Title Fights


Arts & Culture

Who gets to name an author’s book?


When I was readying my first novel for publication, it struck me that writers have far more control over what’s in their books than what’s on them—the cover art, blurbs, jacket copy, but especially the title, where the author’s concerns overlap with marketing ones. Deciding on a name for your life’s work is hard enough; the prospect of changing it at the eleventh hour is like naming your newborn, then hearing the obstetrician say, But wouldn’t Sandra look amazing on the certificate? It took a nine-month war of attrition to secure the original title of my book, Private Citizens.

The history of writers fighting for their book titles is extensive and bloody; so powerful is the publisher’s veto that not even Toni Morrison, fresh off her Nobel win, got to keep her preferred title for Paradise, which was War. (For her most recent book, God Help the Child, she favored The Wrath of Children.) Who knows why George Orwell’s editor thought Nineteen Eighty-Four was more commercially viable than The Last Man in Europe, or why the industry’s gerund fetish turned Helen Simpson’s Hey Yeah Right Get a Life into the insipid Getting a Life? Commercial interests even beyond the publishing house can get involved, as in the famous case of DeLillo’s White Noise, which was to be Panasonic until the corporation’s lawyers intervened. Susan Orlean has had a particularly rough time—every one of her books’ titles has been changed by various powers that be:

My first book was called Saturday Night in America until the person designing the cover thought it would look better with fewer words … Homewrecker became My Kind of Place. The Millionaire’s Hothouse—a title I loved dearly, although no one else on the planet did—became The Orchid Thief. Shiftless Little Loafers became Lazy Little Loafers because some individuals in an executive capacity at a bookstore chain that will go unnamed didn’t know what the word shiftless meant.

Abroad, books sometimes take on new names to suit national tastes; hence Merritt Tierce’s Love Me Back in Italy became Carne viva (“raw meat,” an idiom for “painfully exposed”), while the Canadian novelist Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes was released stateside as Someone Knows My Name. Surely no one had to tell Karl Ove Knausgaard that My Struggle wouldn’t fly in Germany, though it’s amusing to note that even Hitler himself lost out with his original title: Four and a Half Years of Struggle Against Lies, Stupidity, and Cowardice.

The Führer may have found more luck in today’s nonfiction climate, where blunt, foolproof subtitles are near mandatory—for Andrew Solomon’s depression memoir, The Noonday Demon, his publisher requested the subtitle Non-Financial Depression. Jean Garnett, an editor at Little, Brown, told me that “with nonfiction there can be less room for mystery and poetry,” and that the subtitle must do “the unglamorous grunt work of saying what exactly the book is,” which “can feel sort of like Mad Libs: The Adjective Story of Noun.” The subtitle can become a second front in the editorial war. The journalist Justine Sharrock’s book on wartime torture, Tortured, had its original subtitle—How Our Cowardly Leaders Abused Prisoners, American Soldiers, and Everything We’re Fighting For—changed to When Good Soldiers Do Bad Things, though her publisher told her the main consideration was length, not politics.

So what kinds of titles do publishers prefer? For starters, according to Garnett, they naturally favor “titles that are memorable and striking and, of course, that manage to communicate the flavor or feel of the book’s content and writing and sensibility,” though these are subjective criteria—both she and my own editor, Margaux Weisman at William Morrow, concede that the titling process amounts mainly to a gut feeling, informed by trial and error. (And it’s hard to imagine that they aren’t influenced by the desire for Google-friendliness or e-retail “discoverability”—think of the Twitter-friendly #GIRLBOSS—though nobody I spoke to claimed these were heavy considerations.) Titles are hashed out in biweekly meetings with the publisher, editor-in-chief, deputy publisher, digital and paperbacks publisher, and managing editor, and later in the process, marketing, design, and publicity departments, as well as the author and their agent.

Every literary generation has its naming conventions, and it’s as hard to imagine the sixty-five-word original title for Robinson Crusoe passing muster today as it is to imagine a nineteenth-century novel called Never Let Me Go. It’s easy to spot the fashions of our publishing moment: short-story collections are named after the collection’s centerpiece practically by default. Titles for longer literary works are often staked to a central relationship—The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Abortionist’s Daughter, The Orphan Master’s Son—or a group in a setting: The Swans of Fifth Avenue, The Mystics of Mile End, The Dogs of Littlefield. Publishing favors the memorable, the concrete, and the vivid; it also has grammatical preferences, like solitary adjectives (Mislaid, Thrown, Wild, Lit), rousing imperatives (See Me, Find Me, Find Her, Lean In), and quirky pleonasms like Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever or What’s Important Is Feeling. (My friends and I like to overhaul the classics: Everyone the Bell Tolls for Is Thee or War and Peace and Everyone We Know.) And for whatever reason—maybe a surge of interest in young women’s lives, maybe Lena Dunham—we may soon hit Peak Girl, with The Girl on the Train, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, Girl Through Glass, Girls on Fire, Girl at War, Gone Girl, The Girls 

This isn’t to imply that publishers willfully goad authors into using trendy titles, or that they always have the last word. My editor assured me that “the most important thing is that you are happy with the title.” And the author may find that the simplest way to resolve a dispute is to invent a different title. The publisher of José Orduña’s memoir, The Naturalization: Notes on the Browning of America, was concerned that the term naturalization wasn’t widely known; Orduña told me he ended up preferring his alternative, The Weight of Shadows: A Memoir of Immigration and Displacement. The publisher of Tanwi Nandini Islam’s Bright Lines considered the title somewhat abstract (their suggestion: Girls on the Move), but approved it anyway within a few days.

But when authors and publishers reach an impasse, things can drag on, as in the case of Private Citizens. I’d chosen that title for its etymological connotations—privacy, privilege, privation—its suggestive tension, even its sharp-angled letters and doubly appropriate acronym. At my agent and editor’s behest I’d already ripped dozens of pages from the book; the two words on the cover seemed like a reasonable booby prize. But when marketing and sales disagreed, my editor negotiated between us. “I fully understand your position and I definitely don’t want to land on a title that’s template-y or hollowly catchy,” she wrote me. “I DO, however, want a title that will grab readers. And while your rationale behind PRIVATE CITIZENS is smart and complete I don’t think a person glancing at the cover and title will come to the same conclusions.”

I was offered thirty more reader-grabbing alternatives, each of which I deflected. I said The Gold Stars gave a misleading LGBT connotation, and that How to Cook a Life came too close to an existing cookbook. I nixed I Am Precious (And So Are You) for its preciousness and Citizens in the Square of Opposition because it sounded like it was about Tiananmen Square. I argued that vague titles weren’t a bar to success: The Corrections, The Rocks, The Notebook … and do they come any vaguer than The Group, one of the book’s direct precursors? None of the alternative titles I came up with (halfheartedly, I’ll admit) thrilled anyone either. One of them was just the word Ugh.

What saved the title wasn’t my own eloquence or indignation but the design department, which cooked up a cover everyone agreed flattered the title. So in my case, the most purely superficial concern of all, by which my book would be inevitably judged, ended up preserving my intentions. Whether that boosts sales, improves critical reception, or resonates with readers now and fifty years hence has yet to be seen, but the fight is settled, with no losers.

Tony Tulathimutte’s novel Private Citizens is now available.