Yesterday, I started to answer a multi-part question from loyal reader and excellent question-asker MooCrazy, but I ran out of time before I could get to one of its constituent parts. To wit: “Anne – Would you please address the topics of 1) choosing a title before querying..?” Today, I would like to tackle this good question, and the issue of title malleability in general, at my characteristic great length.
As anyone in the industry will tell you, a good, eye-catching title can be a real selling point for a book. Rather like a Hollywood hook in a verbal pitch, it can grab the query-reader’s attention memorably in a very short space of time. Not to mention the fact that an interesting title indicates the author’s inherent creativity far better than, “I hope you will be interested in my as-yet-unnamed novel…”
Someone might mention the latter point to the fine people who title movies for a living. Stealing the title of a pop song from thirty years ago (I’m looking at YOU, PRETTY WOMAN) doesn’t exactly scream out Macarthur genius-grant levels of creativity, does it?
There are plenty of formulae out there for constructing a good title — gerund + name, as in JUDGING AMY (or CHASING AMY, come to think of it) has been popular for far too long, in my opinion — but to be absolutely honest with you, this is yet another of those areas where most industry insiders cannot give you any clearer direction than anyone you might meet browsing in your neighborhood bookstore. Like the famous Supreme Court dictum about pornography, almost no one in the industry can define precisely what a good title is, but they all know it when they see it.
Personally, I favor arresting titles over merely descriptive ones or puns: given the choice amongst Bob Tarte’s titles, for instance, I would go for ENSLAVED BY DUCKS over FOWL WEATHER every time. Why? Well, I dare you: just try to forget ENSLAVED BY DUCKS.
In fact, an excellent test of a good title is to tell it (ONCE) to a non-literary friend, then ask her to repeat it back to you an hour later. Better still, tell her all of the titles you have brainstormed for your book, and see which she remembers an hour later. Because — and this is a HUGE difference between how writers think of titles and how the rest of the industry does — from an agent or editor’s point of view, THE TITLE’S PURPOSE IS MARKETING, NOT BOOK DESCRIPTION.
Pause for a moment and let that one sink in. In the minds of the industry, the title exists solely to cajole readers into buying it. I hate to be the one to break this to you, but they don’t consider naming a book an art.
So the more memorable your working title, the better. If you can work an apparent paradox into your title, for instance, it is more likely to be remembered. THE POISONWOOD BIBLE is catchy, because of the contrast between a scary word (poison) and a comforting one (Bible); THE MALTESE FALCON, by contrast, is merely descriptive — something you would remember about the plot after you read the book, certainly, but not an arresting enough image to make you snatch the book from a shelf.
I know it’s counter-intuitive to think of a title as external to the book, but when you’re querying, marketing your book needs to be your top priority, alas. A title that requires further explanation, as most that are content-specific do, will probably not catch an agent’s eye as well as one that does not. Thus, while CATCH-22 is actually an extraordinarily apt title for the novel — the concept repeated at least a hundred times throughout the course of the book — in order to query the book in the current publisher’s market, you would have to EXPLAIN what a Catch-22 was before the title seemed apt. And poof! There goes a paragraph of your query letter.
In fact, now that I come to think about it, I notice that every single one of that list I have run before, the five immense bestsellers that were each rejected by many, many publishers before finding a home, all had titles that required further explanation! Lookee:
Dr. Seuss, And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (rejected by 23 publishers)
Richard Hooker, M*A*S*H (21)
Thor Heyerdahl, Kon-Tiki (20)
Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull (18)
Patrick Dennis, Auntie Mame (17)
You can just hear an agency screener muttering, “Who the heck is Auntie Mame?” can’t you?
So if you go for a descriptive title, make sure it conjures up some pretty powerful mental images in the observer. You might not know instantly from the title what SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS was about, but it evokes a lovely mental picture, doesn’t it?
Inserting a strong image also hedges your bets. If you go for image, rather than just the rhythm of the words, you can sometimes make your book stick in the head of an agent or editor who does not remember the title per se: not everyone necessarily remembers the entirety of the title of my novel, THE BUDDHA IN THE HOT TUB, as such, but trust me, they do remember that both a Buddha and water are involved.
All that being said, as most authors who have seen a first book of theirs go through the wringer of a publishing house know to their sorry, the title the author picks at the manuscript stage is almost NEVER the title that ends up on the published book. Often, an agent will switch a title to something more likely to catch a particular editor’s eye, but in general, it is the publishing house’s marketing department who gets to title the book — and if that happens, the author is usually contractually barred from changing it back.
Sorry to be the one to tell you that.
In fact, editorial rumor has it that many marketing departments will automatically reject any title offered by the author, on general principle, no matter how good or how apt it may be, in order to put the publishing house’s stamp upon the book. I don’t know how true this rumor is, but I can tell you for an absolute certainty that if your publisher retitles your book, literally everyone at the publishing house will think you are unreasonable to mind at all. Knowing this in advance can help you keep your equilibrium when the inevitable happens, and not fall so in love with your title that it’s a deal-breaker.
Allow me to share my own tale of woe on the subject. As a freelance editor and friend of literally hundreds of aspiring writers, I have held more than my share of weeping authors’ hands in the aftermath of their titles being ruthlessly changed, so although I was fond of the original title of my memoir — IS THAT YOU, PUMPKIN?, I certainly did not expect it to stick. I knew that my title likely to be changed, and frankly, I was not expecting to be consulted about it. I am, after all, not a person with a marketing degree, but a writer and editor. I know a good title when I see one, but I cannot legitimately claim to know why one book will make its way up to the cash register while the one next to it won’t. I was prepared, in short, to be spectacularly reasonable.
This compliant attitude, I am sorry to report, was not even vaguely adequate to deal with the situation when my publisher decided to change the title of my book. I could have been as chipper as Shirley Temple in tap-dancing shoes and as willing to alter my habits as a first-time dieter, and it still would not have been enough.
So how did I end up with a title I positively hated? Well, my memoir is about my relationship with science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, and at two distinct points, my publisher planned to release my book to coincide with the filmed version of one of his books, A SCANNER DARKLY. The instant that decision was made, my fate was sealed: the marketing department decided within the course of a single closed-door meeting to change the title of my book to A FAMILY DARKLY, presumably to make it reminiscent of the movie.
“Interesting,” I said cautiously when my editor first told me that my baby had been rechristened while I had been looking the other way. “Um, do you mind if I ask what A FAMILY DARKLY means? Yes, it deals with dark issues, but it’s a funny book. And, if you don’t mind my mentioning it, an adverb can’t be used to modify a noun.”
My editor was unsympathetic to my concerns. “It was the marketing department’s idea. They think it’s, um, catchy.”
The succeeding scintillating discussion on matters logical and grammatical lasted over six months — and no, I still haven’t found out what the title means, or why it was deemed necessary to throw the rules of grammar to the winds. Suffice it to say that both sides set forth their arguments; mine were deemed too “academic” (meaning that I hold an earned doctorate from a major research university, which apparently renders my opinion on what motivates book buyers, if not actually valueless, at any rate very amusing indeed to marketing types), and the title remained changed. Even after the movie had been released, and the book still had not, I was stuck with a title that I could not possibly justify if somebody asked me about it at a book reading.
And at no point in the process did anyone affiliated with the process every give even passing consideration to what I think would be ANY author’s main complaint in the situation: the title had nothing to do with the content of the book. The marketing department would never know that, however, because to the best of my knowledge (avert your eyes, if you are easily shocked), no one involved in the titling decision ever read so much as a page of the book.
Welcome to the big leagues, boys and girls.
“Why,” I hear my generous and empathetic readers asking, bless them, “did they bother to discuss it with you at all, if they had already made up their minds?”
An excellent question, and one that richly deserves an answer; half the published writers I know have wailed this very question heavenward repeatedly after their titles were summarily changed by their publishers. I believe that the answer lies in the field of psychology, rather than marketing. Because, you see, when a brand-new title is imposed upon a book, the publishers don’t just want the author to go along with it without overt protest: they want the author to LIKE it. And if the title goes through several permutations, they want the author to be more enthusiastic about the final change than about the first one.
In other words: get out those tap-dancing shoes, Shirley.
Furthermore, your enthusiasm is, if you please, to be instantaneous, despite the fact that if the marketing department (who, in all probability, will not have read your book by the time the title decision is made) is mistaken about the market value of the new title, the author is invariably blamed. (Think about it: haven’t you always held your favorite writers responsible if their new books have silly monikers? And didn’t you wonder why I had such a weird title for my memoir?) Oh, and unless your contract states specifically that you have veto power over the title, you’re going to lose the fight hands down, even if you don’t suffer my ostensible handicap of postgraduate degrees.
Let me tell you, this is not the kind of frustration you can complain about to your writing friends, either. You will see it in their eyes, even if they are too polite to say it out loud: you have a publishing contract, and you’re COMPLAINING?
Thus, the hapless author gets it from both sides: an author who doesn’t like the title imposed upon her book is an uncooperative, unrealistic, market-ignorant mule to her publishers, and a self-centered, quibbling deal-blower to her friends. All anyone can agree about is that she is ungrateful beyond human example. Sorry about that.
I wish I could report that I had found a clever way to navigate past this Scylla and Charybdis, but I have not, nor has any author I know. The best you can hope to be, when your time comes, is polite and professional. And a damned good tap-dancer.
I guess, in the end, all the writer can do is accept that some things, like the weather and the titles of her own books, are simply beyond her control, now and forever, amen. At the querying stage, pick an eye-catching title, but try not to fall too in love with it. Maybe you should hold your actual favorite in reserve, for the inevitable discussion with the marketing folks, when they ask you in belligerent tones, “Well, do you have a better idea?”
Something tells me that you do — but don’t worry; I won’t say a word about it to your prospective publishers. Keep up the good work!