Saturday, October 29, 2005

What's in a Name (Or at Least a Book Title)?

Often, readers are surprised to learn that very few authors have control over book covers, which are left in the hands of the publisher's marketing department. Though we're usually asked for input, often in the form of character description or scene descriptions, the details can take a back seat to getting across the story's sales hook.

Authors' working titles, too, are often altered or scrapped in favor of something considered more sales-worthy by the publisher. After the publication of nine books, six of which had their titles changed, I've found it never pays to get overly attached to your creation's moniker. Of my historicals written as Gwyneth Atlee, Futile the Winds (named for a line of an Emily Dickinson poem, "Wild Nights") became Night Winds. This was a good call, as people kept thinking I was saying "Feudal" and expecting a medieval instead of a Texas hurricane story! Two titles I fought for (and ultimately lost) were Thunder on the River and Fire on the Water (about the explosion of the Mississippi River steamboat Sultana during the Civil War). After a decision from marketing that the titles didn't sound romantic, the related books were renamed Against the Odds and Trust to Chance. Those didn't sound romantic to me, either. My first contemporary romantic suspense, Fatal Error (written under my real name, Colleen Thompson), was initially titled Heart Drives (a computer-related clue to the central mystery figures prominently, as does a strong romance). The change was probably a good one, since a lot of mystery/suspense readers (especially males) wouldn't pick up any book with "Heart" in the title, and the story was cross-marketed to both romance and suspense readers.

I must be getting a little better with titles, because my next three romantic suspenses (all from Love Spell Romantic Suspense), Fade the Heat (Dec. 05), The Deadliest Denial (May 06), and Heat Lightning (Nov. 06) are all keeping my original titles. At least as far as I know.

I'm always curious about original titles of books I've read. Does anyone want to share one?


Sue-Ellen Welfonder said...

Interesting topic, Colleen, and I'll share one. My first book, a Scottish medieval, was called ENCHANTED when I was working on it. After Warner Books bought it, my then-editor changed the title to DEVIL IN A KILT. Quite a difference! I'd chosen ENCHANTED because the story idea came to me when I visited the Highland castle that became the book's setting. I'd felt so inspired, so enchanted by the atmosphere, that the title seemed appropriate. When DEVIL IN A KILT was released, I was still peeking at reader message boards, something I haven't done in years, but back then, I still couldn't resist seeing what people were saying and so I can tell you that opinions went both ways on the kilted title. Some thought it was catchy and others ridiculed it. The book did very well for me, though, and is still doing good even now, years later, so I can't say if the title makes all that much a difference in sales - in the long run. A wowser title or cover will surely attract attention. But in the end, it is the story alone that matters. With a few exceptions, most of my working titles have been changed. I just recently learned the new title for my 2007 Warner historical and am delighted with it. I find learning a book's title just as exciting as seeing the cover for the first time and don't mind having the working titles changed. There are too many other things to worry about in this business than something we have so little say in.

gailbarrett said...

Well, here's the flip side. I am terrible at titles. I can never decide what to call a book and usually leave it until the book is done before I finally give it a name. Even then, it sounds lame to me, not catchy or interesting at all.

I was shocked, then, when my editor kept the title WHERE HE BELONGS on my first book. I was expecting -- even hoping -- she would come up with something better.

For my second book, I came up with SLOW BURN, a perfect title for the story. Unfortunately, there is another (famous) book out now with that title, so they made me change that one. I spent a few anguished days going over options (they wouldn't write up the contract until I had the title, so I was motivated to change it FAST) and finally decided on FACING THE FIRE. Actually, I like that title now, although it took me awhile to get used to it.

So, as long as what they come up with is good, I don't mind changing my books' titles. Maybe if I were more clever about titles, I would feel differently.

Allison Brennan said...

LOL, Colleen . . . very timely post. I just blogged about it at . . . THE PREY had five titles total. My original title was THE COPYCAT KILLER.

I did get to keep one of my titles. They liked THE HUNT, and came up with two titles that fit in the trilogy, hence, The Prey, The Hunt and The Kill.


Sally MacKenzie said...

I had a terrible initial working title for my first book, The Naked Duke. I'm too embarrassed to say what it was, it was so horrible. A friend who used to be an editor pointed out how bad it was, so I changed it. I confess I tried to think marketing at that point. What was sexy? Power (duke) and, um, sex (naked).

People do seem to enjoy the title. Sometimes I think coming up with it was my most creative moment. I'm now writing the "naked nobility" series--The Naked Marquis and The Naked Earl. In fact, my editor suggested I have t-shirts made up--"Get naked with Sally MacKenzie." It's an interesting idea--but it is so not me. Hmm. Though perhaps I could be persuaded in the interest of marketing.

Kerrelyn Sparks said...

Great post, Colleen! I love hearing what the original titles were. My first book was a historical published by Forge. They changed the title to For Love or Country, which was well suited to the conflict. My original title, Insatiable and Saucy, was more suited to the fun and naughty tone of the book, and I'm still wondering if that would have sold better.
I'm having better luck with the vampire comedies. How to Marry a Millionaire Vampire was mine. I named the second one Vamps in the City, but when my editor and I discovered that the TV show was Sex and the City (not "in" the city), we changed the title to Vamps and the City. The third one is titled Vampires in Kilts-- we'll see if that one sticks!

Kerrelyn Sparks

Patti O'Shea said...

I'm terrible at titling books, and I knew most authors rarely kept their working titles, so I never put much time into coming up with something. Although, now I'm trying to come up with titles that will sell a book to an editor. In my short publishing history, though, here's how I've done on titles.

Ravyn's Flight was always Ravyn's Flight. My usual method of titling is to take a character's name and stick another word with it, and ta-da, working title. :-)

The Power of Two never had a title; I called it Banzai #4, and same thing with Through a Crimson Veil, I called it Crimson City #3. They're both part of series with other authors.

I was calling the WIP (work in progress) RFS for Ravyn's Flight, the Sequel, or as an alternate, joke title, Kendall Thomas and the Temple of Dreams. When it came time to submit the proposal, I went with Temple of Dreams on the suggestion of a friend when I couldn't come up with a better idea. Imagine my surprise when the decision was made to keep it! Of course, until the cover is done, it's not set in stone, so we'll see what happens.

I very much doubt I'll be keeping the working titles on the next two books I sold, so I'll be curious what they end up being called. (First of the two books got it's working title In the Midnight Hour because a Billy Idol song came on the radio during the time I was struggling to think up something. :-)


Colleen Thompson said...

I'm having lots of fun hearing original titles and what they became. I think Devil in a Kilt sells the sizzle well, Sue-Ellen. That title stuck in my head, as did Sally's The Naked Duke and Kerrelyn's How to Marry a Millionaire Vampire. I like Facing the Fire, In the Midnight Hour (cool song, too), and think Allison's series ' titles are brilliant marketing.

Before my debut, Touched by Fire, came out, I learned that Zebra had published a book by the exact same title about five years earlier. (The name came from a famous quote about the Civil War. Actually, my version was Touched with Fire, but I was persuaded by the editor to change the preposition - for reasons I'm still unclear on.) Anyway, I became concerned that people would be confused by two books put out by the same house with the same title, so I asked my brand new, very young editor (the editor who bought the book had left - story of my life) about it. The new editor suggested changing the title of this dark, gritty historical to (get ready for it)... Light my Fire.

I said "Never mind. Let's stick with Touched by Fire after all."

I still groan every time I imagine sitting behind a stack of books with that horrible title (and my husband standing behind me doing a bad impression of The Doors).

Candice Gilmer said...

Now, I haven't (YET, although I'm working on it) sold a book, I have found that for myself, if I start a new story, I usually come up with a title first. I don't know why that is, but the title usually guides" me toward where I want to take the story. And ironically enough, somehow, somewhere, I wind up weaving the title into the manuscript in the novel, showing the "intension" of the title.

Although, I've heard many stories of not getting to keep my titles, so I try not to get too attached.

JoAnn Ross said...

While I batted about 50% in category, I've gotten to keep all my single title titles except one, which turned out to be a marketing disaster. (At least, imo. Pocket still doesn't see it that way. Or won't admit they do, anyway.)

All my books for Pocket had had sort of metaphorical geographical titles: Homeplace, Far Harbor, Fair Haven, Legends Lake, Blue Bayou, River Road, and Magnolia Moon.

The first in my Stewart Sisters trilogy was going to be Firefly Falls. Art did a gorgeous cover with a Smoky Mt waterfall with the lush mountain greenery, and fireflies flickering. (It was the first time I actually considered buying the art.) It got a dynamite two page! spread in the Pocket Books catalog sent out to all the accounts. It was on Amazon. The first chapter excerpt, with the title, was in the back of Magolia Moon ( the previous book.)

Then, they suddenly decided to go in a new direction and, just a couple months before the book came out, the title was changed to Out of the Mist. And, since the month was also changed, the ISBN number changed.

A week after Out of the Mist came out, all the online bookstores were still selling Firefly Falls. B&N was still telling people it wasn't in yet, and taking orders for it. (I called different random stores around the country.)
That was four books ago and I'm still getting emails -- a LOT from librarians -- nearly every week asking whatever happened to Firefly Falls.

Sigh. Not helping matters was Mira, who was putting out backlist books with covers that looked a lot like my Pocket ones, either the same month or a month before my new releases, which, naturally confused people even more.

Unsurprisingly, while I'd begun making the Times with the three previous books, that one didn't. Could it be because NO ONE IN THE ENTIRE READING WORLD KNEW IT WAS OUT??!!!!

Sorry for screaming. As you might imagine, it's still sort of a sore subject. (Though, fortunately, readers did eventually find it, and total sales seem to have caught up. At least in the chains, who, thankfully, kept reordering so it's stayed on the shelves.)

Now I'm writing thrillers and am struggling to find one word titles Koontz hasn't done. So far we've had Blaze, with Impulse coming up in June, and Taken as a sorta maybe for Jan 07. I'm not wild about that one, but had to give them something a couple weeks ago, just to use in-house. Suggestions are always welcome. :)

Colleen Thompson said...

It's better, I think, to know up front that titles and cover treatments (back cover copy, too) are generally out of your control. Along with distribution. The best thing to do is focus all of your attention on the writing itself. It's the one place you are the boss.

And Jo Ann, that last-minute title change sounds like a nightmare. It's incredibly aggravating when stuff like that affects sales, because no matter what you're promised or who's really to blame for the boondoggle, the buck always stops with the author.

I like the title Impulse a lot.

Good luck with it!

Deborah Matthews said...

As a reader, titles can make me pick up a book. "What to Say to A Naked Elf" certainly got my attention and I did buy the book.

My first book, "Bold & Bonny", was originally "Heatherspun Desire". "Drawn to Trouble" became "The Art of Love"--it dealt with Renaissance art & forgery. "The Gift of Love" and "The Duchess & the Devil" kept their titles as well as my novella, "Be Mine". Of course, on the novella they had already named the book itself. So, my average is better than a lot of authors.

Shelley Bradley said...

Interesting discussion!

In my first 11 books, I've only had to change 1/2 of one title. My first book I called TAME THE DRAGON, which was changed to THE LADY AND THE DRAGON. Most recently, I was surprised that Berkley was allowing me to keep BOUND AND DETERMINED and STRIP SEARCH. I thought they fit perfectly, but I know plenty of people who have been asked to change perfectly lovely titles in the past.

Contracted books 12 and 13... Well, 12 had a title, but when they asked for changes in the plot, it change the title I had for the book, since I removed an element. I've submitted new ideas. We'll see. 13 sold without a title. It was just a few paragraphs. Now I'm scrambling to come up with something!