Thursday, June 10, 2010

A Rose by Any Other Name

Sad but true, author-amigos: sometimes the title you pick for your book is terrible.

Sometimes an author selects a title that simply doesn't work for his or her genre (e.g. titling a romance Guns and Bros and Explosions). Occasionally an author unwittingly (or worse, wittingly) gives his or her book a title that's uncomfortably similar to the title of a very different, much more widely known work (e.g. naming a memoir about directing a summer camp for disabled youth in Germany Mein Kamp). Once in awhile the name of the book is just straight-up terrible (My Summer Running with the Werewolves and My Bitchin' Winter with the Vampires Also There are Zombies) and needs to be changed in order for the book to sell.

Editorial changes are often a thorny subject with writers, and changes to a title can be especially hard to take. Remember, though: this is your novel, not your child. And if you can't remember that, remember this: if you name your son Boonswoggle, he's going to get beat up in school. (Editors will make fun of your terrible title in meetings. Trust me.) So: don't give your children or your books awful names.

What makes a good title? Well, I'm glad you asked. The following (in tried-and-true Bullet-O-Vision™) may be of help:

· Give your book a title appropriate to its genre. Read widely and do a lot of research in that genre to ensure this.

· Unless you're trying to capitalize on a trend (which I discourage you from doing), try to pick a title that stands out a bit from the crowd. If your book is about the albino philanthropist daughter of a fighter pilot, I'd rather see The Albino Philanthropist than The Fighter Pilot's Daughter.

· Don't try to riff on the title of another book unless you're writing a parody/satire (or some other comic work).

· Google your title (or run it through Amazon) to be sure no one else has used it (or something uncomfortably similar). If someone used your title for an obscure book written forty years ago, it's probably safe to use.

· Pick something that will stick in readers' heads. To borrow from the above example, The Philanthropist might not stick very well. The Albino Philanthropist will.

Whatever you end up choosing for a title, mes auteurs, try not to be offended if the publisher suggests you change it; if they make such a recommendation, they're doing it for a good reason, and you'd do well to seriously consider anything they (or your agent) recommends.


  1. I don't write without a title. I know most people seem to pick that last, but I have to have a title to work on it.

    I have two complete manuscripts with which I am soliciting agents:


    I don't think the second one will make it onto the front of the book, but it was necessary for me to maintain the tone I wanted for the book. If I had to wager, the final title will be something like CHOSEN.

    My WIP is titled THE HOOK AND HAMMER SOCIETY. This was recently changed from THE TRIAD SOCIETY when the story turned in a different direction than expected (I'll save the latter title for series book if I'm ever so fortunate). I think the latter is snappier, but doesn't have anything to do with the book any more so it got changed.

    When I finally decide on a title, the very first thing I do is Google it. I have been fortunate so far that none of the titles for any of my works (current or planned) have been taken by other books.

  2. My first novel has had its title changed at editorial suggestion. This wasn't a big deal, since what I had was a working title at best, but I could tell by the kid-glove treatment it initially engendered that it can be a thorny subject for some. My editor and I exchanged a couple e-mails on the subject, with one of their suggestions eventually winning out. Again, because I wasn't heavily invested in the title, and because I couldn't say anything I had was better than what they suggested (from either a creative or marketing standpoint), I didn't mind. And, really, the title has grown on me, so a win all around so far. :)

    However, that said, I can understand how a title can come to mean a lot to the writer. I have a 90% completed WIP which is currently sitting on the back-burner since I have contracted work to write. But I can tell you, when I get back to finishing it and start sending it around, I am going to be much more resistant to changing its title than I was to the other book I mentioned. I think that certain titles help define the work in the author's mind early on, while in other cases, the story defines the work far more than a handful of words at the beginning.

    Like anything else, it comes down to choosing your battles, and deciding whether the fight is worth it or not. That's a gut-check that can have a lot of factors, and can vary by author. But I think an author should be open to the idea of changing the title; if the editor (or agent) didn't have a good reason for it, I doubt they would suggest it. Like you, they want the book to be a success.

  3. Ah, the great title debate. Good points.
    For the record, I would totally read My Summer Running with the Werewolves and My Bitchin' Winter with the Vampires Also There are Zombies.

  4. "My Summer Running with the Werewolves and My Bitchin' Winter with the Vampires Also There are Zombies"...

    You know, I'd at least pick that up at the bookstore.

  5. As a first timer, I might not care what they call it so long as the print it.

  6. I'm not entirely attached to my title - but am using one as a placeholder for when pub makes suggestion. BUT my placeholder is also the title of a song by a well known band - is this ok? as it's a title and not a lyric?

  7. I WISH my publishers would suggest better titles. Finding the right one is harder than writing the whole book. I mean, I ended up with "What's in a Name?" because I had to fill in something on that line that said "Title" on a submission form.

    It worked, but I think it was luck as much as anything.

  8. My Summer Running with the Werewolves and My Bitchin' Winter with the Vampires Also There are Zombies? I'd read this.



  9. In my experience the author has little control over the title whether the one they submit is good or bad. Eidtors like to put their stamp on a book and one way they do it is by changing its title.

  10. The title is often the first thing I come up with, and helps me create the tone and atmosphere I want to give to the book. However, I've made it a point never to get too attached! It's hard enough not getting attached to certain plot points that some editor might decide down the line don't work, so I figure if I can get away with just a title change, I'll have escaped relatively unscathed.

    I do like the titles I've created thus far, though.

  11. Mein Kamp made me laugh out loud! Thanks for another great post!

    I followed yours advice on my title, The Hanky-Panky Season. Google comes up with lots of Hanky-Panky lingerie. Amazon comes up with Hanky-Panky intimates, etc. and for some reason, "Married with Children" season 8. So I guess I'm covered there.

    But it does not fit the noir genre. It fits my imaginary genre: Noir Lite. So... what to do?

    Thanks for the advice and I'll brace myself, should I get published, for the possibility they will not fall madly love with my title, even as I've become attached to it.

  12. One of my novels is a finalist in a contest right now and in the judging, the thing that's been most often criticized is its title. I'll be very happy when the contest is finished and I can officially change it!

  13. This is A GREAT BLOG. Informative, concise, clear. Really enjoying reading it. Thanks!

  14. Ah, so true, Eric! I had an editor suggest a title change before she even read the ms. And honestly, she was right. It did need to be changed.

  15. For better or worse I'm one of those non-commercial aspiring writers who is writing because I feel there is a story that needs to be told. My prospective title "Dandelion Lawn" expresses the theme of the work. Quite literally, the title came first and the story is being built around it. I could not imagine changing the title.

    But as I have no great need to make money I can always give it away on the Internet with the title I prefer.


  16. Reminds me of Fitzgerald's own titles for The Great Gatsby -- "The High-bouncing Lover" and "On the Road to West Egg."

    Authors can be VERY VERY bad at titles, for sure.

  17. I must be straddling the two camps here: I, too, like to have a working title that keeps me... happily working ..., but I won't mind a bit if an agent or pub wants to change it. Right now, "Bitten by a Squirrel," although originally I had a sub-title with it (it's an old habit from the academic world). Genre: memoir. About my falling madly in love with an obsessive-compulsive hoarder. Happy to hear your input.

  18. I also have a working title, 'The Butterfly Lady', that I'm more than happy to let them change. I'm not a huge fan of it but its a serviceable enough title in the meantime ... which probably means if I'm ever published, the editor will fall in love with it just to be contrary! :P

  19. I came over from Jon Gibbs's Livejournal, where he linked to this post. Very nice take on the subject. I figure I have to have a title for the query letter if nothing else, but if a publisher wants to print my book, I'm probably not going to fight over a title!

  20. I got the idea for my latest novel from seeing another book on a shelf titled Blood Moon. This was my working title for a while but I googled the phrase and found a much better reference, St. Martin's Moon. In so doing I also found some background about St. Martin's Moon that I was able to work into the story.