Finding (and Losing) Book Titles

“My definition (for myself) of a working title is: A title that doesn't work.” Robin Black

Picture having a baby. You named that baby so soon after conception. Dear little Lev. It’s the Russian version of your father’s name. It has great meaning. Birth! The nurse places him in your arms. She smiles. Than she says, “Change his name. He sounds too much like a Jewish cowboy.”

For the effort most authors put into titling their book, you’d think they’d get to see it splashed across the cover—but an overwhelming amount of us are told by our editors, “Love the book, hate the title. Find another one.

Marianne Leone says she “wanted JESSE: A MOTHER’S STORY to be THE RUNNING MADONNA, but Simon & Schuster thought it sounded like a workout book by the rock star.”

In my unscientific study, only 17% of the author-respondents were able to keep their chosen titles.  My original title for THE MURDERER’S DAUGHTERS was ADOPTING ADULTS, which I was told sounded like a self-help book. (Oh, they were right on the money there.) My editor chose the final title, tacking on ‘a novel’ when I insisted people would think it was a mystery.

No, they won’t think that! Not with our cover.

Actually, yes, they do.

On the other hand, just yesterday, while bookclub skyping with the incredible women of Detroit, while discussing titles, one of the women who attended the Jewish Book Festival auditions, said one of the problems they have with vague titles is not remembering them, and that they remembered THE MURDERER'S DAUGHTERS.

So, what do we know, right? Robin Black wrote, “My original title was YESTERDAY'S NEWS. Random House rejected it on the theory that you never give reviewers a title they could, if so disposed, use against you. (Which is why you don't see more books out there called things like, "SUCKY BOOK.")

And then there are the titles you didn’t know were taken: Cathy Marie Buchanan: “The original title for THE DAY THE FALLS STOOD STILL was THE RIVER WIFE. Sadly, my agent let me know Jonis Agree had just published using the title. Broke my heart for a hundred years.”

So, when you buckle down to re-title your book, know that you’re not alone. Here are just a few of the tools I’ve used (not including taking up an entire Thanksgiving dinner urging ideas from my family. Author, vanity is thy name.)

1. Lulu Title Scorer

What the site say: “Want to know if you've got a killer title for your novel? Now, for the first time in literary history, you can put your title to the scientific test and find out whether it has what it takes for bestseller success. Are you brave enough to put your title to the test?”

What I say: I never found this especially helpful, but remarkably soothing for no reason I can think of. According to their paradigm, my current novel, The Murderer’s Daughters had a 10.2% chance of being a bestseller—but so did The Help.

2. Title Generator

What the site says: Choose your words carefully. Don't use silly words like 'furry' and 'banana' - do you really want those words to be in your title? Each click of the button gives you ten titles - feel free to modify your words again and again until you're happy with your results.

What I say: If you have a conceptual idea of where you want to go with your title, ie: um, something about hunger. Yeah, hunger. And being fat. And the tyranny of the fashion industry on women. And cake, it actually helps feeds the obsession of finding the right title. I doubt it will lead you to ‘it,’ but it’s a fun way to spin around words..

3. Brainy Quote

What the site says: Not much. They simply present a long list of topics and authors from Lucille Ball to the Dalai Lama.

What I say: Love this site. Easy, a broad range of ideas and topics, and I’ve yet to run into anything forcing me to sign up, give my email, or get out my credit card.

4. Literary Agent Rachel Gardner’s Advice:

What she says: “Let’s start by acknowledging a few things. The publisher is usually responsible for the final decision on title, and in the query stage, it’s not that important. In fact, some agents have said they don’t pay any attention at all to titles. But at some point, you’re going to want to think seriously about this. Your title is part of the overall impression you’re creating about your book. It can set a tone and create an expectation. Whether you’re pitching to an agent, or your agent is pitching to publishers, I think you want to have the strongest title possible.”

What I say: Gardner offers a great start for titling or re-titling your book (though I’ve spent far longer than 24 hours on this exercise.) Her advice is sound: especially as regards making lists and then putting it away. What sounds so smart at midnight, often reeks of awful the next morning.

5. ehow on Titles:

What the site says: “Unlike musicians or artists who can get away with obscure monikers such as "Opus 102" or "Untitled," the title of your novel should be catchy enough to intrigue a prospective editor, short enough to not fill up the entire front cover, and memorable enough that your adoring public can enthusiastically chat it up at the water cooler instead of saying, "I forget the title but it was something about mutant lamprey eels."

What I say:  Christina Hamlett has provided a clear concise guide to titling your book. I say, start with this article.

From Shakespeare to nursery rhymes to the Bible, we comb for titles. Have you written a book about infidelity? Then surely you've hummed "Your Cheating Heart." How about "His Cheating Heart?" or "Her Cheating Heart?"

And how about, after wrenching The Scarlet Letter from your guts, your editor changes it to The Red Cape of Shame?  Of course, if an editor or better judgement hadn't intervened, Lord of the Flies might have been Strangers from Within, and The Valley of the Dolls would have remained They Don’t Build Statues to Businessmen.

How often do titles stay the same?

I asked, and they answered.

Allie Larkin: The original title for STAY was "Savannah Leone and her Trusty Dog Joe," which, for some reason, I thought was brilliant. No one around me had said otherwise. Before we submitted to publishers, my agent said, "So, Allie, what are we going to do about the title?" And I was shocked! So I went back to my husband and friends and everyone said something to the effect of "Yeah, that title is awful." Then friends suggested titles. I think it was "Girl Meets Dog"(which I hated) for a week or two. And then I was in Wegmans looking at books and noticed a bunch of one-word titles and STAY popped into my head. So by the time we submitted to publishers it was STAY. I'm eternally thankful to my agent for calling me out on that.

Alyson Richman Gordon: THE LOST WIFE was originally "Lenka's Hands," title that I knew sounded a bit clunky. When I was asked to come up with a new title, I suggested "The Shadow Wife." When the publisher's editorial and sales team heard that, they thought it sounded like a vampire novel. I was rendered speechless, gave up making suggestions, and they came up with THE LOST WIFE.

Amy Hatvany: BEST KEPT SECRET was originally entitled "Every Other Mother," but editor didn't love. Went through about fifty different ideas, and I played with themes of mothers hiding their drinking, keeping it a secret, and finally landed on the right one. Drinking as a coping mechanism is too many mothers' best-kept secret, and considering the stigmatization of being an alcoholic mother, it's something many women view as being best kept secret.

Carla Buckley: My original title was "Flu Season," which my publisher said sounded like a how-to book on getting colds. Over the course of a year, I submitted over a hundred titles, some of which floated for a little while: "Out of Thin Air," "Flight Risk," "Six Hours". But then Random House stepped in and in a marathon meeting, came up with my title which my editor presented to me the next morning: THE THINGS THAT KEEP US HERE. My feeling was that I had just traded in my saddle shoes for sexy stilettos.

(continued at Beyond The Margins)

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  • Olga Godim

    This is a very useful article. Thanks.