Someone on Twitter this morning asked a writing group “What is the significance of your title?  Could it be something else?”   Hmmm.  But my NewBook has no title yet, so let’s talk titles.

The title of a book has different roles, as seen by the writer, the editor/publisher, and the reader.

Let’s look first at the reader (me with my reader hat on) and what the readers hopes and expects to see in a title.   The reader hopes a title will convey (either by itself, or with a cover image or writing) what kind of book it is: fiction/nonfiction/poetry, genre of fiction and subject matter of nonfiction, whether it’s to be taken seriously or is humor or an attempt thereof.   Some titles (Photographing Nature, Edible Wild Plants of the Prairie, Autism and Pervasive Developmental Disorders) clearly suggest nonfiction.  The title Photographing Nature will disappoint the reader only if the writer spent 1/4 of the pages on photographing nature, and the bulk of the book on hyping one camera manufacturer over all others.   Other titles of nonfiction works (Shooting Blanks, for instance. an analysis of some military mistakes)  require a subtitle to be sure the reader doesn’t think they’re buying a thriller or mystery or a book about infertility in males…or even a book about humor that wasn’t funny, or football quarterbacks who started throwing lousy passes.   Great title, memorable, easy to say, potential for humor, but not that helpful without other cues to what kind of book it is.  Fiction can helpfully signal its genre by the title (Murder by Design, The Stars Are Ours!, Sweet Savage Love, which signal murder mystery, SF, romance accurately.  A reader allergic to mysteries will avoid books with “murder, death by, poison, detective, mystery of, ” and similar words/phrases in titles….but what about Gaudy Night?  A reader might expect something like riotous costumes in New Orleans and not what it really is, a mystery set in Oxford University and the developing relationship between a wealthy amateur detective and a successful well-educated (at Oxford)  mystery novelist.

As a reader, I’m fine with ambiguous titles and those with a bit of humor, but by 10 pages in I expect the book’s content to resonate in some way with the title.  If it’s a military term, I expect a military-influenced story; if it’s got “mountains” or “shores” or “steppe/prairie” in the title, it better be set (partly) in that scenery.  Like many readers, I don’t want to be tricked into buying (or borrowing) a political/religious spiel masquerading as an honest story, or a tech story that’s really just a love affair with nuts and bolts glued to the scenery.  I want a title I can pronounce (no “The Luck of the g’KKrtihmidtis”), which I will never recommend to anyone else because I can’t say it or remember how to spell it–and of course it’s imaginary and doesn’t exist, but that’s not the point.  If it existed, I wouldn’t recommend it.  Dune was easy.  North From Rome was easy. Lad of Sunnybank was easy.  Titles should be easy to say, and remember, because (back to writer hat) word of mouth recommendations sell books.

Editor/Publisher’s primary goal in choosing a title is to increase sales by catching the attention of the potential readership for that book.  They want the early readers to find it, so the title should be unique enough to be noticed, and interesting enough to get the reader to pick the book up.   They also want it to make sense, be easy to say so a happy reader can tell friends about it,  and be unique enough that the reader finds it easily in stores & online.  The problem can come when some subset of the publisher’s many subsets misunderstands what the likely readership is, and pushes the wrong title (not a bad title, but the wrong one for that book)  and puts with it the wrong cover art.  Cover and title art should work together, or at least not be in the wrong kind of opposition.  To take a common enough genre, fantasy, the cover art can convey the fantasy (even if the title doesn’t have the word fantasy on the cover, spine, or back cover.)  Certain icons work: harp, sword, spear, throne, rider in period dress on horse with period (or close) trappings, art that “looks medieval” or whatever unusual culture is in the book.  If the writer has a following that includes both men and women, the cover should work harder to attract the male reader (a much shyer book buyer in fantasy than in SF.)   While many men will buy books with a  barely clothed babe in chain mail on the cover, most will *not* buy (or be seen reading in public) a book that in any way gives off “romance” vibes.   (Yes, men do read, and write, romances.  This post is about titles & covers.   Not the content–the reputation of a given male reader.)

Oddly enough, with many industries doing focus-group research to determine if a logo or shape of container or color combo will attract their known audience,  big publishers ignore the potential  advantages of that, and go for “We know what we’re doing.”   Only they don’t always.    Covers–titles, artwork, the extra words on the front and back–do affect sales, especially early sales.   Mistakes in reading the audience (assuming–which used to be true–that most men would not read books by women, so the reading audience for women-written books skewed very female, or that women all really wanted a romance-with-SF/fantasy topping, and not SF/fantasy w/o romance)  lead to–have led to–sudden dips in a woman writer’s sales, even for men who normally buy that writer’s works.  There is a market for SF/F crossovers with romance, mystery, or horror, and these can pick up additional audience by satisfying both the “little/no romance with the SF/F” and the “romance forward/SF/F” audiences, but it’s a tricky line to hit.

The Editor/Publisher has another issue that readers and writers don’t.  Titles cannot be copyrighted…and really good titles show up over and over , in more than one genre.   But titles must, on their initial arrival in the marketplace, be unique to new books, in that genre,  so readers can find them, order them, by their titles and be sure what they’re getting.   Editors have access to the scheduling of books across their genre, from different publishers, and they will nix a writer’s suggestion for a title if they know that another firm already has a book scheduled for the same period of time with the same or too close a title.   What’s too close?  Editor’s call.  What’s too obscure?  Editor’s call.  How far apart does re-use of a title have to be?   Varies with the books involved.  If a population biologist had published a book titled “Remnant Populations” the year my Remnant Population came out–a nonfiction study of  plant or animal remnant populations and means of expanding them, for instance–neither my editor nor its editor would’ve blinked.   Biology books are marketed differently, to a different audience, than SF books.  But if an SF/F book had “Remnant Populations” and a story about remnant populations of humans on a distant planet…or indigenous species on a distant planet…warning bells would have rung.  Too close a title, to0 close in time, one of the two authors would’ve had to find another title.

So here we are at Writers, specifically writers who want to title their works in ways that enhance the work during and after reading, through resonance of the title with the contents…but also want to give their works titles that are attractive to readers who haven’t read the story or book yet, to increase sales.  Writers who go out and meet readers at bookstores or conventions (esp. conventions) and listen to them talk about books, titles, cover art, and the rest, have an advantage.  It was in talking with readers that I discovered how much even devoted SF/F readers do not like names they can’t say, and how much they want names they can hear in their heads when they read them.  Names different enough, in the course of a story, that they are unlikely to confuse even minor character Sim with minor character Simis or Simit.   When I asked people who didn’t read SF why they didn’t…the number 1 reason then (maybe not now) was not knowing how to say the names and how they then couldn’t remember which was which.  When I could point them at books that had easy-to-read names some of them then started reading SF/fantasy.  (There’s nothing to be done for the person who hates imaginary worlds of any kind…SF/F is the safe home for imaginary worlds.   But we can help the person who reads phonetically and wants to “hear” what they “see.”)

How can a writer approach titling a specific work…is there only one “good” title for every book?    Think short, easy to say,  and resonance: the ways those words resonate with the contents of the book.   Remnant Population involved a failing colony, remnant of a larger one (remnant population #1),  the individual who chose not to be evacuated (remnant population #2), and several other things that made it a good (and I thought best) title for that book.   It allowed a discussion of colonization (whether natural or imposed), attitudes within the colonizing society toward colonists, perception of colonists by indigenes, the ethics of colonization of “worlds without an intelligent species of level whatever” and so on.  The book could be read without considering a lot of the resonances I felt were there (any book can be read more shallowly than the book demands)  but for me, the contents supported the title and the title capstoned the contents.  Could it have been called something else?  Sure.  Possibilities include “Escape to Solitude” and “Left Behind” and “Diplomatic Error” and probably more.  Those would have *something* to do with the contents, but to me, not enough.

My story “In Suspect Terrain” (“suspect terrain” is a geological term)  in an anthology of military SF also played with variant meanings of the term:  suspect geological terrain, the instability of human minds in severe stress,  and the difficulty of interpreting and predicting human behavior in the context of such stress.   Who is suspect and why?  Who is the real…whatever?   Elements of mystery (into which “suspects” fit on a moral/ethical scale, while the terrain itself is innocent of criminal intent), suicide, murder, double agent, laws broken, etc.

So the questions asked on Twitter: “What is the significance of your title?  Could it be something else?”  are good questions, but require more complicated answers than Twitter can easily handle.

NewBook is coming to an end without a title.  Nothing has emerged from its complicated relationships yet with the stamp of “TITLE” on it, nothing with the right connections to the right parts of the story that this volume will be part of much later…because it’s announced itself as “Volume I of the Something-something”   It could be named for the location of the end of the story, sure.  It could be named for one of the main characters: “Name’s Tale” or the like.  It could be named for the disability which has limited one of the main character’s life ever since a particular traumatic event: memory loss that includes someone’s childhood and most of his adolescence, his family, his home, everything before the event,  and when coupled with spatial dislocation, imposes difference from the experience of most.  It could be named for many events and relationships and activities in the book…but so far…I’m not there yet.   Maybe I’ll need to write the next volume, or an entire group, to find out which strains, which ideas, which relationships lead to an overall title…although, musing on this, the possible perfect *group* title just landed in my brain.  Possible perfect.  Not proven.

We’ll see.  Here, at least, you have my personal way of looking at titles when I’m writing, or have written, something.  Sometimes I know ahead.  Sometimes I know midway.  Sometimes an editor steps in and chooses for me.



17 thoughts on “Titles

  1. Duplicate titles: I vaguely recall reading in the Bujold email list some years ago that her initial title for the book that became “A Civil Campaign” was “Rules of Engagement,” which was nixed because your book by that title was coming out too close in time.

    1. Yup. Editor thought I should change it. I love Lois’s Vorkosigan books, but I really, really, thought mine should get it as it resonated all over the place. Well, it would have with hers, too, but this was shortly after a situation in which I was told Baen was unhappy I’d gotten on the Hugo ballot because it might mean she’d not win that year. My fault. Neither of us won; so I was still the bad girl afterwards.

      I wasn’t feeling generous with being told again I was supposed to step back and curtsy so the actual lady wasn’t inconvenienced. Not by Lois, of course, who is courtesy itself, and a writer I admire and respect, but by the publishing house who had a star to nurture and a non-star to keep humble. Just business, yanno. Certain staff mentioned more than once Lois’s loss was my fault.

      Unfortunately for my character and Lois’s book, this threw me back into high school attitude, when the senior counselor wanted me to give up an award I’d won “because it won’t do you any good and it should go to a boy like [name withheld.] You won’t get a degree anyway and it will look good on his resume.” The boy in question was a good guy, and tipped me off that the chem teacher was teaching the boys content from the college board’s chemistry test (which I was signed up to take) , and then shared the info with me (and I shared with the other girls, one of whom ended up as a chemistry prof later.) I wouldn’t have minded at all sharing an award with him, but give up one I’d been awarded? No.

      And behind high school, all the way back, behind the row of teachers who seemed determined that–as a child of divorce–I *should* be a failure and they would hound me until I failed, lay foundational stuff it’s hard to shake: finding out that before I was born two persons tried to force my mother into having an illegal abortion or harm her to cause a miscarriage because I was, again, inconvenient to one of them.

      I wish Lois had won the Hugo. (I wish I hadn’t had it proven to me that I was the reason, shown the votes, had it explained.) I wish the kid I wouldn’t give up the award for had lived to become a Nobel Laureate in some science or at least chair of a department. I wish Lois and I could both have used the same title (I still can’t be sorry it’s on my book: bad puppy, no cookie.) I wish I’d been a better person. I’ve had a good life–a great life, and I’d have had it if I’d been more generous, like I was told to be in Sunday School.

      After all, all the miseries and bad times and snarky teachers and professors and mean kids and my own blunders and making things worse and so on and on…are material. Are experiences that make it possible to write about bad experiences. Mine aren’t unique; mine aren’t even *serious* (except maybe my mother having to drive from Chicago to south Texas in wartime to save her life and mine–at least she had a car, and could get gas for it. I’m sure that old Packard was a gas hog.)

      Too Much Information, right? Right. Sorry. Not sorry enough to delete it. Not excusing it. Nighty night, turn off the light, don’t let the bedbugs bite.

  2. Without the cover art on Sheepfarmer’s Daughter “, I most likely would never have picked your book off the shelf or read the back cover about you. That picture grabbed my eye. I fell into story and raced to find everything by you I could decades ago. Ann McCaffery’s (Pern) had already cured me of not reading women sci fi writers.

    1. When I was sent the cover art for Sheepfarmer’s Daughter, and asked if there was something simple that would make it fit the book more, I said please change the skulls on the horse’s trappings to foxheads. That was all it took, and it was a *perfect* cover. I knew it would help sell the book…would get people to look inside. The title gave the origin of the character, the picture gave a later stage, the fox masks weren’t the then-conventional “evil skull” that went with characters in black on black horses.
      It was art Baen already had in-house, I was told, and I was a very lucky writer.

  3. Glad to hear you might have an “arc” title. You have not really begun revising. So there’s time to let that process play into the choice of a title.

  4. Remnant Poulation does work on so many levels and, because it is easy for people to remember, tends to be the book of yours that I recommend the most. Also because it is useful for those who would like a taste of your voice without commiting to a longer series, although most do then become fellow fans and read all of the rest.

  5. Sorry the “Rules of Engagement” title was so fraught. It’s all very well to sometimes choose to give way to someone else. But being told by others, repeatedly, that you should give way because you are clearly less important is … not good.

  6. These popped into my head while reading this post. They are probably too derivative, but anyway…
    Paksworld: Return to Aarenis
    Paksworld: The Next Generation

  7. At this point and after reading and listening to the Paks saga a number of times, you could title the book “shoehorn” and I would both buy it and read it. Once again, take your time – your slavering fans can wait.

    Stay safe and stay sane

  8. Titlles are also for talking about books after we’ve read them, for many years afterwards. I’ve read Vatta’s War. Should I need to recall the specific title for the fourth book, say, I’d have to go look at my bookshelf. And though I do remember all the Paksworld titles, my primary mental labels are for the Deed of Paksenarrion, Gird’s and Luap’s books, and Paladin’s Legacy.

    So let the publisher think of a good volume title to sell the first one, if you must, but please get the series title simple, distinctive and right.

  9. Such wonderful news. And for me, a glimmer of hope. I love the way you write about horses and riding … even when you are heading for an imaginary finish line at the end of a period of writing. I take delight in you current success and the joy which flows from it. And that there are books ahead … hurrah!

    Reading your last four posts, after a period of distracting stress, has really helped me breathe deeply and calmly. Bless you.

    1. Harriet Culver,

      Thank you for the link in the Guardian regarding Jerusalem. I’m a daily reader, but I somehow missed it. The article was worthwhile reading.

  10. Cover Art is what got me to read the 1st of one author’s fantasy books. Knowing you got me to start reading yours (then I galloped through all that I could get my hands on). The pronunciation thing is real. I remember talking to a friend about a character in a book that I had heard one way in my head but she had heard a different way. I have people who pronounce my name differently than I do (and I admit to not knowing how Tolkien would have but the way I do sounds better to me and I’m sticking with it.

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