The Titling Process: Unlocking Some of the Mystery

One of the things that  publishers spend a significant portion of their time on is titles. Titling books is an art form, and the significance of it is usually underestimated by authors. Perhaps the most surprising part of the titling process is coming to grips with just how difficult it is to come up with the right title for each book.  And the bigger the book (meaning the greater its potential), the harder it is to come up with the right, big-book title—one that will stand out from the other 10,000+ business books that are published each year.

Here are some things that help: titling is usually best done in the morning, when people are the freshest. And as one of the most creative parts of the process, it is best to be as inclusive as possible. That is, bring everyone to the table, regardless of what former GE chairman Jack Welch calls “the stripes on the shoulders” of people. In other words, bring every marketing and editorial assistant and even your interns, for you never know who will come up with a breakthrough title. But the reality is that when it comes to titling—especially the big book—experience matters. Correction: experience matters a great deal. That’s why publishers and senior editorial people usually come up with the right title before the author does.

I know that may be counter-intuitive. Doesn’t the author know more about his or her book than anyone? Yes, of course, but that is part of the problem. The author may be too close to it to come up with a great title for her own book. 

Also there are many moving parts to a title: there’s the main title, the subtitle, and a possible third element referred to as a reading line which explains the book in even greater detail than the title and subtitle. Only a small percentage of business books have a reading line, but most have the title and subtitle. The title should really attract attention while the subtitle should describe as specifically as possible what is in the book.

The other thing that makes it harder for authors to come up with the right title is that while titling a book is is an art form, there is some science to it as well. That’s why experience is so important, and I mean on the publisher’s side of the ledger, not the author’s. Another problem is that even when the publisher comes up with what they regard as a kick-ass title, the author sometimes does not agree.  This is why this is one of the areas that can cause real friction between a publisher and the author. Ultimately, the publisher and author have to agree on the book title. That’s because the last thing a publisher wants is an unhappy author. That would poison everything. So even when the publisher comes up with what they regard as the perfect title, we won’t go with it if we cannot get the author to see our side of the argument (even though almost all publishing contracts allows the publisher to choose the final title from a legal perspective).   

As an aside to the discussion, one thing that has always perplexed me is how is it that authors think they have the same ability as a publisher to choose the right title. Most don’t. Among  the top people at our imprint, we have published many hundreds of books, if not a few thousand. And we have seen how these scores of titles have sold (or didn’t sell). And that is one of the things that helps publishers to be so good at the titling process—it’s not only the titling—it’s the titling and then seeing what happens to the book that makes experience so valuable.

So, if you are an author and your publisher suggests a title that you think is really off the wall, give it a chance. Think about it, sleep on it, and ask the publishing team why they are so convinced that is the right title. You may be surprised by how much you come around.   





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