The author usually gives a book its first title long before they go through any publishing channels, and sometimes that first title is perfect and everyone agrees and it doesn’t change at all. And sometimes . . . it doesn’t happen that way. Some authors know their title isn’t right, and some authors haven’t considered the reader/marketing/sales side of things. (That won’t be you after reading this though!)
As an agent, I have frequently brainstormed a new title with an author, though of course not against their will. If the author and I don’t land on something that we both like, then we can go forth with the title the author likes best. There are some cases, however, when I advise clients that we shouldn’t submit a book to editors under a weak or lackluster title because something better that we can come to with a little thought can have a big impact. Before a publisher buys a book, everyone understands that the working title of a book is not final. (If you’re an author and did not know that—surprise!)
Once a traditional publisher buys the book, if the publishing team thinks the book needs a new title, they’ll talk to the author (and agent) and start brainstorming. The editor might have suggestions or even a perfect idea that everyone loves! Or not. There’s no one way a title happens. There are times when everyone loves a title except the marketing and/or sales teams, and they come back to the author and suggest it be changed. The bottom line is that once a publisher is involved, the title is reached by consensus.
If you’re self-publishing, the only one who has an opinion about the title is you! (And the reader, of course.)
In a book contract with a traditional publisher, it most often says that the author has consultation on the title, and it will be mutually agreed upon by both the author and the publisher. That means the publisher cannot force the author to accept a title they hate but also that the author does not get the absolute final say about the title. This often shocks authors! It’s their book, after all! And really and truly, though I am sure there are some horror stories out there, the publisher does not want the author to hate their title. I’ve brainstormed titles with editors and authors for weeks before we landed on something that worked for everyone. Titles are hard! But in traditional publishing, they’re also decided by committee.
So, What Makes a Good Title?
I’ve found that many good titles come straight from the book’s text. It’s often an unassuming line in a random paragraph, hardly ever on the first page. When I’m reading a client’s book, sometimes titles just jump out at me and I add them to a list to suggest to the author. Other times, and depending on the book, a good pun can go a long way in making a great title.
Very often, I will make a brainstorming list with the author and/or editor that riffs on the elements we want to get into a title and see what fits best. And I will suggest the most ridiculous things in those brainstorming lists, not only because sometimes those end up working but also because they signal what doesn’t work. If you’re stuck on a title, try it! Do not stop yourself from adding anything to that list, including iterations of the same thing.
Let’s pretend we’re coming up with the title for a historical novel about a flapper turned bootlegger turned millionaire patron of the arts, who is also hiding that she’s a lesbian in 1920s New York. (This isn’t a real book, as far as I know, but I sure would like to read it.) Here’s what a brainstorming list might look like for this book. Warning: Most of these are going to be cheesy, silly, bad, or cliché. Sometimes you have to get those out of the way.
All that Glitters
On the Fringe
All the Fringe
The Secret Life of [Character’s Name]
A New York Secret
All the Secrets in New York
The Speakeasy’s Secret
The Secret Speakeasy
All the Secrets at the Speakeasy
Gin and Secrets
The Last Speakeasy on the Bowery
The Most Beautiful Millionaire in New York
The Blind Tigress (blind tiger is an old name for a speakeasy!)
Shaken Not Stirred
The Prohibition of [Character’s Name]
I told you most of these would be bad. But allowing all ideas a chance clarifies what you do and do not want in a title.
Titles are not copyrightable (and I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice), so someone can use “your” title and you can use someone else’s. But you probably don’t want to, to prevent confusion, especially in search results. Titles can, though, be trademarked, which is totally different and which is why you can’t use things like Chicken Soup for the ______ Soul, Idiot’s Guide to______, ______ for Dummies, or other trademarked things. I would not suggest you title your memoir something like The Official Book on How Coca-Cola Saved My Life, no matter how apt, funny, or poignant it might be. Someone’s lawyer is going to send you or your publisher a letter, and it’s not worth the hassle. There are many other better titles out there.
I’ve found that many good titles come straight from the book’s text.
The trickiest thing about titles, I think, is that the author and publishing team know everything about a book, so there are many titles that feel like they fit perfectly. It is too easy to forget that the reader has not read the book yet, so referencing something deep in the text that only makes sense after you read it is not an effective strategy in crafting a title. A good title hooks the reader before they read it and pays off even more after they finish.
But What If You Hate Your Title?
If you’ve got a book deal and the publisher tells you the title doesn’t work and you hate hate hate their suggestions, what do you do?
First, talk to your agent, if you have one, or your editor if you do not. Again, the publisher does not want you to hate your title, because they know it is your book and your work and you have to look at it for the rest of your life. Don’t take it personally. They are not giving a bad title at you. They are just looking at it from another angle than you are. But also, don’t feel guilty or shy about sharing your feelings. You are not bothering anyone. Your editor wants to know if you hate the title. Speak up for yourself! If you feel you can’t, ask your agent to do that for you.
Make sure you are considering the marketing side of titles, even if you do not want to. Yes, your book is art. But if you want someone to buy your art, they are going to need to be enticed to do so, and one way that happens is with the title. You may not like changing your title or what your publisher suggests, but they probably have at least one or two good points about why it needs to change.
I am afraid titles are not exempt from that old writing canard: “kill your darlings.”The more you might love a title, the more likely sales and marketing won’t (lol). My best advice is to not get too attached to a title and to let the right one find you instead.