It’s happened yet again. A book I’m working on is in “title hell.”
What is title hell?
It is the condition in which the important decision-makers on a book cannot agree on an appropriate title. And it is hell, because when you are in this condition, you tend to go around and around in maddening circles without converging on anything useful.
In my experience, the likelihood of title hell is proportional to the number of decision-makers. If you are working on the book alone, it’s very unlikely. If you have a coauthor, it’s possible, but usually escapable. If you have three authors, two publicity people, an editor at your publishing house, and the editor’s boss, it’s much more likely.
(I discovered title hell when I was working on a book with a coauthor and the nay-sayers included my boss, the publisher’s editor, and the head of the publishing company.)
The easiest way to escape title hell is to come up with a great title and subtitle at the start of the process and stick with it. But in most cases of title hell, this is hindsight and the opportunity to get everyone to agree passed months ago.
Understanding the title dynamic
These are key factors that generate title hell.
- Too many people who can say “No.” If you have five decision makers who can say “No” and none of them can finalize a title by saying “Yes,” you’ll end up in title hell.
- Too many creative people contributing. More creatives generate lots of ideas and little reason to agree.
- A lack of standards for the title. A great title should be unique to stand out in searches, reflect the content and theme of the book, be clever, and make sense to the target market. Taken together with a subtitle, it should explain what the book is about. Unless everyone agrees on this (or an alternate) list of standards, you won’t get to an answer — because everyone involved is working from their own idea of what success looks like.
How not to escape title hell
Here are some strategies that people try that won’t work, and why.
- Crowdsource it on social media. Your friends don’t really know what the book is about. And the problem is not a lack of creative input, it’s too much creative input. So it’s far more likely that asking your friends for ideas will generate a whole bunch of useless ideas than that you’ll suddenly find the turn of phrase that was eluding you. If your friends do converge on an answer, it’s probably something generic that everyone can agree on. (If you can’t decide between two titles, a social media poll may be a way to figure out which one resonates — but that’s narrowing down ideas, not generating an explosion of them.)
- Go back and forth on email (or Slack, or Microsoft Teams, or . . . ). There are many problems that can be efficiently solved with asynchronous communication. This is not one of them. You’ll just richochet from one idea to the next. Email chains about ideas don’t converge, they just taper off as each person included becomes annoyed or busy with something else. The more people on the chain, the worse it will be.
- Designate a small group to generate ideas and run them up the flagpole. The small group will converge on a idea, which the decision-maker will reject. Then they’ll do it again, and the decision-maker will reject it again. Then they’ll get disgusted. Suggesting idea after idea to the editor at your publishing company puts you in the position of auditioning ideas for your own book, which is humiliating.
The title jam strategy that works
You need to get everyone who can make or reject the decision together in one meeting. This would typically include the author or authors, an editor who is a publishing expert, and any other individual who can say “No.” The right number of people in the meeting is three or four. You don’t need more creative input. You need fewer decision-makers.
When I do this, I allot 90 minutes to the meeting, and it starts with the author describing the book and the publishing expert (in this case, me), listening for unique turns of phrase that could become the title. It is an iterative process, and takes a while to get to an answer, but it converges in one meeting — unlike emails chains and crowdsourcing.
These online tools will help you:
- Amazon.com to check if the title is already taken by a similar book.
- Google (incognito mode) to see if somebody else’s ideas will come up if you search your title. (Incognito mode helps ensure that your searches are similar to what other people would see, and aren’t biased by your previous search requests.)
- An online thesaurus to noodle around with synonyms.
- ChatGPT to suggest ideas. (It may come up with useful answers, it may not, but it won’t insist that you take its ideas, unlike many human collaborators.) ChatGPT can also substitute for the thesaurus, if you want.
- If you’re not all in the same room, a shared Google Doc that becomes a virtual whiteboard on which you can share and see each others’ ideas.
In this meeting, if anyone objects to someone else’s suggestion, they should be required to explain why they have a problem with it. This allows you to make iterative progress. “Nah, I don’t like it,” is not a reason.
Should you include the editor at your publisher?
Your editor likely has far more publishing experience than you, the author. This cuts both ways. It makes them helpful. But they also may be manipulating you based on their experience.
Most first-time authors think “My editor has to approve the title.” This is likely true. But the editor really has only two options: approve your title, or reject it. They really don’t want to reject the project just based on the title. That means that if you have a title you like and you insist on it (and it doesn’t suck), the editor will likely give in.
It’s your book. It’s hard to put in all the work of creating it if it’s got someone else’s favorite title.
In my discussion of the title jam, I suggested including a publishing expert. If you trust your editor, they can play that role. (There was an awesome scene in the movie “Julie and Julia” where Julia child’s editor did just that, generating the title Mastering the Art of French Cooking.)
Or, you can get someone else to fill that role. You don’t need to include the publisher’s editor, especially if they haven’t been particularly insightful so far.
What you can’t do is generate a title, then meekly offer it up to that editor in the hopes that they accept it. If you like it and it’s unique, clever, and appropriate, persuade them to accept it. No publisher ever failed to get behind a great book just because they were pouting about the title.