Your book’s title: don’t lose sleep over it

by Connie Clark

I was reluctant to post this. Like all of us who are still reeling from last Friday’s events, I’m uncomfortable with the notion of business as usual today. But early Saturday morning as I meditated on the Joyful Mysteries, especially the prophet Simeon’s words to Mary, “And you yourself a sword shall pierce,” I was reminded that our world needs Catholic writers more than ever. We are the voices crying out in the desert of our own century. We are helping to prepare the way of the Lord.

So here goes. This is my first post here at the CWG blog, and I hope my experience helps you spread your faith message, especially if you’re just beginning the journey. I’ve spent three decades writing for a living, as a journalist and copywriter. I’ve written and ghostwritten more than a dozen books for secular and Catholic publishers. When I’m not writing books, I’m editing them. Or I’m writing about books, as a freelance copywriter. Sometimes I even get paid to think about books. Really. I know that sounds crazy, but sometimes publishers hire me to brainstorm book titles.

And that’s what I want to talk to you about. Your book’s title is the first thing readers see. But when you’re pitching your manuscript, it’s the last thing you need to worry about. I’m not kidding. Remember that your book’s moniker isn’t what will sell it to a publisher as much as your strong nonfiction proposal, or the compelling characters and unique voice in your fiction manuscript.

If you’re struggling with your book’s title, or you’ve got the nagging feeling that it could be better, just stop. Make yourself a nice cup of tea, eat some chocolate, or go for a walk. Say a prayer. If the Spirit doesn’t move you with the perfect title, give your book the title you’ve got–love it or hate it–and move on. Spend your time worrying about things authors can do something about, like refining your plot arc, or working on your opening paragraph.

The thing about book titles is that publishers tinker with them all the time. So even if you come up with a snappy, wonderful title, a publisher may need to change it, for all sorts of reasons. That’s not a bad thing, so please don’t be insulted if the title of your printed book isn’t the same one you pitched. Remember that if you work with a reputable publisher, the editorial team knows your readers like no one else. They know which titles will ring true in readers’ hearts, and which ones will make readers say, “Meh.”

So if you’ve got a wonderful, catchy title for your fiction manuscript, great. If not, just give it a simple, straightforward one. Chances are good it will evolve throughout the editorial and production processes.

Non-fiction is a little different. If you’re working on a proposal, your title should give any editor the clearest possible idea of what your book is about. Clever word plays are okay, but this isn’t the time to get all cerebral or vague. And don’t worry if your non-fiction title is a little long, with a main title and even a subhead. My most recent book (and I’m not mentioning this to sell it, I promise–it’s just an example) is titled 5o Prayer Services for Middle Schoolers: for Every Season of the Church Year, and More (Twenty-Third Publications). It’s definitely a candidate for the Longest Title of the Year Award, but hey, it tells my readers how they can use this book, for whom, and even when they can use it. I worked “Church year” into the title so readers could understand that this book has a  Catholic viewpoint.

Which brings me to my second point. Be aware of other titles out there, by familiarizing yourself with publishers’ catalogs and what’s selling in bookstores. But don’t get too caught up comparing your book’s title to others. Your book is yours alone. And God’s, of course. He’s got a plan for it. You’ll be fine

One last thing. If your publisher comes to you looking for input on revising your book’s title, don’t be shy about suggesting alternatives. It’s a great opportunity to show how flexible, creative and professional you are.

Next month: Back cover copy: no pressure, but it has to be really, really good. Again, though, no pressure.

Connie Clark is the author of what may be some of the longest book titles in publishing, including Feeling the Wonder: Advent for Families 2012: Daily Reflections, Practices, and Prayers. (Yes, that’s one title–from Twenty-Third Publications). Here’s another: Who in the World Was the Unready King? The Story of Ethelred (Peace Hill Press). Hey, the books sell, what can I say?



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5 Responses to Your book’s title: don’t lose sleep over it

  1. So true, Connie! I just got out of title-limbo, and my publisher went with the main title I proposed, but dropped the subtitle. Like you say, probably a good call, my subtitle was a little more informal than I think their reader’s go for.

    I did what you suggested, and titled my non-fiction proposal with a description of the subject — Classroom Management for Catechists, in my case. So all summer and fall, my business cards and author bio’s and stuff have just used the subject-matter as a stand-in title, because I figured, even if people don’t know what the book’s called, at least they’ll know what it’s about. Kinda nice not to have to update everything, though :-).

  2. Christian says:

    “So if you’ve got a wonderful, catchy title for your fiction manuscript, great. If not, just give it a simple, straightforward one.”

    War and Peace has probably sold more copies than To Kill a Mockingbird.

  3. I actually had one publisher hold my novel hostage until I came up with a better title. (It was Asylum Psychic.) I spent an evening brainstorming with friends in the Writers’ Chatroom, and after an hour, we came up with Mind Over Mind. Since it’s a trilogy, the second book is Mind Over Psyche, and the final one (I think) will be Mind Over All. I still like Asylum Psychic, but Mind Over works better.

  4. Erin Lale says:

    Karina, that’s a cool story, and illustrates good point: a book title is about marketing. Your original title was a genre-y title for a book with mainstream crossover appeal, and the new title reflects the crossover marketing angle.

  5. I actually have fun with titles. I have some sort of “holding” title while I write. That helps me find it in my files. Actual titling begins as I figure my fiction is about finished. I challenge myself to making it 2-3 words, though I don’t hold myself to it. The challenge helps me consider the best choice in the fewest words. A previous publisher did “Cloudburst.” I wanted “Thunder” or include that word. Thunder opens the books and plays significant in a couple places. Publisher said no. I asked a few folks involved with my writing. They came up with Cloudburst. It worked. The first novel was “Hawk Dancer.” I did not want anything that smacked of “Dances With…” or “Walks With …” The main character is a Hawk Dancer – so that became the title.

    Long and short. I agree – not to fret a lot about a title. It will come, folks love to get involved, a publisher ends up calling the shots. I’m now self published under 2nd editions.

    One tip: Check to see if your favorite title or something close to it is already in your publisher’s catalogue. No way will they repeat the same title, it will be confusing as folks place orders.