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Finding (and Losing) Book Titles

January 24, 2012 Guides, Manuscript Prep/Submission, Publishing, Writing 16 Comments

By Randy Susan Meyers

“My definition (for myself) of a working title is: A title that doesn’t work.” Robin Black

Picture having a baby. You named that baby so soon after conception. Dear little Lev. It’s the Russian version of your father’s name. It has great meaning. Birth! The nurse places him in your arms. She smiles. Than she says, “Change his name. He sounds too much like a Jewish cowboy.”

For the effort most authors put into titling their book, you’d think they’d get to see it splashed across the cover—but an overwhelming amount of us are told by our editors, “Love the book, hate the title. Find another one.

Marianne Leone says she “wanted JESSE: A MOTHER’S STORY to be THE RUNNING MADONNA, but Simon & Schuster thought it sounded like a workout book by the rock star.”

In my unscientific study, only 17% of the author-respondents were able to keep their chosen titles.  My original title for THE MURDERER’S DAUGHTERS was ADOPTING ADULTS, which I was told sounded like a self-help book. (Oh, they were right on the money there.) My editor chose the final title, tacking on ‘a novel’ when I insisted people would think it was a mystery.

No, they won’t think that! Not with our cover.

Actually, yes, they do.

On the other hand, just yesterday, while bookclub skyping with the incredible women of Detroit, while discussing titles, one of the women who attended the Jewish Book Festival auditions, said one of the problems they have with vague titles is not remembering them, and that they remembered THE MURDERER’S DAUGHTERS.

So, what do we know, right? Robin Black wrote, “My original title was YESTERDAY’S NEWS. Random House rejected it on the theory that you never give reviewers a title they could, if so disposed, use against you. (Which is why you don’t see more books out there called things like, “SUCKY BOOK.”)

And then there are the titles you didn’t know were taken: Cathy Marie Buchanan: “The original title for THE DAY THE FALLS STOOD STILL was THE RIVER WIFE. Sadly, my agent let me know Jonis Agree had just published using the title. Broke my heart for a hundred years.”

So, when you buckle down to re-title your book, know that you’re not alone. Here are just a few of the tools I’ve used (not including taking up an entire Thanksgiving dinner urging ideas from my family. Author, vanity is thy name.)

1. Lulu Title Scorer

What the site say: “Want to know if you’ve got a killer title for your novel? Now, for the first time in literary history, you can put your title to the scientific test and find out whether it has what it takes for bestseller success. Are you brave enough to put your title to the test?”

What I say: I never found this especially helpful, but remarkably soothing for no reason I can think of. According to their paradigm, my current novel, The Murderer’s Daughters had a 10.2% chance of being a bestseller—but so did The Help.

2. Title Generator

What the site says: Choose your words carefully. Don’t use silly words like ‘furry’ and ‘banana’ – do you really want those words to be in your title? Each click of the button gives you ten titles – feel free to modify your words again and again until you’re happy with your results.

What I say: If you have a conceptual idea of where you want to go with your title, ie: um, something about hunger. Yeah, hunger. And being fat. And the tyranny of the fashion industry on women. And cake, it actually helps feeds the obsession of finding the right title. I doubt it will lead you to ‘it,’ but it’s a fun way to spin around words..

3. Brainy Quote

What the site says: Not much. They simply present a long list of topics and authors from Lucille Ball to the Dalai Lama.

What I say: Love this site. Easy, a broad range of ideas and topics, and I’ve yet to run into anything forcing me to sign up, give my email, or get out my credit card.

4. Literary Agent Rachel Gardner’s Advice:

What she says: “Let’s start by acknowledging a few things. The publisher is usually responsible for the final decision on title, and in the query stage, it’s not that important. In fact, some agents have said they don’t pay any attention at all to titles. But at some point, you’re going to want to think seriously about this. Your title is part of the overall impression you’re creating about your book. It can set a tone and create an expectation. Whether you’re pitching to an agent, or your agent is pitching to publishers, I think you want to have the strongest title possible.”

What I say: Gardner offers a great start for titling or re-titling your book (though I’ve spent far longer than 24 hours on this exercise.) Her advice is sound: especially as regards making lists and then putting it away. What sounds so smart at midnight, often reeks of awful the next morning.

5. ehow on Titles:

What the site says: “Unlike musicians or artists who can get away with obscure monikers such as “Opus 102″ or “Untitled,” the title of your novel should be catchy enough to intrigue a prospective editor, short enough to not fill up the entire front cover, and memorable enough that your adoring public can enthusiastically chat it up at the water cooler instead of saying, “I forget the title but it was something about mutant lamprey eels.”

What I say:  Christina Hamlett has provided a clear concise guide to titling your book. I say, start with this article.

From Shakespeare to nursery rhymes to the Bible, we comb for titles. Have you written a book about infidelity? Then surely you’ve hummed “Your Cheating Heart.” How about “His Cheating Heart?” or “Her Cheating Heart?”

And how about, after wrenching The Scarlet Letter from your guts, your editor changes it to The Red Cape of Shame?  Of course, if an editor or better judgement hadn’t intervened, Lord of the Flies might have been Strangers from Within, and The Valley of the Dolls would have remained They Don’t Build Statues to Businessmen.

How often do titles stay the same?

I asked, and they answered.

Allie Larkin: The original title for STAY was “Savannah Leone and her Trusty Dog Joe,” which, for some reason, I thought was brilliant. No one around me had said otherwise. Before we submitted to publishers, my agent said, “So, Allie, what are we going to do about the title?” And I was shocked! So I went back to my husband and friends and everyone said something to the effect of “Yeah, that title is awful.” Then friends suggested titles. I think it was “Girl Meets Dog”(which I hated) for a week or two. And then I was in Wegmans looking at books and noticed a bunch of one-word titles and STAY popped into my head. So by the time we submitted to publishers it was STAY. I’m eternally thankful to my agent for calling me out on that.

Alyson Richman Gordon: THE LOST WIFE was originally “Lenka’s Hands,” title that I knew sounded a bit clunky. When I was asked to come up with a new title, I suggested “The Shadow Wife.” When the publisher’s editorial and sales team heard that, they thought it sounded like a vampire novel. I was rendered speechless, gave up making suggestions, and they came up with THE LOST WIFE.

Amy Hatvany: BEST KEPT SECRET was originally entitled “Every Other Mother,” but editor didn’t love. Went through about fifty different ideas, and I played with themes of mothers hiding their drinking, keeping it a secret, and finally landed on the right one. Drinking as a coping mechanism is too many mothers’ best-kept secret, and considering the stigmatization of being an alcoholic mother, it’s something many women view as being best kept secret.

Carla Buckley: My original title was “Flu Season,” which my publisher said sounded like a how-to book on getting colds. Over the course of a year, I submitted over a hundred titles, some of which floated for a little while: “Out of Thin Air,” “Flight Risk,” “Six Hours”. But then Random House stepped in and in a marathon meeting, came up with my title which my editor presented to me the next morning: THE THINGS THAT KEEP US HERE. My feeling was that I had just traded in my saddle shoes for sexy stilettos.

Carolyn Parkhurst When THE DOGS OF BABEL was published in Great Britain, the British publisher told me that no one would buy a book with that title, because to the British ear, it sounds like a horror novel.  We knocked around a bunch of ideas and ended up with LORELEI’S SECRET, which somehow makes me think simultaneously of knock-off lingerie, romance novels and straight-to-video soft porn.

Caroline Leavitt: PICTURES OF YOU was originally “Traveling Angels,” a screenwriting term that means a good person comes into the midst, shakes things up and then vanishes. Algonquin hated it, thought not one would know what it meant, but it would be too woo-woo sounding. Next, I called it “Breathe,” because one of the characters has bad asthma and there is a lot of tension. Editor loved but sales did not.

I came up with about 50 titles no one liked and finally, my beloved editor suggested a song title from The Cure. (She had me at the word The Cure.)  And just for the record, I adore my publisher Algonquin and every decision they have made for me has been a stellar one, so if they told me to call my book “I Am a Big Idiot,” hey, I would do so.

Catherine Mckenzie: Original title of SPIN was “Sober,”but after they bought the book Harper Canada was like um, that needs to change, sounds too much like a memoir. They the came up with some truly awful titles – I particularly hated “Scoop,” which a friend said sounded like a book destined for the bargain table! SPIN came to me out of nowhere one night & I love it now. Funny story – a review that was posted today went on about how clever it was how I worked title into various parts of the book. Had to laugh!

C.W. Gortner: My original title for THE LAST QUEEN was “Queen of Shadows” but then another book came out with that title.

Dawn Tripp: My original title for GAME OF SECRETS was “Parables of Sunlight,“from a poem that figures in the novel–Poem in October by Dylan Thomas. I knew it was abstract, and perhaps problematic for that reason. But Random House also had some concern that there were readers out there who would be thrown by the word ‘parable’ One thing I love about my editor (and I adore her) is that we brainstorm together. I made a list of all the words that were integral to the story. Game. Light. Woman. Secret. Orchid. Boy. Road. Fire. We worked off that list. She loved GAME OF SECRETS immediately:

Eleni Gage: My original title for OTHER WATERS was “Seen and Unseen Dangers,” which comes from an Orthodox traveling prayer, but my editors thought it sounded too much like a thriller, and I agree. For a while I really liked “The Goddess at Her Feet,”but someone there had an issue with feet. (As some people do I guess.) I really liked “The Cure for Love” for a while. But somebody who had better associations with romance than the rest of us said, “Who wants a cure for love?”

Hallie Ephron: My original title for NEVER TELL A LIE was “Baby, Baby, Baby,”– HarperCollins thought it wasn’t evocative of the suspensey-ness of the book. Since I once wrote a mystery novel titled ADDICTION and ended up at book events with people in the audience who thought they were going to hear about 12 Steps, we changed the title.

Hank Phillippi Ryan: My first mystery, PRIME TIME (which is set in the world of television news), was originally called “Time Code”  I was happy with it, until I began to fear it sounded too sci-fi. So then, because it’s about a veteran reporter searching for the story that will save her career and almost gets killed doing so, I briefly fell in love with “Story of My Life.”  But that was too much like an autobiography. So one day, someone said–wow, wonder if they would make your book into a series on prime time TV? And I thought–of course. PRIME TIME.

Judy Merrill Larsen: I have a love/hate relationship with my titles–I hate hate hate them until I finally come up with the “right” one and then I love it. My working title for my first book was “Back to the Lake,” but then an early reader suggested ALL THE NUMBERS, which I thought was perfect.

Jennifer McMahon: PROMISE NOT TO TELL started life as “Potato Girl.” ISLAND OF LOST GIRLS, was “Rabbet Island” (misspelling intentional.) DON’T BREATHE A WORD was simply “The Fairy Book.” I have learned not to get too attached to my working titles. The title that a book is published under is such a critical part of its marketing, so I’ve learned to trust the input of my agent, editor, publisher, the sales team, the book buyers, etc. — in other words, all the people who understand marketing much better than I do. And as much of a struggle as it sometimes seems to find the “perfect title,” I’ve always been happy with the result!

Juliette Fay: SHELTER ME was originally “En Route, Will Advise,”which I still love, but when I met my wonderful agent she said, “That is not the title.” I made the mistake of trying to convince her, which was, I know now, futile. She came up with SHELTER ME, which still sounds a little whiny to me on some days but everyone else likes it, and I’ve grown accustomed. Because, seriously, what were my options?

Laura Harrington: The original working title for ALICE BLISS was “The Life and Times of Alice Bliss,” which was inspired by a song lyric in the one-act, one-woman musical ALICE UNWRAPPED that I wrote with composer Jenny Giering.

Laura Zigman: My fourth novel was originally titled “A Wilderness of Monkeys.” Publisher did not like it and it took until the end of the editing process to come up with an alternative: PIECE OF WORK. I loved the original title but understood that they needed something they could sell more easily.

Lola Shoneyin: The working title for THE SECRET LIVES OF BABA SEGI’S WIVES was “Seed!” From one extreme to the other!

Leah Stewart; BODY OF A GIRL was “Memphis in the Meantime” (my agent’s idea, which I never quite liked); THE MYTH OF YOU AND ME was “Travels in Your Company” (which reminded them of Steinbeck); HUSBAND AND WIFE was “The Responsible One” (which my editor said didn’t sound like much fun); forthcoming WHERE YOU’LL FIND ME was “Elsewhere” (which they thought didn’t sound sufficiently warm).

Margot Livesey: My novel “The Beekeeper’s Vow” became THE MISSING WORLD. And THE FLIGHT OF GEMMA HARDY was, for perhaps two days, called “The Way to Blackbird Hall.”

Mameve Medwed: I had the titles for my first two novels, MAIL and HOST FAMILY, before I’d written Chapter One. Since they were championed form the git go, I assumed I was on a roll title-wise. Huh! The titles I summoned up (from where I have no idea!) for my next two now make me wince. Thank goodness my agent and editor stepped in to head me off a humiliating path.

For HOW ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING SAVED MY LIFE, I’d come up with “Meant for Me,” “Objects of Desire,” “Abby Road,” “Trust and Estates,” and the totally gag-inducing “Still Life With Pairs.” OF MEN AND THEIR MOTHERS was originally (and to me satisfactorily) entitled “Men and Their Mothers.” My editor was worried the novel would be filed in the self-help section or in psychology and insisted I add the OF (which almost everybody leaves off when they mention the book.)

Marisa de los Santos FALLING TOGETHER was originally “I Would Know You Anywhere,” and then Laura Lippman (aka Title Thief!) got the jump on me. I was heartbroken and have still not forgiven her. (This is a joke, of course, as she is lovely and had no idea what title I had rattling around inside my head). I still think IWKYA is the better title.

Melanie Benjamin: My initial title for ALICE I HAVE BEEN was “After Alice.” Then I had an inspiration for the last three sentences of the book – “Alice I am, Alice I will be. Alice I have been.” And I said, “Eureka!”

M.J. Rose: The original title of THE BOOK OF LOST FRANGRANCES was “The Mythologist.” Talk about an agent being worth his weight in gold. I was just describing the story to him… “So Cleopatra kept a book of perfume formulas, and no one has see it since Pliny the Elder, and in my story that book of lost fragrances shows up in present day–” And that’s when he screamed stop – you just said the right title. Change it now!

Nichole Bernier: My original title was “To Reach The Knowing.” Yes, a little hard to say (not that THE UNFINISHED WORK OF ELIZABETH D isn’t), but my agent felt it lacked a sense of noun, and she was probably right.

Sarah Pekkanen: I am the worst at coming up with titles. My editor is about to stage an intervention. She has titled every one of my books! Sometimes I weigh in, but she gets us going in the right direction after I send her suggestions that I’m pretty sure burn her eyes.

For THE OPPOSITE OF ME my working title was “The Way She Moves,” then it became “Way Beyond Compare.” For SKIPPING A BEAT my working title was “Because of You.” FOR THESE GIRLS I didn’t have a title. I sent the manuscript untitled. I know when I’m beaten!

Stephanie Cowell: Titles are my bete noir! MARRYING MOZART was “Mozart’s Marriage,”which my clever filmmaker son adjusted in two seconds.

Therese Fowler My second novel, REUNION, had two working titles: the first was “Mile Zero” which refers to a mile marker in Key West, where the book is set, and I thought worked nicely with the story themes as well, while seeing my editor in NYC, I got to meet the Random House president; she Gina asked about the book, and upon hearing the title, said it reminded her of Three Mile Island. So there went *that* title.

Therese Walsh: The original title for THE LAST WILL OF MOIRA LEAHY was “Unbounded.” But the head buyer at B&N thought it sounded like a “bodice-ripper title” (her words), so out it went. I will admit that I cried like a wee bairn over this change.

Mary Johnson: AN UNQUENCHABLE THIRST had no title at all for the longest time. For a while I called it “Mother Teresa was not always pleased with me” — but that title was just for me. We went back and forth on subtitles for ages. My publisher gave the book its long and somewhat awkward subtitle: Following Mother Teresa in each of love, service, and an authentic life. Some potential readers seemed to think that the book was about Mother Teresa, so it seems that the subtitle on the paperback will simply read, “A Memoir”

Titles are always hard for me. How do you write something that will summarize your book, mean something both before and after readers have read the book (hopefully something different), and that will cause potential readers to pick it up. And oh yes, it should be google-able. A very tricky business.

Erika Dreifus: I’ve actually written up the history of my title. The earliest iteration (my MFA thesis) was titled “The Unchosen”  and then the ms became “Reparation,” and then it became QUIET AMERICANS. It wasn’t really a publisher’s decision, though. More driven by the book’s content.

Ernessa T. Carter: The original title for 32 CANDLES was “Molly Ringwald Ending.”  We received a very stern letter from her lawyer, saying that the novel wouldn’t be going forth with that title. The Fierce and Nerdy blog readers actually picked the new title for me. My agent was sure that Harper would want to change it, but they decided that they like it, too.

Sandra Gulland: MISTRESS OF THE SUN was originally, and for many, many years, “Bone Magic.” I adored the title, but it was difficult to fit a cover to. And then a reader’s boyfriend changed the title to “Boner Magic” (in jest) and I knew it had to change!

Sarah Jio:  THE VIOLETS OF MARCH was originally sold as “The Waters of March,”after the late Susannah McCorkle’s gorgeous jazz song. The sales team at Plume worried the title might sound a little too somber, so we came up with THE VIOLETS OF MARCH.

And there were a few lucky ones, who kept their titles:

Ellen Meeropol: Actually, the title was about the only thing we didn’t argue about. HOUSE ARREST was my working title, and it stayed.

Joseph Wallace I had the title for DIAMOND RUBY before I ever wrote a word of the book…in fact, before I ever wrote a word of the short story that grew into the novel. I saw Ruby in my mind, fully formed, and knew right away that would be her name and nickname. I doubt I will ever have such an easy time of it again!

Karen Simpson: I was warned by other authors that I probably wouldn’t get to keep the working title of ACT OF GRACE for my first novel. So, I was shocked, but very happy, when my publisher said they thought the title was perfect and they wanted to keep it. I don’t expect to get that lucky with the next book.

Carleen Brice: My publisher actually took both my titles.

Cheryl Strayed: My publishers have taken my titles for my books, though in the case of my first–TORCH–we had a conversation about it. Another topic altogether is the thing readers call your book–or rather, how they tend to mess up the title. A lot of people refer to TORCH as “Torched.” A lot. I’ve had to learn not to take it personally.

Clea Simon: I had the title for DOGS DON’T LIE  before I wrote the book – I knew I wanted to expand a short story I’d written, and that line just captured the noir-ish flat affect I wanted as well as a pet reference.

Jenna Blum: My publishers took both my titles, perhaps to their detriment. I’m not fabulous with titles. I’ve always felt THOSE WHO SAVE US was too vowely, floating without a proper noun–then again, I vetoed proposed alternatives such as “The Bakery Angel,” “The Nazi Officer’s Whore,” and “The Bread Also Rises” (my friend Eric Grunwald contributed the last). THE STORMCHASERS was a working title that became the actual title, despite my agent’s fear it sounded like nonfiction. The Dutch title for this book translates to “TORN IN TWO,” which I love, & they redubbed THOSE WHO SAVE US, “THE FAMILY PORTRAIT.” Where were they when I was titling the books?!?

Lesley Kagen: I’ve been lucky. All of my books were published with their working titles.

Lisa Brackmann: I’m terrible at titles but did come up with ROCK PAPER TIGER and I’m rather fond of it.




Currently there are "16 comments" on this Article:

  1. Randy, this post came at the perfect time for me! My editor just got back to me on my sequel to Lies Beneath. She loves the book. Hates the title (Water Lily).

    These resources will be put to good use, and it’s good to know I’m in good company! (Still love Water Lily though… *sigh*)

  2. Brad Patrick says:

    Just had to comment that I love the little NYT squib – turns out it isn’t copyrighted anymore (works first published in the US before 1923 are in the public domain, no matter what the NYT says).

  3. I was just recently trying to help a friend (in vain!) re-title her book. Wish I’d seen this awesome post first. This is quite a compendium on the subject–thanks!

  4. Jane Roper says:

    I’ll add my title trauma to the list: I wanted my forthcoming book — a serio-comic memoir about parenting twins and dealing with depression — to be called DOUBLED OVER. I love how it suggests both pain and laughter (since you can be doubled over with either) and, of course, twins.

    My editor loved it too, but some higher up HATED it. I fought and fought to no avail, then generated a whole list of other possible titles, and the one everyone agreed on was DOUBLE TIME. Which is fine, but not nearly as evocative or memorable. And I’ve already had people refer to it as “Double Take” and “Double Trouble.”

    Double bummer. But what can you do?

  5. Jenna Blum says:

    Love it, Randy! What a great idea for a post and, as always, both funny and illuminating. Thanks for the inclusion.

  6. Such a cool post!

    My first book was originally WHEN MOM’S HAPPY EVERYONE’S HAPPY and that was changed to MOTHERS NEED TIME OUTS, TOO.

    My second was called THE MYTH OF THE MIDDLE CHILD and became THE SECRET POWER OF MIDDLE CHILDREN. I was happy with both changes. I think you’re a bit less wedded to the title with non fiction, though.

  7. erin cashman says:

    What a great article Randy, and so true! Who knew titles would be so hard?

    My novel, THE EXCEPTIONALS, was first titled THE SPECIALS, but that was already taken by Scott Westerfeld. I knew I needed to change it, but it just seemed right, and it was so hard to think of my novel as anything else! My editor wanted prophesy in the title, which sounded all wrong to me, and I spent MANY an hour coming up with new titles – and yes, they often sound better at 1 A.M., especially when wine is involved!

    And Anne — for what it’s worth, I love WATER LILY too!

  8. Randy Susan Meyers randysusanmeyers says:

    I love all this! And yes, Erin–all titles sound better at midnight with wine. I fell deeply in lust with some that I would happily bury from my memory!

  9. I loved reading about all these different titles and how they evolved. I’m pretty terrible at titles so I’ve stopped being attached to them. For one WIP, I even recycled a title from a previous short story because I thought it applied better to my new novel. I clearly need help :)

  10. Robin Black Robin Black says:

    Love this! (And thanks for quoting me.)

    I’ve always though there should be A Title Store – like the Wand Store in Harry Potter. You bring in your book and a Title Wizard matches you up with the exact right one.

    (I think publishers may think that’s what they are, and sometimes they are. But at the Title Store I have in mind, there would be no possible debate!)

    Thanks, Randy. A fun and enlightening read.

  11. Wow. Wow. Wow. What a comprehensive list and wonderful post.


  12. Rae Meadows says:

    And some of us have our title changed, then get our original title back for the paperback! Publisher gave me Mothers and Daughters for hardback and it will change to my original title Mercy Train for paperback in May.

    Thanks, Randy! Fun to see the originals from all these great writers.


    • In response to Rae Meadows: yes, I saw on your site that you have your original title back! I was bewildered that they changed it from the evocative MERCY TRAIN to the generic “Mothers & Daughters” — it must be satisfying to you but annoying at the same time that they agreed you were right, finally. (I love your new cover, too.) Meanwhile the sales team hated my working title, “The Train Rider” — new title is TRAVELING LIGHT, for pub in Feb … I’m happy with it; we’ll see!

  13. Kelly Wurth says:

    Randy, this is great! It makes me think of how we writers “fall in love” with certain aspects of our writing. It’s hard to remember that whatever inspires me may not endure the process. I will still probably try to defend my novel’s title, if given an opportunity, though. That’s the way love is…hey, that sounds like a book title, too. Very fun post, Randy. Thanks to you and all contributors.

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Randy Susan Meyers

Randy Susan Meyers
The dark drama of Randy Susan Meyers’ debut novel, The Murderer’s Daughters, published by St. Martins Press in January 2010, is informed by her years of work with batterers, domestic violence victims, and at-risk youth impacted by family violence. She was raised by books, in Brooklyn, where she could walk to the library daily. Each book she read added to her sense of who she could be in this world. Reading In Cold Blood at too tender an age assured that she’d never stay alone in a country house. Biographies of women like Marie Curie and Elizabeth Blackwell opened doors to another world and A Tree Grows In Brooklyn taught her faith in the future. Each time she read it, she was struck anew by how the author Betty Smith knew so much and dared to write it. Read Full