Monday, August 08, 2005

Why I Work At Titles

When I meet with new writers at conferences, many of them are concerned about keeping their titles. I can understand their affinity for the name of their particular manuscript. Yet when I teach on book contracts at these same conferences, I let them know it’s a non-negotiable that the publisher ultimately controls the title. Why?

While the author has invested time and creativity into the manuscript, in traditional publishing (where you get a book contract and someone else pays to publish the book) the publisher has the largest dollar investment in the book. Contractually they will control the title and the cover design and many other factors because of this investment. (generally said to be between $50,000 to $100,000 for a typical book in production and editorial costs—no marketing is in this figure.)

Yet if you worry about the loss of your title, don’t fear. I’ve learned that if you work hard at the title and create an excellent one, it will stick throughout the editorial process. It’s true in the magazine world as well as book publishing. If you create an excellent, memorable title, then it will stick.

I’ve been in title meetings in the magazine area as well as the book area.  A white board will be filled with various titles and the participants kick around the various merits and minuses of the possibilities.  For some books, we’ve spent a couple of hours on a single title, then at times had some executive nix it and we’ve had to return to the drawing board and try again.

Those few words—hopefully memorable—are what draws the reader to the book or gets them to turn inside a magazine. It’s the hook for them to purchase the book and carry it to the cash register. Or it’s what they will recall from a radio interview or reading something in a magazine. Days or weeks later when they walk into a bookstore, you want them to recall that title.

Last week in Barnes & Noble, I picked up a fun little book in the bargain area called Now All We Need is a Title, Famous Book Titles and How They Got That Way by Andre Bernard.  Here’s one example from this book, “Scottish writer [Robert Louis] Stevenson’s first novel was born as an amusement for his son Lloyd. It was called The Sea-Cook, Stevenson read chapters aloud to his son every day after writing them, and to illustrate his tale he drew a map in watercolors of a mysterious island. the map was beautifully done and Stevenson, his son, and his publishers all liked it so much they unanimously changed the title of his story to Treasure Island, after the drawing.” (p. 107)

I’m always amazed when I receive a manuscript submission without a title or with a title that is obviously slapped on the manuscript at the last minute. It’s perfectly understandable as a writer to throw a title on the page at the early stages of your writing process—so you don’t get stalled with the title. I will put something into the title spot, then begin to write. But (please) before you send it out to an editor or for anyone else to see it, pause and revisit the title. Make sure it sings before you send it to the editor.

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