Saturday, December 16, 2006

What are you calling it?

This is probably the most common question I get from readers about whatever my current work in progress is.

Sadly, I never have an answer for it. I no longer name my books as I write them, and I haven't for a few years now.

Why? For starters, authors rarely get to have any say in their titles.

That can come as a surprise to aspiring writers who spend hours concocting the perfect title and imagine it emblazoned on a stack of books at their favorite bookstore.

But the reality is that the marketing department gets to pick the title, and an author is extremely lucky to have any say at all. Every book I've submitted has hit shelves with a different title than I gave it. (The closest I've come is with book #3: the title I suggested had the word "house" in it. The final title was House on the Hill.)

I think most authors will be honest and admit that there's a part of us that hates having no control over the title. It's MY baby; why can't I have a say in what it's called?

But then you have to remember the one and only purpose for a title: to get potential readers to take an interest and pick up the book. If the title does that, it's a good title, no matter how well it ties into the story.

Authors write stories; that's our specialty. We aren't as good at selling them. On the other hand, the marketing department specializes in selling books and knowing what kind of title grabs interest. They have entire meetings devoted to picking titles. And since the publisher is the one footing the editing, marketing, printing, shipping, and other bills associated with my book, it's only fair that they get to pick the title that will give the book its best shot. They have a vested interest in seeing the book do well, so they'll pick a title they think will get the final product off the shelf and out the bookstore doors.

That said, I still dislike the title of my first book. When my editor informed me that it would be called Lost Without You, I sent her an email in hopes she could clarify what in the world that had to do with my story. Basically: nothing. It's just a romantic-sounding title.

But since it didn't even almost fit the story or my characters, I added a line of dialogue in the final scene so the title would both make some sense as well as reflect what I felt was the entire point of the book. (Which, by the way, wasn't the romance.)

Aside from the fact that I know whatever title I pick won't be used, there is another reason I don't have working titles for my projects: It's emotionally and mentally tough to rename your baby. For Lost Without You it took me a good year to be able to refer to the book by name. For months it was just, "My book." (That worked at the time, since it was my only one so far.) Since my stories always become such a part of me, it feels like an appendage gets cut off when they're renamed.

So I no longer give my books titles as I work on them. Instead I refer to them by a significant element in the book, sometimes a character (House on the Hill was my "Lizzy" book), but usually part of the setting (At the Journey's End was my "Honeymoon Trail" book). My current work in progress is simply, "Salt Lake City," since that's the temple it focuses on.

Catchy title, eh?

The good news is that my publisher now asks for at least five title suggestions, along with lists of significant locations, objects, ideas, words, etc. so the marketing folks can have a better idea of what's inside the pages--and then attach a more fitting title.

I love that it gives me some input in the process. But I must admit that my last three titles all rock; they fit the story and are catchy enough to grasp a reader's attention.

Even better, with each one, I haven't had to call them my second, third, and fourth books while I get used to the title. Without batting an eye, I've been able to call my babies by their final titles even before they're in print.


Janette Rallison said...

Do you remember how your English teacher used to ask the class, "Why do you think the author chose this title for the book?"

Then we all had to think of deep symbolic meanings for the titles of whatever novels we'd just read.

I'd love to talk to my English teachers now . . .

Annette Lyon said...

Not unlike a reader I had with my first book who gushed about my deep symbolism. I just smiled and nodded, not wanting to admit that I hadn't intentionally added any symbolism into the story at all.

Anonymous said...

When I tell people that 99% of the time the publisher will change the title of their book, they are surprised. I remember as a beginning author, I dreamed up titles--the perfect title. Then when I finally got my first book accepted, it was an eye opener to find out that the "committee" was debating titles. What? The one I had submitted was perfect. It propelled me as I wrote the entire book. So, now, I still pick a title, one the represents the story--but I know that it is only a working title. LOL.

Stephanie Black said...

For my first book, my publisher kept my original title, which really pleased me, since I'd thought of the book by that title for so long (and really liked it).

For my second book, I absolutely could not think of a good working title no matter how much I brainstormed. I ended up submitting the book under a bland sort of generic-suspense-ish title and was delighted to have the publisher come up with a far better, far snappier, more fitting title.

Annette Lyon said...

Which is why I figure it's best to leave it in their well-equipped hands anyway! I'm terrible at titles. I'll write the book. Let the Marketing folks sit around at their long meetings and name it!

Heather B. Moore said...

So far, I've been able to keep one title out of four. Not very good odds. When the title for my 2nd book was chosen, I had to go and rework a scene so that I could make it fit a little better. There's no reason to stress over titles. Spend your time on the writing :)

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