WHAT I LEARNED THIS WEEK: How hard it is to come up with a great title!


Actually, this isn’t a lesson I learned recently. I was merely reminded of it while mud-wrestling this week with a list of possibilities for a major book on the 2009 Del Rey list which must–perforce–remain nameless, since it certainly has no title at this moment and seems determined to avoid one until it is dragged kicking and screaming to the typesetters in a few weeks’ time.
Some manuscripts arrive on an editor’s desk with the perfect title already in place. Others seem to defy the best efforts of everyone who tries to help–editor, editor’s assistant, editor’s boss, copyeditor, marketing director, publicist, cover copywriter, and the nice lady who makes sure we always have enough paper towels in the restroom. I swear, at times I have asked all of these fellow professionals and more. I’ve even been known to consult the website http://nine.frenchboys.net/novel.php, which uses a random word generator to offer up to 50 fantasy titles at a time, from Ruby of Legend to The Mists of Denubin. (Thanks, guys!)

The struggle never seems to get easier, even after my 25 years in the book business. Titles are so important. The best titles convey not just something about the story but a sense of tone. In conjunction with the jacket art, a title should appeal as directly as possible to the audience one is trying to reach. Without a strong title to work with, our art department often finds it difficult to visualize the best cover look for the book.
My particular strategy when struggling with an upcoming title is to call the author and toss around a list of words that pertain to the story and its emotional feel. Recently, for example, author John Birmingham turned in a stunning thriller that we’ll publish early next year. His working title was The Disappearance, which was what his characters dubbed the starting event of the story–the wipeout of almost the entire population of the U.S. and half of Canada and Mexico due to an incredible flareup of unexplained energy. As a title, The Disappearance had tones of horror, which sent the wrong message. The story doesn’t focus on the energy effect or the loss of so much American life: it’s much more about the impact of that event on the rest of the world once others come to realize that the world’s greatest military and economic power is suddenly gone.
Gone was one of the words we thought about using, but it was employed recently as a title by another top-selling author and also didn’t pin down the tone. There’s a lot of military action in the book, which we wanted to get across. John offered some quotes from literature, which can often be a source of titles, but none of these worked for us: Close Up the Stars (from Milton) and The Silent Lands (Cristina Rosetti), even The Silence of the World (from a Smashing Pumpkins song). At long last we decided on Without Warning, which implies surprise and danger. The cover art solidly conveys the geopolitical thriller that John wrote, and which Del Rey will publish next February. What do you think?

  • Love the title…and I love the insight you gave into the struggle. And yes, I do think “The Disappearance” gives tones of horror, and would possibly even get confused with Bentley Little’s relatively recent (though totally different) “The Vanishing.”

  • Great post!

  • Thanks for the intriguing behind the scenes info! Question: Sometimes I encounter similar words in titles within a certain time period (for example, “wicked” seems like the “It” word in romance currently).
    Does this reflect an effort (perhaps even subconsciously) to drive a trend or build visibility for a genre/subgenre even though some of the books may be published by different houses?

  • Titles are tough. There is no doubt about it. A title has to please the author, the editor, the marketing department, the sales department and the art department. Those are a lot of people!
    And not only that, the title must be semi-appropriate for the book. I’ve had some input in the past for some titles and it is not an easy thing to navigate through.
    I will say this though: I don’t know of an instance where a title possibly lost sales; I think Betsy’s example here proves how editors can alter the course of how a book is perceived before a horror-like title like The Disappearance makes it to the bookstore shelves. But I can look at dozens of instances where cover art or how a book was marketed killed any possibility for a successful launch. Cover design and art is still, in my opinion, the most important aspect of selling a book beyond how good the book is.

  • I think cover art and design is just as important or moreso…but that said, I think the right title is VERY key. I also think a GREAT title can massively boost sales. I was just telling someone last night that I thought sTori Telling was a brilliant name for the Tori Spelling bio, and that, along with the fantastic self-deprecating packaging, really made what may have been a tough sell into a bestseller. I think nonfiction books in particular often can live or die based on a good or bad title.

  • That very well could be true, Matt. But I also think non-fiction is easier to market because it already has a built-in specific audience who hunt books down based on the topic they are interested in. If they are a fan of Tori Spellings, they are going to buy the book, regardless of title or cover art. Just my opinion of course.
    In fiction, it is different. There is no “topic” to fall back on. There is story, there is cover art, and there is title. Some people crack the cover and read the summary, some don’t. I’ve done polling on the Terry Brooks website and cover art got the highest percentage of what draws people to buy a book from the shelves — title was third after dust jacket summary. Dust jacket quotes and blurbs from other writers came in fourth.
    I’m not saying titles aren’t important. They are, very much so. It all needs to come together like interlocking fingers. But to use the finger analogy, a title to me is the little finger of the hand. *grins*

  • I don’t know. It looks Tom Clancy-ish to me. Is that what the story is like. Because, you know, an unexplained energy event that wipes out large populations seems more sci-fi to me, even if the story is more about the aftermath.

  • Jeff, I agree fully. The title and the cover art smack of Mr. Clancy. Perhaps it is thriller enough to compensate it? Perhaps the marketing department wants to try to get those commercial buyers — which is a larger buying group than sci-fi? I don’t know.
    Again, another question for Betsy. 🙂 Or maybe we can try to get Birmhingham in here to talk about it.

  • That blue background just sort of says Patriot Games, you know? And the narrow font used for the author’s name. Never mind the fighter plane and the map of the US in the background.
    Of course, I know nothing about the novel except what is written in the post, but based on that, I would expect to see an image with an overall gray or rust color tone, instead of blue, and maybe a ruined city (if the cities are destroyed) or abandoned city (if only the people disappear).
    But that’s just me. I’m riffing.
    As a writer, it has always been my greatest pleasure to see my work interpreted by an artist. And although my title suggestions weren’t selected for any of my books, most of the covers came almost directly from my cover art suggestions. Of course, having artists like Matt Stawicki and Mark Zug really helps.
    And by the way, editors at Del Rey, if you’re looking for a new cover artist, you would do well to become familiar with Thom Tenery. He does amazing sci-fi art, and from what I can tell from his blog, he is way fast.
    Do check him out.

  • Betsy

    Yay, the Clancy look is coming across! Yep, that’s exactly what we were going for. We’re calling the story a “geopolitical thriller” and hope it will start with the SF fans but expand to a broader audience by means of the cover. And as far as having John talk about the book: We’ll definitely bring him in when we’re closer to pub date (early Feb ’09).

  • Actually, the Clancy-esque theme works perfectly for John’s writing. His books are really techno-thrillers with a speculative element. If you’re a Clancy fan (which I am), you’ll love his writing. I very much recommend the entire Axis of Time trilogy – cutting edge stuff!

  • Yup, and if that Clancy fanbase is what Del Rey is after, then the cover works. No doubt about it!
    But it doesn’t work as a sci-fi novel cover, in my opinion, and would generate more sales next to Clancy in the commercial fiction section of a bookstore. I don’t know where this book will be placed on the shelf but that would be something interesting to know. If it’s placed in sci-fi/fantasy, I’d like to see how sales fall out there as opposed to in commercial fiction. I bet the latter would generate more sales with that cover in place.
    Just my bookseller opinion though. 🙂

  • I was thinking the same thing, Shawn. How will this be sold to sci-fi readers? It might look out of place in that section of the bookstore.
    But this is definitely a geopolitical thriller cover. No doubt about that.

  • This is fascinating, but I’ll let you in on a secret. Although I have the right to interfere with cover decisions, I dont. By the time it gets to that point in the production process I believe that no author retains any objectivity about their book. So I leave it to people who do. It makes for very different covers across very different markets.

  • Man, never blog when drunk late at night after a party. You end up using poorly chosen phrases like ‘I have the right to interfere… Right after I’ve annexed the Sudatenland!
    It would have been nicer and more accurate if I’d said something like ‘although I get consulted on the cover I don’t really feel qualified to interfere’. If I like it, that’s enough for me. And I love this Del Rey artwork. How it addresses the target market in the US, I have no idea. That sort of thing is arcane magic to me. I don’t even understand how the covers in my own country work.
    And as I said, by the time you get to the point of choosing artwork no author’s objectivity is to be trusted anyway. About artwork, copy, story arcs anything. By the time the first draft is finished, we have all gone insane.
    Oh, and ‘scuse me for muscling into your gig here Betsy. I was google-stalking reviews of the Australian release of WW and ended up here.
    I’ll get back to writing my next book now.

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