Titles, Titles -- but no Entitlement
Written by
Renate Stendhal
December 2012
Written by
Renate Stendhal
December 2012

Found a sexy title for your book or article? Forget it. Unless you are self-publishing or writing your own blog, your title won't belong to you. Title power is with the publisher alone, unless you are famous. A bestseller author will have some say, but everyone else can only hope and try... to negotiate. They are entitled to an opinion, no more.

I have witnessed a number of such negotiations for titles (my own, my lover's, my friends', my writing clients'). Publishers are masters at whittling down even the most convincing arguments of the author, no matter that she generally knows her work best and has a pretty good idea how to represent her book in its title. It always comes down to the bottom line: "Our sales people... our marketing experts.... don't like it. They have a much better idea of what would sell." Then usually a list  of alternate titles follows, all of which you will instantly hate but will end up choosing from.

Bad titles destroy books

Bad titles (and clumsy sub-titles) can cheapen, distort and even destroy a book, just like bad covers can, or they can leave the author with a bad taste about her own pretty baby. Even if by chance you get a title you like, you can still lose it in the paperback edition because now another publisher has the say. This happened to me when the hardcover edition of Love's Learning Place changed to the less fitting True Secrets of Lesbian Desire and then was terminally botched by the German edition. The Germans insisted -- against my best resistance -- on calling it Die Farben der Lust, The Colors of Lust. I never like to think of the German version with its unfitting and -- to me -- somewhat embarrassing title. The result was an orphaned German book, half-heartedly abandoned by its author.

The impotence of writers

It's a shocking experience every time to discover the impotence of writers vis à vis the publishers and their sales force. In my experience, the only power left to the author in extremis is to withdraw the book. And who wants to do that? Again, only a famous author could afford such a rebellion with optimism.

As a cultural journalist, I had an easier time getting used to the odd names my reviews sometimes acquired. Articles are numerous and short, so misnomers tend to hurt less. They used to have a short shelf life before the web's giant recycling machine took over. Now, however, a title can go on being irksome for a while. My last book review is a perfect example of irksome. I thought "How the French Invented Love" -- the title of She Writer Marilyn Yalom's latest book, was a sufficiently eloquent title for my article. But no. The Los Angeles Review of Books added a subtitle: "l'Amour (Oh La La) l'Amour is Strange."

Did I make this up?

I am still baffled. What is "strange" about the sexy French ways of loving? Marilyn Yalom's book is like a chocolate-almond croissant, filled with sensuous stories and nine hundred years of luscious literary crème de la crème. Is this sub-title an expression of American reservations about sex, which the book refers to with interesting statistics? Is "strange" supposed to create a mystery? Is it an attempt to write a French chanson -- like "L'amour est enfant de bohème" in the style of Carmen? It certainly is strange and a bit silly. People will think I made it up, which again is cause for a certain embarrassment.

However, this time the giant recycling machine of the web stepped in. The Daily Beast reprinted the review and, to my surprise, replaced the irksome thing with a new title: Those Frisky French. Okay by me! And it didn't hurt that they added a sexy photo to the article. Finding a bit of editorial justice is a rare comfort for the unentitled writer!

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  • Cindy Brown

    I will hate it if I get to this point! My titles are one of my favorite things about writing. I will negotiate hard if asked to change them, but will listen to the person holding the pen that signs the check, I suppose, if it comes to that. It's what I like about writing my own blog posts - the titles are mine until someone buys one. Edits are tough, to either your title or your writing. I only have to deal with it when paid work is at hand - my blog is all my own and I like that about the process!

  • Renate Stendhal

    Hi Danyelle, good question. I think it's still absolutely necessary to have a title idea of your own and know how you would ideally like to see your book presented. Your own title can hopefully attract an agent and even a publisher -- even if later they think they have a better one.

  • Danyelle C. Overbo

    Fascinating.  This actually doesn't surprise me much.  Do you think, then, that there isn't a point to coming up with a title for your work at all?  When you are shopping around a manuscript to sell, is having it titled something you came up with a waste of effort or still necessary?