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Monday, March 1, 2010

The Business of Titles

On one of my local writing organization forums, an aspiring writer, ready to start submitting his work, got worried when he discovered that the title he'd chosen was already in use. He immediately started trying to come up with a new one. I threw in my two cents, of course, and thought it might be useful to summarize my contribution.

Titles definitely matter. Titles set reader expectations. A title might be totally cool and unique, and yet totally wrong for YOUR book. Titles speak about genre and scope and epoch and most certainly the kind of read one might anticipate - humorous, serious, mythic, adventurous, fast, slow... Think Nymphos of Rocky Flats vs Ysabel vs Blood Drive vs Breath and Bone vs The Bell at Sealy Head vs The Fellowship of the Ring. All are fantasy. All very different.

Should I panic if my title has been used?

No. A quick check at an online bookseller (yeah, Amazon is really good for this) can tell you if the exact title or close variants have been used and how frequently. You can also get an idea of how relevant that usage is. That is, who wrote the books, when were they published and by whom (a publisher you would target?). Are they in the same genre as yours, and are they still in print? (If the works are not being sold "new" by Amazon, it likely means that edition is out of print.) If you're not familiar with the author, look him or her up. You can figure out pretty easily if this is a conflict that's going to bother an agent or editor. An older book or a book by an obscure author, especially in a different genre, likely poses no conflict IF yours is the perfect title for your work.

On the other hand, if the books are fairly recent, in your genre, and by a prominent author from a publisher you might target, there might be some merit in changing the title. Yep, avoid Carrie or The Da Vinci Codex. If you can think of something better...and by better I mean more original and more evocative - giving a better feel for the theme of your work - it would behoove you to do so.

You should always reconsider your title when you finish a book. That's when you actually know what the book is about. That's when you really know whether the book you started as a comic myth turned out to be an angst-filled, serious adventure. (Mine always do that!)

Bottom line - think, don't panic. If you can come up with something better, great. If not, it's not the end of the world and you can work with your acquiring editor to create something better.

Does the title make a difference when submitting a book to an agent or editor?

Well, sure! A good, evocative title can pique the interest of an agent or editor in the same way an excellent log line can, so definitely spend the time to come up with a good one. A good title shows that the author has a handle on both the marketing world and what the story is really about. Both are good signs when you are selling yourself as well as the book.

Will my editor change the title?

Maybe. Some editors will encourage you to rework a weak or conflicting title on your own. Some will suggest alternatives right away or will pass on suggestions from the marketing department. Titles are hard and some people are good at writing them and some aren't! In a big house, you can be sure that a book won't be published without a title that the marketing department approves, because titles ARE marketing. If you sell to a small press it will behoove you to make sure the research and "marketing think" that a marketing department might supply gets done. This might mean ditching your beloved title for something that sets the right reader expectations.

Historical note: Out of my 13 (11 published, two forthcoming) books, I've been asked to consider a different title for only two of them. In the first case, my UK editor thought the original title was more evocative of horror than fantasy. A moment's reflection told me he was right. In the second case, the original title was very close to that of another book already on the schedule from my same publisher. In both cases, being forced to THINK about it, gave me much, much better titles. The resulting titles were Revelation (the first case) and Breath and Bone (the second), two of my favorite titles.


Terie Garrison said...

For my series, the first, second, and fourth books got the titles I originally suggested for them. A title for the third book totally escaped me! My editor and I had a chat and I sent him a list of around 15 possibilities. We narrowed that down to three that we both liked. And here's where it got fun.

She didn't know it at the time, but I was dedicating the third book to my best friend, who'd been very involved all the way through the project, with me bouncing ideas off her and talking things through and all. So I rang her up and told her we'd narrowed it down to three titles, and asked which she liked best. What I didn't tell her (until the book came out) was that her choice would BE the title. :-D

Anonymous said...

nice post. thanks.

Victoria Dixon said...

Titles are hard. I've got the perfect title right now as far as how well it matches the book and also how relevant it is to my historical material. But I've had some folks comment on it being a turnoff. Not everyone will want to read it anyway, but does this mean I'm more likely to have to change it or risk the wrath of Marketing & Sales?

carolwriter said...


Titles are marketing. Alas, it is so, and those of us who are not in the "I'll buy her book even if it's wrapped in garbage" set, must pay careful heed. Relevance to the book or the historical period is secondary. And you really don't want to turn off a reader before they even pick up your book and read the back copy. There are likely many perfect titles for your book. Take your friends comments to heart and work on it. You might find one you like better. And it would be YOUR choice.