Monday, January 4, 2016

#8: Non-Working Titles

#8 on the traditional publishing road trip: Titles!

As authors, we all know a great title can give our books an advantage in the marketplace. Whether or not the perfect one comes to us in a flash, or we spend years trying to think of it, there's no question we can get 'attached' to the title we eventually choose. 

But that's not always a good idea at publishing companies. 

Because they reserve the right to change the title of your book. This is how your book will be referred to in your 'Publishing Agreement:' "In consideration of the premises hereinafter set forth, Publisher and Author hereby agree with respect to a work tentatively titled YOUR BOOK TITLE (the Work)." 

Some publishers' contracts have a little less legalese, but one way or another, the title of your book will only appear once on the first page. Over the next 15-20 pages, it will always be referred to as 'the Work.' 

Please note the use of the word 'tentatively.'  

Like most writers, I spent months (years?) trying to find the right title for my first novel, a quirky romance/horror/comedy about an actress who thinks she's fallen in love with the devil. It wasn't an easy job. But I eventually settled on the title THE BRIMSTONE BED. 

I got the name from a poem by Coleridge called THE DEVIL'S WALK. Here's the first stanza:

From his brimstone bed, at break of day
A-walking the devil is gone,
To look at his little, snug farm the World,
And see how his stock went on.

I thought THE BRIMSTONE BED sounded sexy and sophisticated and cool. All these years later, it seems a little stuffy and full of itself. Anyway - for better or worse - this is the title that appears on the first page of my contract with Simon & Schuster. 

About four or five months after I got the book deal ...

I was at home recovering from a gruelling first round of 'revisions' (in the business, the editing process is called 'revisions' - "I'm in revisions"), when my editor called. We caught up on a few things and at the very end of the conversation, tagged on as an afterthought, she said: 

"Oh yeah, I almost forgot. They're changing the title." 

I wasn't sure I'd heard properly. It seemed like such a big decision to be delivered so lightly. I think I said something like: "Wha, wha, wha?" 

"Yeah, the marketing department didn't like it. They thought it sounded too historical." 

Marketing departments have a lot of clout in publishing. Just FYI.

And that was basically the end of the call. Afterwards, a few of us tried to come up with a new title. Because the book was about the devil, that figured in a lot of the options: SPEAK OF THE DEVIL, THE DEVIL YOU KNOW, etc. 

Eventually, the publisher chose the title DEVIL MAY CARE. 

To be honest, I wasn't crazy about it. But I wasn't crazy about a lot of things that had happened to me so far during the process, so it was just another blow.

About four months before DEVIL MAY CARE was due to hit the shelves, I started hearing about another new book getting a lot of buzz. Maybe it rings a bell?

My mom, who has a tendency to worry sometimes, also got wind of it. "This is going to ruin the chances for your book!" she said. 

Sigh. "Please, Mom, I'm having enough trouble as it is. If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all, ok?" 

She didn't have much to say after that. 

Of course, PRADA raced up the bestseller lists worldwide ...

The whole time, a new mantra began going through my head: Please let DEVIL MAY CARE be a bestseller too. Please let DEVIL MAY CARE be a bestseller too. But it was still a very awkward situation for me. This was the average conversation back then:

"Oh, wow! You're getting published! Congratulations! What's the name of your book?"
"Really? That's great! I've heard so much about that! It's doing really well, isn't it?"
"You're thinking of THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA."
"Oh right! I really want to read that book! It's supposed to be so great!" Beat. "Well, I want to read yours too but ..." 

What was worse, PRADA'S author Lauren Weisberger and I bore a slight resemblance to each other because we both had long blonde hair. 

Well, I promptly started losing mine and most of it is gone now. 

After a while, the title wasn't the only thing getting confused! 

People actually started thinking I was Weisberger herself. I remember calling one bookstore while I was traveling (you can do that, btw; if bookstores stock your books, even if there's no reading or tour, you can go in to 'sign stock' as it's called, autographing all the copies of your book they have in their inventory; then they get to slap a 'Signed by the Author' sticker on it).

"I'm so excited to meet you!" the bookstore manager said over the phone. "Your book is just flying off the shelves!"

Finally, I thought. Some good news! Whew! About time. 

When I got to the store, the manager was very welcoming and effusive. I'm sure it was the hair that was confusing him because he led me to a huge table stacked with hundreds of copies of PRADA.

When I told him who I really was, I don't know who was more disappointed ... me or him. 

But it was pretty anti-climactic for both of us when he had to go to the back of the store and find the six or seven copies of DEVIL MAY CARE he had in stock. 

Of course, I'm sure the vast majority of books are published under the title that their authors choose, but if you're stalling sending queries because you're waiting for the 'perfect' title to occur to you, don't bother. As your contract states - the title of 'the Work' is only 'tentative' and it might get changed anyway.

Here's another tip I learned from the title glitch in my book deal:

If you're going to start praying to the book gods for special consideration, be very, very specific. Because a few years after my first book was released, DEVIL MAY CARE did become a bestseller. Maybe you heard of it?

It was a 007 James Bond thriller written by Sebastian Faulks. 

So in your prayers to the book gods, make sure you mention not just the title of your book, but your name, your publisher and the ISBN number too. The book gods are very busy processing a lot of requests from authors. And they can get confused. ;)

Next time on the traditional publishing trail: #9 Book Covers! 

That's another doozy of a story. Of course. ;) Thanks for checking in! Hit the 'subscribe by email' to follow along!


  1. Oh, I loved this post, made me laugh because I also had the "perfect" book title in my head and of course it was changed, first by my agent and then by the publisher. And don't get me started on the book cover, either. What a bummer that your title was released close to the same time as "The Devil Wears Prada." So much of life is chance, and timing. Cheers and thanks for a great post.

    1. Hey Cinthia! Happy New Year!!! You're kidding? Oh no!! Changed twice? I've got a book cover story, I think I mentioned. Listen, I thought I screwed up that post by publishing it twice. I had TDs over the holidays. Anyway, I'm glad you hadn't read it before. btw, I checked out your website - so great!!! Your book reviews were amazing!! But I have blog envy!! It's such a gorgeous, smart site!!! Anyway, I left a comment saying I'm looking forward to DOLLS! And I really am!! Got a new Kindle for Christmas. ;) I have a terrible book cover story too!! Next time!!! ;)

  2. Great post! Informative, honest and funny all at the same time!