Battle For The Title: Do Authors Know Best?

Last night I attended a cocktail party (an event designed to raise the profile of the charity I chair, Girls Write Now, with women in publishing), and fell into conversation with one of my favorite leaders, innovators and prognosticators in the publishing industry, Jane Friedman.  (No, not that Jane Friedman, though she's fabulous too.)  Jane has lived many lives in her publishing career, and is credited with, among other things, inventing the author tour by taking Julia Child on the road.  Her latest incarnation is as head of the digital publisher and multimedia content company Open Road Media.  Jane is always up to something exciting, and a story she told about her latest project last night caught my attention.  On Tuesday, Open Road reissued William Broyles Jr.'s memoir "Brothers In Arms" (the book that inspired the television series China Beachbut with a new title.  Or, more accurately, with an old title, the title the author always wanted in the first place: "Goodbye Vietnam."  That title gave me chills.  The first title made me think of Dire Straits (dating myself), and has now become the name of smash hit violent video game series.

Which got me to thinking: when it comes to a title, who knows best?  The author, or the marketing department?

I had a truly terrible title for my first book.  Taken from a line in my vows, it was "The Rest of My Life Will Never Be Long Enough."  My publisher, thank god, came up with the far catchier "I Do But I Don't," though the risk of a catchy title is that its very catchiness will catch up with you -- if you search "I Do But I Don't" on Amazon, you will find "I Do (But I Don't)" the A&E movie starring Denise Richards, "I Do & I Don't," a 2010 comedy starring Jane Lynch, and a whole bunch of other things, and it will take you a heck of a lot of scrolling to find my book.  (I realize this is also because my book is out of print.)  My agent and I battled over the subtitle with the publisher, however, as many writers I know have, and this battle is glaringly in evidence when you look at the hardback cover of my book versus the paperback.  (Hint, the subtitles are not the same.) Titles and subtitles are hugely important, of course -- part of the reason we changed my subtitle for the paperback was that the original subtitle implied I'd written a how-two book, which my book decidedly wasn't, leading to some pissed off readers who felt they'd been sold a false bill of goods.  And a great title can be so great it has value all on its own; I actually know authors who have had only the titles of their books optioned by television production companies, not the books themselves.

So I want to know: have you ever battled a publisher over a title or a subtitle?  Have you ever been saved by a savvier soul than yourself (as I was), or condemned by a fundamental misunderstanding of your book to misrepresent it in the marketplace (as I, with my original subtitle, was too)?  Alternatively, have you ever had a title-battle with yourself, an editor, or a friend?  

Please feel free to share multiple titles and their more or less fortunate incarnations. I'd love to see them.  Oh and a final note...I just typed the working title of my novel into Amazon books' search bar and found no fewer than SIX books of the same name. Back to the drawing board?  Or does it matter?  

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Comment by Kamy Wicoff on April 22, 2013 at 1:51pm

I love "Cutting Teeth!"

Comment by Julia Fierro on April 12, 2013 at 7:39am

Thank you so much, Deborah!

Comment by Deborah Doucette on April 12, 2013 at 6:53am

Good choice Julia Fierro!  Best of luck with your book!  I will look for it when it comes out.  We "She Write" authors should stick together and support each other!!!

Comment by Julia Fierro on April 11, 2013 at 8:41pm

Hi Kamy!

When my novel sold a few months ago the title was the unwieldy the End of the World As We Know It. Phew. Too much to type. After giving my editor and the publicity team many title options, they finally okayed my new, and hopefully final title -- Cutting Teeth, out March 2014 via St. Martin's Press.

When I tell people the title BEFORE I reveal the subject, they look a bit lost for a moment, but (and I hope this works well enough) intrigued. When I reveal that the novel is about parents to young children, I see the a-ha light flicker in their faces and they say, Oh, of course! 

It is so hard to know what is best. I do think this is the strongest of the many man titles I came up with, so there's always that. 

Take care,

Julia Fierro

Comment by Kamy Wicoff on April 11, 2013 at 9:47am

A few more thoughts...@Catherine thanks for bringing up the issue of foreign editions -- the title changes for those can be so illuminating.  And I wish I knew more about the Great Gatsby title fight, I will have to investigate! @Pamela, your comment makes me feel all the better about the fact that I will publish my novel first with She Writes Press, and if I end up doing a deal with a commercial house later, I will already have established the title on my own terms.  It's true that it's one of the biggest fights authors and their publishers have.  And @Kelly, "My Lead Dog Was A Lesbian"???  I am afraid none of us will ever top that!

Comment by Kamy Wicoff on April 11, 2013 at 9:43am

Oh my gosh, these stories are fascinating! I knew this was a widespread phenomenon but hearing the specifics of your stories (135 Perfectly Seasoned Recipes instead of "Salt and Pepper, A Love Story"?) is so fascinating and helpful.  And @Caroline you are so right about "Beautiful."  Enough of that!

Comment by Deborah Doucette on April 10, 2013 at 3:45pm

I was able to get cover approval for the revised book this time around. I could not get an agreement, on paper, about the title.  But, I know I'm right, and I think they fundamentally agree with me.  The editor is waiting for marketing to weigh in I believe.  I will continue pushing for the right title: Room In The Heart!  You are right about "having a good track record," being an important factor in how much you can get them to go along with.

Comment by michele anna jordan on April 10, 2013 at 2:10pm

One way to help mitigate the frustration a lot of us feel when it comes to titles and art work is to try to get consultation or approval rights written into your contract. I've done it several times and also try to have approval rights for the copy editor, as well. If you have a good track record, most publishers will go along with it. 

Comment by Kelly Hayes-Raitt on April 10, 2013 at 1:24pm

I understand from my published friends that the 2 biggest "fights" they have with their publishers are over the book title and cover artwork.  Personally, I'd welcome a publisher's marketing experience to help with my title!

A great title can make a book jump off the shelf.  My favorite one is for a memoir written by a reporter who experienced the Iditarod -- you know, the Alaskan dog sled marathon.  The author explored the race from every angle:  From the communities the race raced through to the personalities of "his" dogs.  Title?  My Lead Dog Was a Lesbian.

Wish I could come up with something as unique and witty!

Kelly Hayes-Raitt

Mosey on over to my web site and sign in for your free gift -- an mp3 of me reading my book's first chapter about a beggar in Iraq!

Comment by Danyelle C. Overbo on April 9, 2013 at 9:48pm

Oh man, at this point, I'd pay someone to come up with a title for me.  I've been working on my book for 5 years and still don't have a title.  When I tell people about my book, that is almost always the first thing they ask for.  When I can't tell them, I feel like I don't sound serious about my beloved WIP. 

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