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?