Titles aren’t just words to be taken literally — they carry all kinds of emotional and cultural attachments with them, and that’s why they’re often changed. The Swedish title of Stieg Larsson’s first book was Men Who Hate Women. In the United States the title was changed to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. The Swedish title sounds too much like nonfiction, and it doesn’t suggest character or even intrigue the way the English title does. But I’m assuming that the original title appealed to Swedish readers.
Translation isn’t the only place titles are changed — they’re often changed at an editor’s desk or in a marketing department brainstorming session. Almost all publishing contracts reserve to the publishers the right to title a book, because publishers feel that they know far better than authors what types of titles sell, and what types don’t.
That is a title’s first job: to help sell the book. And when it comes to fiction, a title has a second job: to resonate with the reader, especially at book’s end, when the impact of a well-chosen title hits home. Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms is an excellent example of a title hitting home. I remember reading this novel when I was twenty years old, thinking the title meant one thing as I was reading the book . . . then reaching the end and being stunned by its other meaning.
Some writers put no titles on their books until they’ve reached the end, but most, I think, have working titles. I always have what I think of as a working title. In the end, that changes probably 50% of the time, sometimes due to me, sometimes due to the publisher.
My working title for my first novel, She’s on First, was Bases Loaded. I recognized that “bases loaded” was a trite phrase, and I fully expected the publisher to change my working title. But when my editor called to say they were going to change the title to She’s on First, I was upset. Mainly because she’s at short, not on first! Of course I understood the allusion to “Who’s on first?”. . . but I still didn’t like the title.
So my editor asked me to send every title I could think of, to see if would change the minds of the marketing department. Here’s what I sent. (And you will correctly conclude that my list didn’t change the publisher’s mind.)
Brand New Ballgame
No Easy Out
Bring the Runner Home
Rough in the Diamond
The Residue of Design
Within the Lines
Inside the Strike Zone
Clearing the Bases
Ball in Play
After four or five years of living with the She’s on First, I made peace with the title. And here’s the rub. Whenever I teach this topic in a writing class, everybody, without exception, prefers She’s on First to any of the other titles in my list— which indicates that the publisher was right. (So maybe those marketing departments really do know what they’re doing!)
It’s always a good idea to brainstorm working titles for your book. Write down all word associations that come to you. Write down opposites. Think of poems, concepts, key lines from the book. Think of what grabs you as a reader. You might have to come up with 30, 40, 50 possible titles to get one you really love. And then — the marketing department might change it.
But then again, they may not — and that would indicate they believe your title will help sell your book. The Crown marketing department must have liked my title for my first mystery, Dirty Proof, because they left it intact. And I self-published the sequel, Sound Proof, so I titled it what I wanted to!
Titles are on the outside, plots and themes on the inside . . . if you want to know what it might be like for a woman playing in the major leagues, read beyond the title of She’s on First.