Sunday, August 5, 2012

Let's Talk Titles

Many authors have trouble with titles. I have several writer friends who go through the entire creation/revision process referring to their book only by the name of the central character. Which is fine, in traditional publishing, since titles remain malleable almost until the moment when the book goes to production. It doesn’t make sense to get too attached to a title when the editor or marketing department will make the final decision. But if you are self-publishing or, like me, working with an indie press/writers’ cooperative, you the writer have sole and ultimate responsibility for the title of your book.

Here I have generally been lucky. My first (unpublished and unpublishable) novel had a title before I had a rough draft. As the book developed and changed from Star Trek™ fan fiction into my own science fiction, the title changed, but it always had a title that reflected the central idea of the book and made me happy. Similarly, my second novel, which eventually gave rise to The Golden Lynx, went through a couple of titles as it morphed from historical mystery to adventure romance. It started life as Day of St. Helena, which I then decided was too obscure. I replaced it with Sins of the Father (too clich├ęd), before overhauling it into its present form. And I already have titles for the four Lynx sequels, although only the second (The Winged Horse) and the third (The Swan Princess) have anything approaching a plot.

The one big exception to this rule is The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel, which I published this summer. You’d think, given that I was riffing off someone else’s work (the original Scarlet Pimpernel is in the public domain, so I’m not violating Baroness Orczy’s copyright—plus the story deviates from hers early on), finding a title would be easy. Instead, I went through so many, I can’t remember them all. Sir Percy Rides Again, The Pimpernel Plan, Moonlight and Mechlin Lace, The Scarlet Pimpernel Returns—I could go on, but I’ll spare you. For a while, my spouse pushed It’s Tough Out There for a Pimpernel. Funny, if perhaps not striking quite the right tone. By then, I’d have loved to have a marketing director sweep in and solve the problem for me.

In the end, I bowed to the logic of search engines. Obviously, the target audience for my modernized Scarlet Pimpernel is people who love the original—or who would love the original if they knew of its existence. After umpteen revisions, you don’t have to have read the original to understand my version, but in marketing terms, to quote one of my reviewers in a different context, “it helps.” So I wanted “scarlet pimpernel” in the title to make it easier for people looking for the original to see it. Hence the decision to violate the writing rule that declares adverbs the spawn of the devil and embrace The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel.

It seemed like the perfect solution. Only after I had the book online and began searching for it did I recognize that the plan had a major flaw. I had forgotten, you see, that Baroness Orczy wrote about twenty Pimpernel books, which in the last 107 years have yielded dozens of editions in several different media. So if you search for “scarlet pimpernel” on, what you see is pages and pages of Orczy novels. My book, if it appears at all, lies buried somewhere near the end. Even I don’t have the patience to go through the entire list. And “Not Exactly” turns to be not exactly rare, either. I should have done more research. But since it would just sow confusion to change the title now, I will have to find another way to market the book.

It’s tough out there for a Pimpernel....

What about you? How do you decide what to title your work?

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