Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Titles, Schmitles

by Annette Lyon

With all due respect to Steve Almond, his latest article in Writer’s Digest wasn’t exactly en pointe.

This is the first time I’ve disagreed with a word he’s said. Usually his fiction column is a great resource, and I find myself mentally cheering him on with each example and explanation. (His piece on metaphors a few months ago was priceless.)

But this month . . . not so much.

In it he touts the importance of picking a title for your work. He claims that those poor souls who don’t pick a title might not be ready to show their work to the world, and then he proceeds to give a lesson (a pretty great one, actually) about how to come up with titles.

All well and good . . . if authors of published novels actually picked their titles.

Which happens, oh, about 1.3% of the time.

Okay, I made that statistic up, but in my experience, that might be guessing high. Sure, Dickens and company got to pick the titles of their books (really catchy ones, too, like David Copperfield and the one that makes you so eager to read it, Bleak House). But in the last, say, ten years, I’m aware of maybe three novels that hit shelves with the title that their authors submitted.

Writers are good at writing. We aren’t so good at selling stuff. That’s the marketing department’s job. That’s also why they hire professional graphic designers to make the covers—so prospective customers might actually pick up the thing and read the back liner . . . and maybe walk out the door with it.

And it’s why they get to pick the title. By and large, these guys have a ton more experience than we writers do in seeing what kinds of titles sell books and which ones land on their faces.

When they’re wrong, well, the author pays the price, because generally you’ll be at their mercy. You might be able to give suggestions or ideas, but in the end, they get the final say. The one exception might be with short stories, but if you’re planning on writing novels, there’s very little point in fantasizing about what they'll be called.

If you’re lucky enough to keep your title, party on. Throw confetti and toast your success.

But I know too many would-be writers who obsess about their titles, to the point of avoiding the nitty-gritty job of making a great book behind the brilliant title. A catchy name isn’t going to sell your work to an agent or editor. Knock-your-socks-off writing will.

Don’t get me wrong; I’ll probably use some of Almond’s suggestions when coming up with something to call my next manuscript before I submit it. But I won’t be married to the title, and I won’t be remotely surprised when (not if) it gets changed.

So I’ll be focusing my efforts where they really matter: Writing the best story I’m capable of.

Then I’ll let the marketing folks worry about assigning a title and a cover to it. That’s their job.

I think mine’s much more fun anyway.


Stephanie Humphreys said...

I'm terrible at titles. I let my husband pick a whole list, then have a good laugh at what he comes up with and try to find something passable on my own.

Julie Wright said...

HA! You are so right! I did finally come up with a good title for my next book coming out, but it's too late, the marketing department already came up with one they are likely using (though they haven't told me what it is yet) and it is highly unlikely they'd pick anything I want anyway. You're right. I am a writer, not a marketer. I say let them figure it out, and good riddance to one more thing to obsess over.

Rachelle said...

I like this, it's a good reminder not to be a worry-wart over the title. I don't like to pick them out either!

Jennie said...

I've gotten so blase about titles, I just give my books numbers, then slap something on just before I submit the manuscript to my publisher. Once I used a one word working title, then when I submitted the manuscript came up with something fancier, then you guessed it, the marketing people came up with the same one word title I'd used for a working title. Titles aren't worth losing sleep over.

Stephanie Black said...

My first book was published under the title I'd given it. My second wasn't--my working title was awful!

Josi said...

I've worked with two publishers, one let me pick the titles and the other one has done the picking for me. I thought I would hate losing control of the title part, but it hasn't really bugged me. The titles they've come up with have been a lot better than the one I had in mind. However, my next book will keep the working title--let's cross our fingers it's as good as the other ones.

Heather B. Moore said...

Stephanie, that's funny your husband makes a list.

Josi, I hope you'll be able to keep HER GOOD NAME!

Michelle said...

I chuckle when somebody struggles with a title or is militant about thier choice. I learned early on that we don't get to keep our desired titles.

However, I do choose a title for every work it is easier to keep everything straight in my head that way.
Although, I can't think of a title for my romance so it is stored on my computer as romance 1, real origional huh?