Working Titles

“You love your title. I love your title. Barnes & Noble don’t like your title. Trust me, we’re getting a new title.”

Those were the words of a blogging agent earlier this year while discussing the importance of titles and, more importantly, who is the most important link in the chain when publishing through traditional channels.

1984. Don’t like it. Dates are dead in the water. Escape From Big Brother — that’s more like it. Gives a sense of quest.

Ulysses. No, no, not having that. It’s set in Dublin; where are the Greeks?  A Guinness Would be Grand. That’s what we’re calling it. We need to make those little leprechauns work for us here — think of the merchandising spin offs!

And, well, you get the picture. A title is many things in a few words. It’s the essence of the book. It’s the hook. It can, or in my opinion, should be poetic. It can be mysterious — a puzzle that adds a new layer which the reader ponders before, during and after reading. To clarify my opening quote, I’m sure that the blogging agent was probably talking about contemporary genre fiction when she made that comment. She’s also talking from experience about what generates the most sales and, more revealingly, she’s making a statement about who holds the real power.

To be brutally honest, if I had a hot new vampire YA novel to sell and was told that the title had to go, take it or leave it, the cheque’s on the table then I’m picking up the cheque no matter how much I love my title. Why? — because by writing in that genre it shows that my primary concern is the marketplace. Yes, I love writing. Yes I had fun doing it, and it’s well crafted and all that, but I’m a professional writer, and I’m here to make money. Swallow it, move on, spend the money. Whether deep down I’d question how what is essentially a creative decision had been wrested from my control and then altered based on statistics and data acquired from sales teams, is a moot point. Buy a new suit; have another gin and tonic in the Sky Lounge at The Hyatt you old rascal.

However, if your book is less generic, then the temptation to take the cheque becomes more problematic. A book that’s personal and that works in a few genres or perhaps none is going to be much harder to surrender to perceived forecasts of the bottom line. In a world where X-Factor and American Idol are cultural barometers, it can leave you hankering for a blast of Led Zeppelin rather than people reaching for the remote to vote, and a marketing driven title certainly has that feel.

For first time authors, jacket design is also outside of their control. Sometimes they’ll give two or three choices and, if you can all agree, you’ll get something that you like. Other times it’s a ‘nice’ surprise: “You’ve sold a book you ungrateful bastard: what’s wrong with that pink puppy on the cover, anyway?” The only solution to this, within the confines of mainstream publishing, seems to be to sell millions of books thus enabling you to walk into the publishers wearing a codpiece and cape and flanked by an army of minions. Without removing your shades, you can mumble that you’ve gone for the most versatile word in the English, F*ck, no asterisk, and the jacket will indeed have a pink puppy on it although not quite how they’d imagined.

As a final word, there’s no copyright on titles, so you’re free to run with Romeo and Julliet and good luck to you. However, big commercial projects, franchises, get around this by trademarking the whole cash cow. Choosing Harry Potter or Star Wars will, unfortunately, end up in a law suit that you can’t afford to fight. Trust me, you’re getting a new title.

Next week, Andrew Oberg takes a look at getting some distance from a project.

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  1. Mark Porter
    Posted September 10, 2010 at 7:32 am | Permalink

    Paul, I love this. Absolutely bang on. I’m hoping to stick with ‘Dogs Chase Cars!!” By the way, my next one has a great title!


  2. Paul
    Posted September 17, 2010 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    Mark, sorry about the late reply. Back to work and all that. Dogs Chase Cars is a winner in my opinion. Nice imagery and very punchy, too. Good title. Keep plugging away at it I’m looking forward to reading it.


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