Monday, March 28, 2011

Why titles matter...and don't matter

In case you missed it Friday, Sourcebooks asked for YOUR opinion on the title of my August debut. There's still time to vote, and if you leave a comment, you could win a signed advance copy of the book.

Watching votes and comments roll in has been fascinating, and has me thinking a lot about sea slugs.

OK, I'm not thinking about sea slugs. Well, I am thinking about them, but I'm also thinking about book titles.

When I first started trying to write fiction, a wise person told me this: "Don't get too attached to the title you give it – most publishers change them anyway."

But I also recognized that an abysmal title leaves a bad first impression with decision makers – the editors, agents, or potential readers deciding whether to read your story or use it as a coaster.

That was never more obvious to me than when I judged a writing contest last fall. Of the six partial manuscripts in my batch, two had such lousy titles that I considered temporarily blinding myself with pepper spray so I'd be excused from reading them.

As it turned out, one of them was lousy. But the other was surprisingly good, and I ended up giving it some of the highest marks.

At the same time, I don't pretend to be an all-knowing title goddess who gets to hand down judgment on what makes a good title. The first book I ever sold was an action/adventure/romance targeted at Harlequin-Silhouette's now defunct Bombshell line (and by "defunct" I mean "canceled a month before my @#$% book hit the shelves," not that I'm bitter).

The book they bought featured a ski patroller heroine who gets sent to a resort in Chile to deal with the area's abundance of accidents that may not be so accidental after all. The title I gave the book was SHADOWS IN THE SNOW.

I thought it wasn't half bad, but in my first conversation with the editor who bought it, she waved it off dismissively. "We'll change the title, of course."

Which they did, to AVALANCHE. In hindsight, I totally get why that was the stronger title. Had the book been released, it might have even sold a couple copies.

The title issue came up again when Sourcebooks was first considering the book that's now scheduled as my August 2011 debut. At the time, we were calling the book WALKING THE PLANK. I still adore that title, and the book made it all the way to the editorial board under that name. Then, the editor came back with grim news.

Several people had voiced concern that WALKING THE PLANK was too closely tied to the grimmer aspects of real, modern piracy. It was a legitimate worry right then, since the piracy situation Somalia had taken some rather terrifying turns (though one could argue that pirates in the news could be a good thing for a novel that parodies traditional pirate romances).

Still, it was a no go. We were sent back to the drawing board and asked to re-tool the book's marketing hook to focus more on the corporate revenge aspect of the story. After all, the story's plot really boils down to a bunch of folks doing something wacky in the wake of job loss. Plenty of people can relate.

We kicked around dozens of titles, reworked a few aspects of the story, and rewrote proposed marketing copy. The book's new title? MAI TAI MUTINY.

I just cringed when I typed that, because really, it's terrible. The editorial board agreed it was terrible, and I suspect several of them fled the room gagging. Sourcebooks didn't buy it, and that was that.

Or was it?

In the end, they did buy the book. It happened almost a year later when my amazing agent sent them a new romantic comedy I'd written and they ended up offering a three-book deal that included the new book, one I hadn't yet written, and the book we were jokingly calling "unpirate."

A rather lengthy titling exercise produced over 30 potential titles for "unpirate," and one was selected last February. If you're a regular blog reader, you already know what that was, since it's what we've called the book for a year now.

But things change – market conditions, news headlines, what the competitors are doing, the position of uranus (snicker). And because Sourcebooks is committed to making sure we have the very best title for this book, we're reassessing. Personally, I think it's pretty cool they're letting you, the potential readers, make the call.

How much thought do you put into titles when you're making book buying decisions? How about when you're writing? Please share!

And don't forget to vote. There are still a couple days left, and you could win a signed, advance copy!


Elisabeth Black said...

Oh gosh. I do remember your old title. How unfortunate.

I love a good title, for book buying decisions.

I've come up with what I think is a good title for my first book, which is a phrase from the story itself.

There sure are a lot of things to think about.

Anonymous said...

I think title is important, which is why I'm not at all sad that Ravenous wants to change the title of one of my books. There are a fair number of books where I wonder, "Why did they let that author use that title?" Of course, it's possible the publisher gave the book the awful title.

Title and cover art make a huge difference in the reader's buying experience. That's easy to forget if you're the writer and obsessing over every word choice and plot point.

Cheers, D

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

If I'm already familiar with the author's work, and like it, I'll read whatever that writer puts out, (ahem) no matter how crappy the title is, but if the author is unknown to me, the title definitely matters. I scan the shelves, and often select a book simply because I like the title. i.e. I got Janet Fitch's book "Paint it Black" because that's one of my favorite songs. (ok, so I'm a little shallow) The point is, I LOVED the book, and immediately went back for her other book. If her title hadn't caught my eye, it's unlikely that I would've ever read her amazing books at all.

Patty Blount said...

I get nuts over titles and often can't finish the book until I know it's name.

Penalty Killer - a hockey murder mystery was a no-brainer. Send was also pretty easy. But my current WIP is making me crazy.

Titles are important! I almost didn't read Jeff Somers' The Electric Church because I didn't care for the title. I'm now his biggest fan, so yes - I think it was a smart move to nix Walking the Plank. I still adore Rocking the Boat.

Patty Blount said...

GAH! Yes, I DO know the difference between it's and its.

You may commence wet-noodle-beating immediately.

Unknown said...

I don't look at the title - just at the cover. ;-)

And I'm deeply hoping that if I ever get published, someone will choose title for me. It's not my forte, although it's fun!

Jason said...

I agree with Susan. If I already know I like an author, then the title doesn't matter because I will read the book anyway. If I hear a book with a not-attention-grabbing title is good from someone whose opinion I respect, I'll read it anyway, which usually leads to adding the author to that first group.

If I was just cold-browsing books on a shelf, then absolutely I would need the title to grab my attention first. That, though, almost never happens, because my to read pile is big enough and I'm getting book recommendations at a high enough rate I haven't needed to just browse for a long time.

My WIP is currently Untitled, just because I haven't been inspired yet for a 1-3 word title that will epitomize all that is my story. I'm not in a hurry, because I know it will come to me eventually, but I'm also well aware that's the very first impression the novel makes on any reader - agent, publisher, consumer - so it has to be good.

It'll come to me. I hope.

Sharon Axline said...

My current WIP is called BOB. Yeah not a nifty title, but honestly it takes a while for me for something to pop up in my mind. So for now Bob it is. As to buying books. Honestly I would have been more intrigued by Shadow's in the Snow over AVALANCHE! I like to be intrigued by titles.

Nick said...

That was a fun read, appreciate the tips

Sandra Cormier said...

So far, I haven't been asked to change my titles, but they were with e-pubs who tend to give more control to the author on those matters.

I struggled with my first title and could probably have chosen something more "suspensy."

I chose Bad Ice for the second book because most of the crises revolved around dangerous ice conditions and linked it to hockey.

The third book was written around the title. Who could resist The Toast Bitches? The publisher apparently agreed. Readers who can get past the title agree, but sales might indicate most readers can't get past the title.

I changed the title to my current submission (women's literature) a few times, but I'm not married to my choice. If it gets picked up, I'm sure the publisher will think of a more suitable title.

I kept the title to my current WIP simple. One word representing an unusual murder weapon.

Sandra Cormier said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Linda G. said...

It's true. I know a writer should never get too stuck on a title, but...well, I'll probably cry if they don't let me keep IN A FIX. (But I'd get over it.)

Sarah W said...

I order romances for my library, and while some titles make me question my career choice, they aren't necessarily a deal breaker.

One reader's Pregnesia is another reader's Playboy Sheik's Virgin Stablegirl Mistress. Whatever that means.

Steph Schmidt said...

Over in the minority I actually like Mai Tai Mutiny. It brings out the comedy side that the other titles lacked in my mind.

I use to be attached to my titles until I realized typing them out repeatedly stinks. Now I'm more fond of their nickname.

Matthew MacNish said...

I basically only gave my novel's title a half-assed effort. I hope it's good enough for a working-title, but I'm certainly not in love with it. In fact, I'm sort of hoping someone, somewhere can come up with something better, at some point.

I didn't blog on Friday, so I'm off to read that post, and vote!

Liz Reinhardt said...

As a seventh grader, I was positive *The Catcher in the Rye* was about baseball, possibly on a farm. Good thing I went for it anyway!

NotJana said...

Huh. I never actually thought about it... (unless, of course, you ask me to choose between two titles for the same book).
Turns out the book title isn't all that important for me. I'm looking at the cover first and if I like it, I may or may not look at the title before reading the back to see if it sounds interesting enough. And if it's an author I like, I'll check it out anyway.

Anne Gallagher said...

I've changed the title of the current book 3 times thus far. And I think I'm sticking with the latest one. It ties in well with the others I have in the series.

I like Mai Tai Mutiny too. Sounds cute. I also liked the undertaker story and that title when you discussed it last year. I really wish you would get that published. I'd love to read it.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

Okay ... NOW I want to know what title Sourcebooks came up with last February that is now a no-go. Was it Pirate Bitch?

As for the book I published with Sourcebooks last May, they gave my original title the heave-ho, along with everything else I suggested. In the end, they chose a title suggested by one of my fifth grade students.

So in answer to the question, "Am I Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?" -- No, I am not.

Bethany Elizabeth said...

I'm not actually hugely attached to my titles. I think I enjoy thinking them up so much that if one doesn't work, I'm excited about trying for a new one. :)

lora96 said...

I've read several books whose titles I considered generic (for example, Elizabeth Berg's luminous "Range of Motion" was originally called Telling Songs, which I thought had much more character) but my own titles tend to suck.

I either refer to the story by the mc's name (or her original name even after I changed it b/c no one could figure out how to pronounce the damn thing) or by some longass descriptive title that would in no way fit on a book cover.

I liked Pirate Bitch, personally, although I'd never turn down a mai tai.

Alexa O said...

A ho hum title is no deal breaker, but a great title can definitely sell me.

Some past favorites include:

*On the Bright Side, I'm Now the Girlfriend of a Sex God*, *The Girl in the Flammable Skirt*, and *Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress.*

And my favorite title of all time: *Brief Moments of Horrible Sanity*

With romance novels, I'm probably more inclined to pick one up based on the cover.

But if the author has a great blog that makes me laugh, well then by golly, I'll buy it if it's called *Cute Cats Wearing Hats* and has puffy paint kittens on the front.

Jeffe Kennedy said...

I almost always have a working title, often one that comes before I write. For example, the title "Wyoming Trucks, True Love and the Weather Channel" came to me and I knew I'd write the essay. That became the title of my essay collection, too. My Carina contract says that no name change will be needed for "Sapphire," and I'm hoping they let me keep it. I also knew that title with the story. But "Petals & Thorns?" I always just called it "Beauty & the Beast." That was about the 17th title we suggested and actually @Allison_Pang gave it to me.

Christina Auret said...

Well you have to call the word document something, right? That is about as far as I've thought on the matter.

I rarely even look at the titles when browsing a bookstore. I get sold to on cover and back copy.