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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