Chip MacGregor

October 30, 2012

Does the publisher have the last word on my book title?


Someone wrote to ask about titles: “I understand publishers have the last word on titles — how often do they change an author’s proposed title? And if they’re going to change it anyway, how important is the title we suggest?”

Sure, the publisher probably has the final say on your title — in fact, if you read your contract carefully, you’ll probably find a note about that very fact in the section marked “editing.”

That said, the proposed title coming from the author is always given weight by a publishing or titling committee. They want to use a title the author likes. In fact, the publisher will sometimes bend over backwards to be polite to an author offering up a lousy title. (My pick for one of the all-time bad titles: Heism Vs Meism, a book by Michael Yousseff with Harvest House. Michael is great. Harvest House is wonderful. The book probably isn’t bad at all. But that title sucks. When I saw it, I didn’t even know how to pronounce it. High-ism versus My-ism? My guess is the stores didn’t sell many copies because staff didn’t know what the title of the book was.)

Of course, I’ve seen both sides come up with clunkers. Sometimes an author will get stuck on a totally unsalable title and be completely unreasonable about it — so let’s face it, if you don’t have a background in marketing, you may want to give up on that title everyone is telling you is awful. (A retired missionary, who had clearly been in the African bush too long, once went to a friend of mine with a book claiming God would send a wind her way, whenever she prayed for something to cool her off. Her proposed title? Heavenly Blow Jobs.) 

At other times, the publisher will push for a title that doesn’t fit a book — they’ll claim to be basing it on market research, but it usually is because nobody has come up with a title that really captures the book. We’ve all seen terrible book titles that somehow got by a committee — Cooking with Pooh, Eleanor Burns’ quilt book Still Stripping After All These Years, Charlie Shedd’s The Best Dad is a Good Lover. I mean… somebody was PAID to produce these titles.

How do you create titles? For a nonfiction book, you’re probably going to offer a bit of advice in your title, perhaps make some sort of promise (Your Best Life Now or Lower Your Cholesterol 30 Points in 30 Days). Your title might be evocative, but that means your subtitle has to explain what the book is — you can’t have an artistic title (The Dream Machine) and an artistic subtitle (Awakenings in Spring). That doesn’t offer potential readers enough clarity. A nonfiction book is written to answer a question or solve a problem, so somewhere in title or subtitle you’ve got to suggest what solution you’re offering.

For a novel, you might simply describe the situation, conflict, or lead character. Or you might look for themes or story elements or words that reflect your overall storyline. If you spend some time looking at classic or familiar lines (whether it be a sentence from Shakespeare, a verse from the bible, a familiar bit of dialogue, or perhaps an idiomatic expression), you might find something useful.

The bottom line? Nobody — not author, not publisher — has a sure-fire method for creating dynamite titles. And nobody wants to publish a title the author hates. So create several good potential titles for your work, don’t get married to one idea, be willing to listen to some alternatives, check with other people, and keep the lines of dialogue open.

And don’t try cooking with pooh… though I guess that goes without saying.

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  • Karen Morris says:

    Your post had me laughing out loud today. And I love the idea of you writing a Writers’ Blunders book.

    I had been warned early on not to get attached to my first title. Did I listen? No. But after two agents suggested it go, I relented. Because no matter how badly I wanted that title, I must accept that this is a business and I need to do what makes the most business sense.

    So while the book shelves will display one title, the original will always hold a special place in my heart.

  • Oh my gosh! HBJs? Mercy! Great advice on titles, Chip. Makes me wonder if I chose the right one?

  • Becky Doughty says:

    Now I WANT to come up with a terrible title – it could get an agent’s or publishing house’s attention….. At least my books would be talked about!

    Love this – and glad for the help with our fox paws.


  • Oh my WORD! Laughing SO hard at some of these.

    Question–how much control do authors have over COVER ART? Does that have to get written into the contract?

    • (Oooh, and let’s not forget that Stephenie Meyer herself wasn’t a titling queen–she wanted to call Twilight “Forks.” Wouldn’t have gone as far, I’d say. “The Forks Saga.”

  • Meghan Carver says:

    I second the gift book idea. Thanks for the laughs this morning.

  • sally says:

    So funny. I’m so glad I didn’t have coffee in my mouth when I go the the heavenly wind title. It occurs to me that you should write a gift book for writers with some of your funny stories. We’re all talking about what to buy writers for Christmas right about now. I think a funny book from writing/publishing journey would be great. Pursuing publication is a long, lonely journey and a little laughter really is good medicine.

  • Chip, my first published novel was about a doctor who escapes to her hometown when her world crumbles, only to discover someone there wants to kill her. It was accepted with what I thought was a great title–Run Away Home–but my publisher didn’t think that showed it was a medical thriller. They retitled it Code Blue. I still like mine better, but as a newbie author, I wasn’t about to argue (or ask my agent to, either).

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