefer. Salut.

Al Abbott August 3, 2007 at 9:34 am

"Princes and Prices"

JoshK August 3, 2007 at 9:35 am

Next time around , I think it would be more interesting to make a novel where markets aren't allowed to work and show society descending into chaos as government bureaucrats try to fix it with just one more program.

Or, you could do a real study on Zimbabwe. I think done right a lot of people would find it interesting.

bjartur August 3, 2007 at 9:39 am

c'mon, get on the bandwagon: "Provonomics"

vidyohs August 3, 2007 at 9:45 am

Well Russ,
My vote goes for a title much more simple and much more direct.

I suggest;

"Bite the hand that feeds".

I did not respond to your original challenge because your explanation was so vague I felt I would be shooting in the dark.

Now that you have laid out more details I believe the title I suggested will do exactly what you want the title to do, as you explained it above.


Eric August 3, 2007 at 9:50 am

I suggest "The Profit of Prosperity". Nice play on words.

Also, "The Price of Everything" (or anything with price, sale, etc…) will translate well into a intriguing cover.

Rich August 3, 2007 at 9:59 am

They lit candles after an earthquake? Not very wise: gas lines could easily have been ruptured in the quake. Ramon's girlfriend needs to keep a tiny flashlight in her purse. (Do today's cellphones have flashlights? That would be a good idea, wouldn't it?)

Vanya August 3, 2007 at 10:11 am

I think we need to know more about the characters, and especially about why this provost lady is so interested in the tennis-player kid. It sounds like this is the crux of the relationship that develops between the two, and it seems to me that this is what you should allude to in the title, and then you can hint at the economics lesson in the sub-title. (as in "TITLE — subtitle about economics"). Also, I don't know what this big secret is between the two characters, but I feel that it needs to be worth while. If the central mystery of the plot turns out to be lame, people are going to resent it. This central mystery also has to have something to do with the arcs of both of your main characters to tie the story together meaningfully.

Vanya August 3, 2007 at 10:13 am

I think we need to know more about the characters, and especially about why this provost lady is so interested in the tennis-player kid. It sounds like this is the crux of the relationship that develops between the two, and it seems to me that this is what you should allude to in the title, and then you can hint at the economics lesson in the sub-title. (as in "TITLE — subtitle about economics"). Also, I don't know what this big secret is between the two characters, but I feel that it needs to be worth while. If the central mystery of the plot turns out to be lame, people are going to resent it. This central mystery also has to have something to do with the arcs of both of your main characters to tie the story together meaningfully.

cpurick August 3, 2007 at 10:15 am

A/The Price of Honor
A/The Fairest Price
The Good/Best Price
The Shameless Thief
[A/The] Higher/Highest Value(s)
The Price of Having
A Value Earned/Gained

Email me to get the mailing address for my free advance copy.

Fabio Franco August 3, 2007 at 10:17 am

"You should read it," you explain.
"What's it called," your friend asks.
"The Unexamined Price", you reply, "it's about a professor who opens his pupil's eyes to a bunch of wrong assumptions about economics, much like Socrates did with his pupils when he said 'the unexamined life is not worth living'.

Don August 3, 2007 at 10:25 am

Something about equilibrium which can refer also to new states of understanding or emotional maturity that we arrive at in our personal journeys. I don't know…"Finding Equilibrium" or "Crashing into Equilibrium" or "Seeking Equilibrium" or "Mugged by Equilibrium"…someting about how Ramon arrives at a new outlook and is contented after some major shifts in circumstances.

Joe Buch August 3, 2007 at 10:26 am

"Price of Everything" sounds too much like a textbook to me, I don't get the novel feel. Also, unless the teacher dwells on the symphony nature of the marketplace, that reference implies a musical character to the book which doesn't seem to be there.

One of my favorite movie lines is in Kill Bill 2 when Bill curiously looks at Bud and says, "You pawned a Hatori Hanzo sword. That sword was priceless." And Bud responds, "Not in El Paso it ain't. In El Paso it's worth $250."

Why not a play on the price/worth dichotomy with a bit of intrigue

"Worth the Price" maybe…

Erich August 3, 2007 at 10:27 am

Sorry, I just can't stop thinking about Stanford's mascot…

The Forest From The Trees

Jim McAlister August 3, 2007 at 11:21 am

Absolutely I would recommend that you use A Price Too High: the double entendre that the reader will discover being the counter-intuitive truth that price controls themselves extract an incredible price in well-being.

Brian Hollar August 3, 2007 at 11:31 am

How about "True Values" with a subtitle like "An Emergent Journey"? I like the idea of a short title that's easy to remember and most people could grasp. It also has a double meaning relating to the economic value of goods and the moral values economics underscores.

Alejandro August 3, 2007 at 11:34 am

A Price Too High
The Uncharted Journey

That's are the one's I like , but something about spontaneous order would fit fine
( I don't like "Unconducted Symphony", but "hidden melody" or "hidden symphony" could be good for what you are looking; maybe something along the lines..,

The Cynical Libertarian August 3, 2007 at 1:08 pm

I still like The Price of Everything, but The Secret Symphony is good too.

cpurick August 3, 2007 at 1:29 pm

The Price of Mercy

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