If you publish a book, are you allowed to choose your own title? Or do you sell your soul to the publisher when you sell your book?
Tim posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
I was wondering how much control do authors have over the title of their books. I have read from authors like J.K. Rowling and D.J. MacHale that they picked their titles for their books, I have read from Bryan Davis that his editor changed the title of his trilogy from what he was calling it. You even mentioned you have had your editor change the title of one of your books. So could you help clear this up for me, thank you.
Randy sez: Many titles get changed by the publisher. Remember that when a royalty-paying publisher buys the rights to your book, they’re investing a substantial amount of money — typically several tens of thousands of dollars. If you were investing that much money, you’d want to make sure you did everything possible to recoup that investment. That’s why publishers think they should have a say in your title. Of course, they’re right.
My own titles have often been changed by the publisher or at the request of my publisher, generally after consulting with me. Here is a list of all my published books, with their original titles:
- WHO WROTE THE BIBLE CODE? (a nonfiction book on what was then a controversial topic). My original title was GOD, STATISTICS, AND THE BIBLE CODE. The publisher thought that was a so-so title (they were right) and made a number of suggestions. I felt that none of them really worked any better, so I made some suggestions of my own, and the publisher accepted one of them. (It was a takeoff on Richard Elliott Friedman’s bestselling book WHO WROTE THE BIBLE?).
- TRANSGRESSION. My original title was AVATAR, which the publisher felt sounded too New-Agey. It’s possible they were right, but I always thought that my title fit the book better. My publisher gave me four alternative titles to choose from. I chose TRANSGRESSION from that list. Personally I still like AVATAR, but now that James Cameron has done a blockbuster movie with that title, I don’t think I can ever republish the book under its original title.
- OXYGEN. This was my first book co-authored with John Olson, and his original title was O2. That is the chemical name for the usual form of oxygen that you breathe and we thought it was a very cool title. Our editor knew it wasn’t a good title, and he quickly convinced us that OXYGEN was a better one. I believe he was right. He also made sure that we got a really good cover for the book and he worked hard to make sure that it was a commercial success. I may as well thank him publicly here, because he did a great job on the book. Steve Laube, thanks — you made OXYGEN fly.
- THE FIFTH MAN. Again, I co-authored this with John, who wanted to call it FIFTH MAN. Our publisher wanted to add the word “the” in front of that. So far as I’m concerned, either title is fine.
- PREMONITION. The original title for this book was QUEEN OF HEAVEN. My publisher thought this carried some implications they didn’t want, and they asked me for some alternatives. I gave them several, but none of us were excited about any of them. Then, because this book was a sequel to TRANSGRESSION, I decided to go for phonetic similarity and I suggested the title PREMONITION. My publisher liked this and I think that it was a good title and fit the storyline well.
- RETRIBUTION. This was my original title and my publisher thought it worked well, especially since it was a sequel to PREMONITION. This was my first book published with the exact same title that I gave it at the outset. My publisher also gave it a really nice cover, for which I really ought to thank them. Thank you, Zondervan!
- DOUBLE VISION. This was my original title for the book and the publisher liked this one so we kept it. The book was about quantum mechanics and ambiguity and it also featured a love triangle in which an engineer with Asperger’s syndrome has to choose between two women, each very different, but each very appealing to him. The title was suggested to me by the song “Double Vision” by Foreigner. (What can I say? I grew up in the 1970s.) Each of the 5 parts of the book bore the name of a song: “Point of Know Return,” “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” “Dust in the Wind,” “The Grand lllusion,” and “Double Vision.” Remember that titles can’t be copyrighted, but lyrics can, so I took care to quote no lyrics in the book.
- WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES. This was the original title suggested by the publisher when they asked me to write the book. There is a slight ambiguity in the title. Is it a book to help dummies know how to write fiction? Or is about writing “fiction that dummies will like”? Plenty of people have pointed out this ambiguity. My view is that the “for dummies” line of books is so well known that there really isn’t any ambiguity. In any event, the book was their idea, so I thought they should get to write the title. When we mapped out the book, my editor and my co-author and I were completely agreed on one point — we wanted it to be the highest quality we could possibly make it. We didn’t want a dumbed-down book, whatever the title might say. We gave it our best shot.
Those are all my published books. As you can see, most of them got their titles changed in transit. In some cases, that was an improvement. In other cases, it was a wash or possibly a slight disimprovement. I don’t think any of the changes made things clearly worse. In talking with other authors, I am pretty sure that most of them have had similar experiences.
So, Tim, you might as well get used to the idea now that your editor might not like your title. She might insist on changing it. She might be right.
This is one reason why my one-time mentor, Sol Stein, strongly recommended AGAINST putting the title of your book in the header of your manuscript. As Sol said, suppose you have a perfectly dreadful title for your book. (I think the example he gave was ARKHOPPER or something like that.)
Imagine your editor is reading your manuscript and is really getting into your story, but every time she flips the page, she sees ARKHOPPER right at the top. If your manuscript has 400 pages, that is 400 negative jolts to your editor’s system.
Why do that to her? Why do that to yourself? Just put your last name in the header of your manuscript. That’s enough. (If your last name is “Arkhopper” you might want to consider changing it.)
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.
Blog of the Day: For those of you interested in my recent column on The Future of Publishing, you might be interested in the posts on Steve Laube’s blog for today and yesterday. Steve raises a lot of interesting issues, and one of them that I hadn’t thought about at all has to do with foreign rights and how to respect those in a world where an e-book can technically be delivered anywhere on earth, but perhaps not legally. (Yes, this is the same Steve who once acquired several of my books. He’s now an outstanding agent who represents several of my author friends.)
Thanks Randy that helps, its good to know that the editor just doesn’t change it but gives you options to choose from as well if you don’t like some of their possible submit new ones yourself. From what you said it sounds like there are time the editor might do that if you can’t come to an agreement. Thanks for answer my question.
This is a lovely article. I always have issues coming up with titles, and most of them don’t end up fitting the story that I write. The title, to me, is like a pathway into the soul or meaning of the book, and if it isn’t a good title then what does that say about the book? Not much good to me.
Kim Miller says
The title of my first novel is the first line of the book. It’s a bit unexpected and people don’t really know what to make of it. After all, what does, ‘They Told Me I Had To Write This’ convey to you? I was pretty locked in to the title, and strangely enough (from the perspective of a year in print and I’m not so locked in) the publisher thought it fitted the story pretty well.
I’m currently writing my second novel, telling the story of one of the characters from the first. I had a title in my head. Then I thought of an improvement. Then a third title occurred to me. But the book is giving me some trouble, and now I’ll be happy enough to get the thing written and leave the title to the publisher. Any title. It won’t matter to me. He can call it Arkhopper if he wants.
Obinna Ozoigbo says
It’s all a matter of teamwork. The author and his publisher should be able to make a team, and brainstorm. It is simply for their mutual benefit. No man is an island, after all. Just like the marriage relationship, the two parties must always agree in a most amicable way, otherwise the success of the book in question would be submerged in doubt. When two elephents fight, the grass suffers. When Mr. Author and Mr. Publisher disagree, then . . . (well, needless to say the obvious). But, in the final analysis, it is the opinion of Mr. Publisher that really counts–and must prevail–as long as Mr. Author has sold, or has agreed to sell, his copyrights to him. Many thanks to you, Randy!
Good thing you did not use AVATAR. The original Avatar is the incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu as Krishna…
Hindu here. Krishna is not even the first avatar of Vishnu, he’s the eighth. Using the word avatar is not offensive, it’s fine.
Hehe, I can’t believe that you, Randy, of all people is suggesting someone change their odd last name! 😛
Randy sez: Well, I’m glad somebody noticed that little irony. 🙂
I am having trouble coming up with a title. I am a young writer. Yet to publish, but I wish to publish. But all my titles are kinda clesh a. I can come up with a story line but not the title. What should I do.
I’m also a first-timer with a WIP. If my chosen title were changed, can’t even think of what it might be, it’s the family name of the protagonist, who the story revolves around.