By Mark Alpert
St. Martin’s Press recently unveiled the cover of my next novel, THE COMING STORM, which will be published in January. I’m sharing the image with you now, partly because I’m very happy with it, and partly to make a point: authors can give their books a boost by making smart decisions at every step of the publishing process.
This advice is applicable to all authors, no matter if they self-publish their books or get contracts from traditional publishers. Self-published writers have the most freedom; they choose their books’ titles and covers, and no can overrule them. Working with traditional publishers involves sacrificing some of that freedom; because the choice of the title and cover are crucial to the marketing of the book, the publisher usually has the final say. But all the book publishers I’ve worked with (I’ve had contracts with three so far) have been very amenable to collaboration, so I’ve been an active participant in the selection of titles and covers for all my novels.
Collaboration has its advantages. I’ve benefited immensely from working with professionals who have decades of experience in the book business. For example, the working title of my first novel, a science thriller about Albert Einstein and the quest for the Holy Grail of physics, was “The Theory of Everything.” Back in 2007, when I got the contract for the novel, this seemed like a perfectly good title, and seven years later it became the title of the excellent movie in which Eddie Redmayne played the physicist Stephen Hawking (who was considered by many to be Einstein’s successor in terms of genius and eccentric charm). But “The Theory of Everything” didn’t really work as a thriller title. It sounded a little too staid.
So my editor and I started brainstorming. During one of our discussions I mentioned a nonfiction book that covered some of the same topics described in my novel — quantum physics, string theory, particle colliders, and so on. Written by Nobel laureate physicist Steven Weinberg, the book was titled “Dreams of a Final Theory.” Weinberg referred to the Theory of Everything as a “final theory” because it held out the hope of unifying all the laws of fundamental physics and finally answering many of the questions that prey on physicists’ minds. (For example, why is gravity so weak compared with the other forces?) Luckily for me, “Final Theory” sounded like a pretty good thriller title, and my editor liked it too.
And here was another plus: the longest word in the title has only six letters. Word length is a major concern for book titles. A publisher usually wants to make the title as big as possible on the book’s cover, and it can be difficult to fit the longer words (especially on the four-inch-wide cover of a mass-market paperback) without squishing the letters.
The working title of my next novel, the one that will be published in January, was “Superhuman.” It’s a thriller that explores the promise and perils of new gene-editing technologies such as CRISPR-Cas9, which is a molecular complex that can cut-and-paste the DNA within adult tissue cells and embryos. The complex can be delivered by virus, usually injected into a patient’s tissue; the virus penetrates the cell membranes and then releases the CRISPR-Cas9 components, which rejigger the chromosomes of all the infected cells. The technology is being tested right now as a treatment for muscular dystrophy and certain cancers. But in theory, it could also be used to genetically enhance a person’s muscular coordination or intelligence.
“Superhuman” would’ve been a good title for a science thriller, but my next novel goes farther afield. It’s a political thriller too, because the book’s Machiavellian villains decide to use CRISPR-enhanced soldiers to suppress dissent in a destabilized America. Here’s the two-paragraph description of the book that you can find on Amazon:
New York City, 2023: Rising seas and superstorms have ravaged the land. Food and electricity are scarce. A dangerous Washington regime has terrorized the city, forcing the most vulnerable and defenseless people into the flood-ravaged neighborhoods. The new laws are enforced by an army of genetically enhanced soldiers, designed to be the fiercest and cruelest of killers. Genetic scientist Dr. Jenna Khan knows too much about how these super-soldiers were engineered: by altering the DNA sequence in ways that could change the fabric of humanity.
Escaping arrest and on the run, Jenna joins forces with a genetically enhanced soldier gone rogue and a Brooklyn gang kingpin to resist the government’s plan to manipulate the DNA of all Americans. The race is on to stop the evil experiment before it spreads the genetic changes…and transforms the human species forever.
To figure out the title for this novel, I did some more brainstorming with my editor (a different editor this time). The word “storm” emerged as the key; the novel starts with a literal storm, but the plot is a wild ride too, and a lot of things get smashed over the course of the book. So the title became THE COMING STORM, and that suggested the idea for the cover image as well.
(Another reason why I’m glad we ditched “Superhuman”: a nonfiction book with that same title came out earlier this month. Because so many books are published every year, it can be a challenge to find a title no one else is using.)
I really enjoy this kind of collaboration, and I’m lucky to have the opportunity to work with experienced professionals. But self-published authors can benefit from collaboration too by consulting with other writers and the potential readers of their books. Before settling on a title and cover, gauge the reactions of several people whose opinions you trust.