Where I spray-paint my thoughts…

Titles: What’s In a Name?


I am insanely excited to give you a sneak peek at my upcoming book.  I’ve just seen the cover for the first time myself and, apart from actually holding the book in my hands, there is no bigger thrill.

But this one (which should be available in late March) comes with a warning: when you see this book in real or online bookstores, it will have a different title than the one you see here (which is taken from a pre-release ad).  The actual title is Lydia: A Story of Philippi.  That’s kind of a compromise between what I wanted and what the publisher wanted, and I thought the story of how that happened might be interesting to people who wonder how books get their names.

I’ve always though “Don’t judge a book by its cover” was ridiculous advice, since those of us who love to read do that all the time.  Cover design and titles are what catch our eyes, make us want to pick up a book, read the back cover blurb, and browse through it.

I think some writers have a gift for titles and some don’t.  I also think I might be one of the don’ts.  Titles are always a bit of a struggle for me.

The first book I ever had accepted by a publisher went to press with the title I gave it: All My Love, Kate.  This led me to expect that I would easily come up with titles that perfectly fitted my books, and publishers would obligingly print those titles on book covers, and everything would go well.

Two years later I wrote a sequel to All My Love, Kate, which I titled, Don’t Worry, Lord!  It was about a young woman (not unlike, ahem, myself) who had some teeny issues with control-freakiness and liked to believe she could handle anything life threw at her, possibly better than God could.  So, I thought the title captured that nicely.  Unfortunately, the publisher didn’t think so.  They thought the title I’d picked sounded like a different kind of book altogether.  The title they picked was Roommates, which I didn’t think had a lot to do with the story, except that it was set in a college dorm so there were, in fact, roommates in the story.

Here’s what I learned from that round: you can argue passionately, make your best case, be willing to die on the barricades for the title you want, but in the end, the publisher will win. They are the ones who have to market the book, and their marketing people have opinions about what sells and what won’t.  Ultimately, titles are their business.

That experience made me feel very detached about titles (and book covers too, because I never really liked the cover of Roomates, either).  By that time I was lucky enough to have a fairly steady relationship with Review and Herald, the Christian publisher who has been publishing my inspirational books for 25 years now.  They were to publish twelve more books of mine after Roommates, and in each case my attitude was: “I’ll take care of the inside, you take care of the outside.”  In most cases I didn’t even bother to give my books a working title.  I just sent off the manuscripts and figured the marketing people would take care of the rest.  And generally, this worked.

With the two books I’ve had out with other publishers, I’ve been lucky enough that I had a title in mind and the publisher was happy to use that title (though with The Violent Friendship of Esther Johnson I suffered agonies: was it too long? Should it just be Violent Friendship? But did that sound like a romance novel? Had I had any idea how very little “marketing” the publisher planned to do in that case, maybe I’d have spent even more time agonizing. Some things, it’s better not to know). 

Breakwater was just as happy with By the Rivers of Brooklyn as I was, which was a relief to me since that book had never had any other possible title in my mind (despite people who pointed out that Brooklyn was not particularly known for its rivers; clearly these were people who either didn’t get or just didn’t like the Biblical allusion).

My hands-off approach to titles worked well with my R&H books, though, until this latest one.  It’s a Biblical novel about the early church at Philippi, focusing on five main characters with a point of view that shifts back and forth from one character to another in different chapters.  In my head, this book was always called Philippi.  But the publisher wanted it called Lydia, after the most Biblically-recognizable of the characters, in keeping with their policy of always having Biblical novels titled after the main character.

I didn’t want to fight another Roommates-style epic battle over this, but I did fire off an email to explain that I thought the book was more about a community than any one person, and that there were several main characters, so I thought Lydia was a misleading title.  Since R&H’s Biblical novels normally have the character’s name followed by a subtitle, they decided Lydia and the People of Philippi would be a great compromise.

Somehow, I was a little late finding out about this, having dropped the whole title problem back into the publisher’s lap and not given it much more thought (as was my custom).  So I got kind of a funny feeling when I heard the title, because … well … I didn’t really like it that much.

The thing is, it’s not inaccurate.  Lydia is one of the main characters, and since the story begins and ends with her, if you’re going to name the book after just one character, she’d be the one to go with (and Lydia rolls more smoothly off the tongue than, say, Euodia or Epaphroditus).  And to include the rest of the community in the subtitle seems reasonable, to hint that it’s a broader story than just one person’s life.  So what’s wrong with Lydia and the People of Philippi? 99% of people who ever pick up the book are just going to call it Lydia anyway and never notice the subtitle. Why nitpick?

No reason, really, except the publisher’s title doesn’t sound right to me.  How it sounds to the author is probably fairly low on any publisher’s list of concerns about a title (how it sounds to readers would, rightly, be a hundred times more important, since the author presumably loves the book already, whatever it’s called).  But to me, it sounded like nonfiction (even though the book clearly looks, and is, like a novel).  It sounded awkward and unwieldy.  It clunked where I wanted it to flow.

I still wanted Philippi as the main title but I knew the publisher was going to win this one: they want to market this book as Lydia’s story, and they know what sells.  I defer.  But I still wanted a skirmish over the wording of that subtitle.  Wasn’t it possible — even on short notice, after a cover image had already gone out to be placed in ads — to tweak it to something that sounded a little more fluid, a little prettier?

I am forever blessed to have publishers who are willing to put up with the craziness of authors, and make last-minute changes (I’m sure the cover designer went to bed that night cursing me in her heart, though).  I suggested Lydia: A Story of Philippi as a title that would keep Lydia’s prominence but also suggest that the story was broader than just one woman (and that it was a story, not a nonfiction Bible study about the book of Philippians or Acts 16!).  And, in that mysterious way I can’t explain, it just sounded better to me. It rolled off the tongue.  My tongue, anyway.

So: coming soon to a bookstore near you.  Lydia: A Story of Philippi.  For all the anguishing I’ve gone through over the handful of words on the outside, I hope you enjoy the several thousand words on the inside. Watch this space for more updates, links to a special website all about the book, and some giveaways when I have the books in my hot authorial hand!!


8 thoughts on “Titles: What’s In a Name?

  1. Fascinating insight into titles, Trudy. It’s really interesting to learn from your experiences, especially as I plan on approaching R&H when I finish edits on my 2008 NaNo novel (eventually!). I’ve actually just changed the title of that one but maybe I shouldn’t worry too much about it… but on the other hand, just like I can’t bear to not name my children within minutes of them being born (I’ve had 9 months and there’s only two gender options – where’s the hard part in that??!) I can’t bear my novels not to have names too.

    I can’t wait to read Lydia/Philippi.

  2. Nothing wrong with titling your manuscript, Karen, as long as you don’t get too attached to your title!!

  3. As you know, I have always thought that “Don’t Worry, Lord” was an infinitely better title than the generic sounding “Roommates”.

    I should get a job writing titles, since I don’t have the attention span or the persistence required to write whole books. On the other hand, when I look over the titles of my blog posts, maybe that’s not such a good idea after all.

  4. Ever read Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes”? It was very successful and made into a movie. Then he sequeled it with “T’is” and then “Teacher Man”. They were his titles and he couldn’t give a damn what anyone thought. Stick to your own titles. You tell them what “you” want! BTW I liked “By the Rivers of Brooklyn”……title and book. A great read. Good luck. Tell your publishers I told them to back off. lol 🙂

  5. Very interesting! I can’t wait to read the book!

  6. Love the cover! And I agree with you about the title.

  7. Hey Mike, it would be nice to live in a world where authors could just give orders to publishers … well I guess that would be the world of self-publishing! Nope, I’d rather have the publisher’s money and influence behind me when it comes to promoting books, and that means listening to their advice on titles and other marketing issues.

    Interesting you should mention the titles of Frank McCourt’s books. Did you know that “Angela’s Ashes” ends with the word “Tis,” while Frank actually scatters Angela’s ashes in the book “‘Tis.” He sometimes joked that he’d gotten the titles of the two books mixed up and they should have been the other way around.

  8. Hooray for the new book! (And what an interesting look at titles and naming!)

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