Never Judge a Book By Its… Title.

A friend sent me this link to an article at the Awl in which four literary writers talk about their reactions to editorial title changes. An example, from author Suzanne Morrison re her book Yoga Bitch:

A lot of writers think their editors are crazy when they try and change their titles, but I didn’t. I knew exactly what she was talking about, because I had been worrying about the same thing. In writing the story as a book, deeper themes emerged that hadn’t been present in the play; fear of death, yearning for faith, the hunt for something real. I was as worried as my editor that these more earnest aspects of the book would confuse or disappoint readers looking for a light, edgy, sardonic tale. I imagined a woman in skinny jeans and halter top reading about my secret yearning for God and faith and throwing the book underfoot to poke holes in its cover with her stiletto heels: I was promised bitchy! This isn’t bitchy!

::waha:: I have to confess, I had the same worries about The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms — which, As You Know, Bob, was once called The Sky God’s Lover. Back when I first came up with that title (12-ish years ago), I was worried. It was meant to be a double-/triple-entendre (there are two sky gods, and three lovers; it’s a reference to the Gods’ War being a lovers’ quarrel), but I feared that it would a) make SFF readers dismiss it as romance, which would be easy since even my full name could do that, and b) make romance readers angry because it wasn’t romance. I imagined a woman in practical flats throwing the book underfoot and declaring, I was promised a lover! What’s this polyamorous shit? And why do two of the lovers hate each other? And so on. I imagined the stomped-upon book then being sniffed at by a sneaker-wearing man who wouldn’t even bother to pick it up: Oh, my. I believe that novel might be… girly. He’d then walk off in a huff.

Still, it was the best title I could come up with, so I ran with it. The original titles of all three novels were The Sky God’s Lover, The Bright God’s Bane, and The Broken God’s Get. And I’d labeled the trilogy as a whole a somewhat hippieish “Earth and Sky”, though I was waffling between that and “the War of Earth and Sky” because I thought fantasy trilogy titles needed more words. (OK, not really. I was actually just trying to capture the feel of old-school epics, a la “the Epic of Gilgamesh” and “the Sundiata Cycle”. But also, I thought it needed more words.)

When the book sold (the first book was finished when I sold it; was still working on the next two), my editor let me know they might need to do a name change, for the exact reasons that I’d worried about: the title made it sound like something it wasn’t. I wasn’t privy to the discussions about the title between Orbit’s folks; I gather it was a joint discussion among several people. But then my editor asked me how I felt about The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, which had been suggested by Orbit’s publishing director, Tim Holman. I fricking loved it; it solved so many of the problems of the old title! But it also carried some baggage of its own. I pointed out that the story wasn’t really about the kingdoms, after all; there was a reason I wanted the gods mentioned in the title. “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” is just the name of the world — a la “the Entire” of Kay Kenyon’s “The Entire and the Rose” quartet, just a grandiose name for “everything under the sun” — which readers would only realize once they started reading the book. I also worried that the new title would obscure the breadth of the tale, making it sound more small-scale than it is: a story about the kingdoms of humankind, rather than the way humans navigate in a universe of gods. I envisioned a reader of indeterminate gender stomping on the book with cherry-red Doc Martens and shrieking, I was promised kingdoms! Where are the other 99,998?

Amusingly, it did get that reaction from a few readers, though not nearly as many as I’d feared. Many more told me that the very reason they’d picked up the book was because of the title — not because it promised numerical kingdomy goodness, but because of its grandiosity and the implication of great scale. It’s impossible for any fantasy novel to focus on a hundred thousand kingdoms, or anywhere near that many — so most readers who picked it up seem to have correctly intuited that the story was about something more than just kingdom-level politics.

Retitling the other two books in the series was a given after that; the original titles had all been meant to go together, since they fit the whole “the something-god’s something” pattern. So since the folks at Orbit had hit it out of the park with the first book, I gave them carte blanche to come up with whatever they wanted for books 2 and 3. I did suggest some titles — trying to play on the “the something-number of nouns” pattern, I experimented with The Million Shadowed Streets and The Single Shining Star for books 2 and 3… but thankfully they didn’t use those. In retrospect, they’re a little cheesy.

Then I sold the Dreamblood books — a duology that, until recently, I’d been calling “the Tales of the Dreaming Moon”. Originally the first book was simply titled, Dreamblood — which, if you’re familiar with the world, was simply the name of one of the forms of magic used in the land of Gujaareh, based on the four humors of Egyptian/Greek/Roman medical/alchemical antiquity. Not so bad — but the second book was going to be called Dreambile, which some of my early readers declared “gross”. Eh, yeah, I could kind of see that. So when my editor decided to go with Reaper for the first book and Conqueror for the second — you’ve probably seen some mentions of that in the marketing thus far — I was pleased, because those were better. But still not quite there, somehow. So she sent me a list of alternate suggestions, but none of them leapt out at me. I sent some counter-suggestions; they were “meh” too. I felt kind of like Urban Waite, in the Awl article:

You wake up in the morning with a list of fifty titles next to your bed, and go to sleep with every one of them crossed off, while trying to think up the next day’s list. It becomes a process. It goes on for a month, this daily grind of panning for a title, hoping against all odds for just a small piece of gold.

…and after a few rounds of this I just gave up. I was tired. I had one book to write and another two to revise, and a hardcore day job, and family drama to deal with, and so on. Frankly, that’s why books have publishers: to do all the marketing-related stuff — titles are marketing — that authors don’t have the time or energy to do. (I don’t know if I’ll ever do self-publishing for that very reason; it sounds like a great whopping pain in the ass, when all I want to do is write.) I told them I’d go with whatever they chose. So eventually Devi sent me The Killing Moon… and I liked it. At more than “meh” level! But she was stuck for what to name the second book. So although I’d kind of written off the whole process, I sent back a short list of suggestions that I didn’t really care about, and appended, “Oh, and what about, I dunno, The Shadowed Sun to play off the pattern of the first book?” — since that book is set more in the desert beyond Gujaareh, and is a darker book than the first one, involving a plague of nightmares and cheery stuff like that. I didn’t think that one would work for her, honestly. I’d just sort of pulled it out of my ass. But to my utter and absolute shock, she liked it; for the first time, I’d picked a title that stuck. We had a duology.

I say all this to preface: I run into people all the time who ask me whether it bothers me to change the titles of my books. And the answer is: no. If naming the first book of the Inheritance Trilogy Penobscott, the Grzylwazl of the Stars would sell it, then so be it. (OK, I might be a little squinchy about it, but if it sold, I’d get over it.) I care more about titles with respect to my short stories, because short stories are so short that titles can and often do act as part of the narrative. But for novels, titles are just marketing. So I was glad to read this Awl article, in which fellow authors confide their own fears and frustrations and resignations, because now I know this is just part of being a published writer. You learn to care most about what you can control, attach your ego to the things that matter. You learn that the superficialities are just that.

So nowadays I’m always a little bemused when I meet readers who tell me how much they love (or hate) the titles of my books, or when they get up in arms about the presence or absence of kingdoms and lovers. I like the titles too, because the books are selling. I’m also bemused to think back on myself as a younger writer, who spent hours agonizing over how many words should be in a fantasy series title. It could be worse, I think at those people, at my younger self. It could be “Penobscott”.

17 thoughts on “Never Judge a Book By Its… Title.”

  1. I hope you don’t mind a tangential comment on your page….

    I came across “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” as a “you might also like… ” type link from an Octavia Butler book on amazon (sorry, can’t remember which one). Pieces started falling into place and I wondered. “Hey, is that N___ from A_____cism?” And it was! I haven’t followed that fandom for hmm, over ten years now, and out of nowhere (from my PoV) here is a face from those days published, and with all those award nominations. So awesome! I’m glad all your hard work is starting to pay off.

    I’m squeeing over THTK, and can’t wait to read your other books.

  2. That does seem to take some of the pressure off of coming up with the most perfect, bedazzling title right now, before I’ve even written the book…

    I assume, then, that the same thing goes with naming of a series as well the individual books?

    I wonder how it’s different when an author really has fallen in love with the title they’ve picked, and think it’s perfect (and, like in a short story, plays into the narrative). How does the retitling go down, then? I guess I’ll have to check out the linked article…

  3. Not to be a stickler but Kay Kenyon’s the entire and the rose is a quadrilogy, not a trilogy. A great quadrilogy, but a quadrilogy nonetheless.

    [Resumes reading]

  4. Beth,

    Wow, you are an old face! Yeah, same N__. :) I miss A__, actually, especially the days when the mailing list was active. Alas for the Web 2.0 diaspora. But on the other hand, manga is a lot more ubiquitous now. Anyway, welcome!

  5. Stephen,

    I should clarify. At the time I came up with my book titles, I was in love with them. That’s how the act of creation always goes for me; I love the stuff when I first come up with it, and gradually cool off over time. Fortunately my “in love” phase has never coincided with the “yeahno we need to change this title for marketing purposes” phase, because then I might be tempted to scuttle my ability to write altogether — my ability to sell, rather, which allows me to write as a career — in exchange for the rather paltry reward of keeping a few words untouched.

    And yeah, it applies to series titles, too. We’ve never had a specific discussion about whether to call the Dreamblood books “Dreamblood” or “the Tales of the Dreaming Moon”, but since I’m a New Yorker now and “the Tales of the Dreaming Moon” is a PitA to say and write, I’ve been shorthanding them as “the Dreamblood books”… which Orbit has been doing, too. It seems to have stuck. But something I’ve learned since getting published is that nothing’s over ’til the book’s out. So who knows what the series will eventually be called?

  6. YetiStomper,

    Gah, you’re right. Correcting! (But I’m going to call it a “quartet”, because that’s prettier than “quadrilogy”. But then, why isn’t it a tetralogy? Argh, see how hard titles are?)

  7. I like this peek behind the scenes. I had no idea The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms wasn’t the original title of the first book; it appealed to me for some of the reasons you note (an implication of the scope), and also because it gets across the whole “ALERT: This is a fantasy novel!” thing while still sounding somehow distinctive in the field of fantasy novel titles.

  8. I picked up Hundred Thousand Kingdoms because the title sounded interesting. I wasn’t expecting a story about ALL of them, I guess, just something set there.

    The copy on the back helped cement the decision to buy it. (and then I read it, and loved it).

    But, honestly, what REALLY tickled my funnybone with your book? ‘The Inheritance Trilogy’. I said to myself, “I have to see if this is better than Eragon”.

    And it is. It absolutely is.

  9. This is a great article, and one I relate to so much! Last year I was commissioned to write a short story and even after I’d finished it I just could not figure out what to title it. The way you describe your process of coming up with and rejecting numerous titles for your works pretty much exactly mirrors what I went through trying to name my piece, before I just sent an email off to the people who hired me that basically said “I got nothin. What can you come up with?” That kind of made me feel like a failure of a writer at first, but in the end I loved what they came up with and felt it really represented the work. Sometimes the outside perspective is very helpful.

    For what it’s worth, I too loved the title The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms for all the reasons you mentioned. I also found it appropriately grandiose, because it is a story that has huge consequences for the world it’s in, despite the relatively confined setting.

  10. I’m more than a little envious of this experience. :-) I hate trying to come up with titles, and keep hoping my editor will want to change what I sent it in with, but so far it hasn’t happened.

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  12. This is fascinating! I have to say, I love the title The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. I am really bad at making up titles for my books. I have a work-in-progress that I’m calling Bankers & Wankers right now, and every time I say that name my girlfriend cringes in loathing. I think one of the downsides of being published by a small press is that they will (often) just let you call your book whatever it was that you were planning to call it, no matter how silly or ill-advised, because they literally just don’t have the time for that kind of brainstorming.

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