Call me Mr.…eh…eh…just give me a moment to think…

By Brett Battles

Here’s something they don’t usually tell you when you’re an unpublished novelist trying to get a deal. That title you gave your masterpiece? The word or phrase you felt was perfect, in fact was the rock you built your entire opus on? Well…there’s a very good chance the only one who will know the book by that title will be you.

I know, I know. Not everyone comes up with a title right at the beginning, but we all come up with titles. Even if we don’t always love them, we feel a certain amount of compassion for them. Hey, WE came up with them after all.

But the long, hard truth is that if your publisher doesn’t like the title you’ve lived with for months or even years, when your book comes out your title is going to be different. Now, not all houses work the same. Some will strongly suggest a title to you in a way that will make you feel compelled to say, “I love it”, or at least, “It’s okay. I can live with it.” Some, hopefully most, will ask you to come up with some titles while they do the same. Everyone working together for the greater good. Even then, the decision on what the final title will be will fall to someone other than you. That would be your publisher. Either a specific person high up on the chain, or a group. They will choose from the list, perhaps yours, perhaps theirs. Hopefully it’s a good one.

The good news is sometimes it’s even better than the one you had.

Though I only have two books out so far, I actually have a bit of experience in the title arena. As most of you know, my debut novel is entitled THE CLEANER. For those of you who read it, you also know that the title is perfect for the book. It’s the obvious choice.

So obvious that I never thought of it.

As I wrote that novel, I had no idea what to name it. I played with several ideas, finally settling on a one. I called it…and I kid you not…DEVIL MAY CARE. That’s right, I gave it the same title that eventually was used this year for the latest James Bond novel. Now I’d love to claim responsibility or some kind of connection, but it’s highly doubtful. The only people who knew my book by that name were the members of my writer’s group, and Jim Pascoe and Tom Fassbender, the publishers/editors at Ugly Town – the people who initially bought my book. (For those who don’t know my publishing story and how I ended up at Bantam Dell, I’ll probably tell it again someday, but it’s around the web somewhere.)

Jim and Tom didn’t like the title. And, honestly, I wasn’t sold on it either. So they asked me to come up with alternatives. I came up with a list…a sucky list, but a list nonetheless:


Boy, that list is bad. Maybe not for some books, but for mine, none of them make too much sense. Jim and Tom thought the same. So more lists were developed, and finally from the last list one title stood out:


It retrospect, it’s a much better title for a mystery than a thriller, but at the time I was just happy that we had something.

Flash forward a few months to when Bantam Dell bought my contract from Ugly Town (I refer you to the previous note re: publication story.) “We love the story,” my acquiring editor said, “but that title. Think we need to come up with something else.”

So with a heavy sigh I went back to the drawing board. Came up with more suggestions. But, ultimately, it was that same editor who said to me one day, “Have you ever thought about the title THE CLEANER?”

I was silent for several moments. When I finally did speak, I think I said something like, “It’s perfect,” and then proceeded to flog myself for days for not thinking of it earlier.

With my second book, when my editor asked what the title was, I said THE DECEIVED. And for some reason that stuck. There were no lists this time. No back and forth. I even came up with a title for book 3. I thought I was on a roll. It was starting to come to me now. A half dozen other titles revealed themselves over the next months, titles for potential future novels in the series. This was going to be easy now.

Oh, ignorant fool.

The call came this week. “The title for book 3? Think we need to find something else.” Suddenly I knew all of those other titles would no longer work for the series either.

Square one. Crap.

Soooo…that’s where I am this week! Fun times. Time to put my thinking cap on and pull that drawing board out again.

If you have a title story to share, please do. Or if you’ve heard of one, share with the class. Hell, if you just want to rant about all the typos I probably have in this post, have at it. All comments encouraged.

Song for the day: Most Beautiful Girl In The Room by Flight of the Conchords

22 thoughts on “Call me Mr.…eh…eh…just give me a moment to think…

  1. Dave White

    “Like an air hostess in the 60s…”

    Oh, when will you return to the screen Conchords?

    As for titles? Both my books went through re-names When One Man Dies was originally Promises to Keep and The Evil that Men Do was originally WHISPER TO THEIR SOULS.

  2. Wilfred Bereswill

    Brett, I got lucky, for me the title of my first book stuck, “A Reason For Dying.” It was my cover art that had my head spinning. It was not at all what I had in mind. That said, I’ve gotten a lot of comments on how good the cover is. It’s growing on me.

  3. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I LOVE that song – have even performed a parody of it. It’s a lot harder than you would think.

    We’re totally on the same page today, Brett – I’m going through title hell, too. Cannot come up with anything that anyone likes. They nixed all my variations on THE POLTERGEIST EXPERIMENT and anything else that I thought made sense and the only one so far that they’ve responded to is THE UNSEEN.

    By now I’ve agitated myself into that state of feeling like no matter what I do it will be wrong. I HATE this part.

  4. cj lyons

    Hey, Brett! I love both your titles, so whatever you and your editor are doing, it’s working!

    I suck at titles! I admit it–I always have a working title (usually just a word or two to reflect the theme, keep me focused while writing) but those are never THE right title by the time the book is done.

    For LIFELINES we went through 71 (count’em!) titles between myself, my agent and editor….the manuscript was on the head copy editor’s desk and she was leafing through it to see which CE would suit it best when she was hooked and actually began to really read it.

    Next day she asked my editor if we were still looking for a title and suggested LIFELINES….perfect!

    I sent her chocolates and gave her a shout out in the acknowledgments, of course!

    Book 2 had a title that everyone agreed on (CATALYST) until it got to the cover/sales meeting. They didn’t like the word, too scientific, clinical (well, it is a medical thriller, lol!) and they changed it to WARNING SIGNS.

    I was cool with that, it works, and they didn’t mind that Stephen White had already used it, so it stuck….but, honestly, I still like Catalyst–it’s just a cool word, cool concept, fit so well….sigh….

    Book 3??? I have no earthly clue!

  5. JanW

    CJ, we have a TV science program here called Catalyst. It’s great! So you’re spot on about it being a good title.

    My story is pre-publication, but I’ll share anyway. We worked on a book about a woman who loses her husband. The opening line is “Michael’s gone!” So naturally we had in mind the title: GONE. But then I did a little digging *cough*[amazon search]*cough* and found there was already a novel published in the last year by that title. So we had to rethink. The new working title is Lost Anchors. That has some literal and metaphorical meaning for the book as the setting is a bayside town where there are lots of anchors, plus every family in the book has lost a personal anchor, either a husband or a wife. So that is sorta cool. When [she says hopefully instead of ‘if’] the book gets to an editor, I wouldn’t be surprised if the title changes again by the sound of your post.

    The other problem when titles change: folder names! LOL

  6. Catherine

    Brett,I can see where the terror can come from, wanting to encapsulate in a few words what it’s taken many carefully selected words to build…

    As a comment to Alex’s dilemna re:titles there is something about the ‘Unseen’ that appeals to me.It seems a simple title and yet is layered with a few possible meanings.I’m guessing here that the book is as unnerving as all get out…and it is often the unseen, the unknown that scares us.So also on topic.

    Anyways good luck, breathe and drink lots of water.

  7. R.J. Mangahas

    Don’t worry Brett. I won’t point out your typos. I’m more than guilty of them myself.

    As far as titles, I’m horrible at them. I start out with one that I think is great. Then one paragraph in, I realize the title sucks. So I change it. After another few paragraphs, another title change. AARRRGGHH!!

    Right now, I’m only in the prologue of my WIP and I’m already thinking up more titles. Oh well, so goes the process.

  8. Jake Nantz

    I’ve actually come full circle on my unpublished WIP, thanks to my wife. The villain in said work adopts the title, “The Messenger.” So of course, that was my first title. Then I read Sol Stein and started thinking about how I could have fun with my title, but so much of the “message” is important to the plot and the deception/twists.So It became The Message.

    Then, The Messenger’s Secret.

    Then, Secrets of The Message.

    My wife took one look over my shoulder one afternoon, saw that in the folder title, and said, “That sounds kinda stupid. What about ‘The Messenger.'”What can I say. She was right, in my opinion. SOTM was a pretty stupid title, so I’m back to The Messenger. When (if) it gets picked up, it’ll probably be something much different (and better) when an editor gets hold of it. And as long as it’s getting out there, I think I’m pretty okay with that.

    As long as it isn’t Secrets of The Message. God what a stupid title….

    The second work, however, I’m hoping to hang on to. “Prayer for the Wicked” just fits the protag so well. **Fingers Crossed**

  9. Karen Olson

    I sent 48 title suggestions to my editor for the first in my new series featuring a tattoo shop owner in Vegas. My favorite was WHAT DIES IN VEGAS. All were nixed with the claim they were too dark and gritty.

    I was lamenting the lack of a title to my husband, who was driving home from work. When he got home, he said, “I’ve got your title.”

    THE MISSING INK. My editor loved it. All the folks at NAL loved it. So that’s the title. In keeping with the theme, the next book will be titled PRETTY IN INK. And I came up with that one myself on the first try 🙂 I just don’t know what it’s about yet.

  10. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Brett

    THE CLEANER is a great title – as is THE UNSEEN, Alex!

    So far, I’ve been lucky. The titles I’ve given the Charlie Fox books have stuck. The only change came about with SECOND SHOT, which happened when my US publisher asked for a numerical follow-on from FIRST DROP.

    Originally, SECOND SHOT was going to be called Fall Line, which – as every skier knows – is the fastest way downhill. And, besides, she does manage to get herself shot twice on the first page, so it all worked out rather well ;-]

    I have to have a title before I start. Often, in fact, I’ll get a title and then work out a plot to go with it.

    I really do want to call a book ‘Exit, Pursued By A Bear’, but I’m still completely stuck for what it would be about!

  11. pari

    Well, when you’ve got a name like mine, the titles seem to be the one thing people CAN remember.

    My New Mexico series is pretty obvious and UNM Press has gone along with every title so far.

    I wonder what the experience will be for my new series. The working title of the first book is STUNG. We’ll see if the new publisher (when it finished and sold, mind you) lets me do it and then use 1-word ideas that have something to do with the insect, animal or plant world. Should be interesting.

    BTW: loved the video.

  12. Allison Brennan

    Titles! They can be the bane of my existence. I loved the title of my first book. THE COPYCAT KILLER. I still love it 🙂 My agent didn’t love it and she and the others at the agency came up with DEAD LETTERS. Okay, I didn’t love it but she convinced me it was a stronger title. We sold to Ballantine real quick and a month later, my agent and editor had lunch and were talking about the book and my editor said, “We need to change the title. Start thinking.”

    Eventually, ballantine picked KILLING SECRETS. I liked that a lot. It worked for the story (not that it really matters in titles) and it worked for me. Unfortunately, another in-house author much bigger than me (who had yet to have a book on the shelves) had a book coming out with too similar of a title. So . . . back to the drawing board. Then, ballantine decided to do the back-to-back trilogy, so we needed three titles that connected.

    My second book I was calling THE HUNT. I was nearly done with it I went to my old crit group and Kate Perry suggested THE CHASE, THE HUNT and THE KILL. I submitted them and everyone loved them . . . until the art department created cover art and didn’t like the way THE CHASE looked on the cover. So the book because THE PREY.

    My self-named titles that stuck: THE HUNT, KILLING FEAR, SUDDEN DEATH and CUTTING EDGE. That’s four out of twelve books. Hmm, not too bad.

  13. Rosebud

    Not sure if this little story will make you feel better or worse about the head banging you do to come up with your titles, but…

    I got back on my reading kick a couple of years ago. More often than not, I go to the library and bring home a stack. Unless there’s something I’m just itching to read, I usually don’t care which one in the stack I start with.

    Insert my (then) 15 year old daughter: I decide I’ll let her pick for me. She doesn’t know one book from the other, one author from the other, doesn’t care, no agenda at all (I’m pretty sure she thinks if it’s not Harry Potter it’s not worth reading – or writing for that matter).

    I lay them all out on the bed (probably 7 or 8 books) and say pick one. She actually takes a minute or two looking at the covers, even picked some up. I tell her to read the cover synopsis. Naahh…she doesn’t want to do that! Way too much trouble.

    The first one she picks: Tell No One – Harlan Coben. Why? She liked the color of the cover! (it was an almost fluorescent orange if you remember) and the title…well, “it sounds kinda interesting”. You have to admit, that cover does attract attention. Put it on a shelf, spine out, and it still screams at you. She went through the whole stack that way. What the cover looked like, how the title grabbed her. (I recently let her boyfriend pick one for me. He chose Iron Lake because “it sorta sounds like Ironman, and I just saw the movie.” Ugh!)

    Unless you’re going for an author you already know and like, I’m not sure adults choose much differently. They probably read the cover summary, and maybe give a little more thought to how the title may relate to the story, but something has to make them want to pick up that title to begin with. The cover may be just as big a player as the title.

    While those you listed as first choices for The Cleaner may not work as well, they don’t sound so bad, and I can see several of those titles attracting attention. Isn’t that what you really want? Something that makes John or Jane Q (which would be me. I’m not a writer – shocking I know! “See Spot run. Run Spot run.” is beyond my creativity level.) pause and pick up the book?

    So next time you need a title for your book, use the rocket science method: grab a kid, throw down a few title choices in front of them and say “pick one”. You might save yourself an ulcer and probably have just as much success! Oh, and a loud cover never hurts.

    And what was the last book in the pile she chose, you ask? Indemnity Only – Sara Paretsky. Indemnity sounded “boring” and it held zero meaning for her.

    Poor, poor Sara, if she’d only chosen another title for that first book…oh the places she could have gone. Heh!

  14. Louise Ure

    Like Zoë, I can’t start without a title, and with a good one all the plot and character elements fall in line. I’m three for three so far; no publisher changes. I hope that holds true for the current WIP, DOING HADLEY TIME, because I like that title the best of the four.

  15. Catherine

    Alex,Somehow in your comment that attaining a non-breathing status came through…so my breathe and lots of water comment really wasn’t as glib as it may of read.

    I came across this quote.

    “The definition of genius is that it acts unconsciously; and those who have produced immortal works, have done so without knowing how or why. The greatest power operates unseen.”

    William Hazlitt quotes (British Writer best known for his humanistic essays. 1778-1830)

  16. Rob Gregory Browne

    I guess I suck at titles. I called my first book A MEASURE OF DARKNESS, but the title was changed to KISS HER GOODBYE. Totally different feel.

    With my third, I chose a titled that ALL but ONE person hated. And that person wasn’t my wife.


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