Evolution of a Book Title and Cover

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

A good title and cover can make a book. A bad title and cover can break a book.

That’s a lot of pressure. No wonder authors struggle so hard to get it right.

If you’re with a traditional press, those decisions are usually made by the publisher.

But, if you’re an indie author, the task of both title and cover fall on YOU.

Are you cracking under the weight of those responsibilities? I know I am so I checked the TKZ Library for guidance.

Several TKZers have posts about revamping covers after getting their rights back from the original publisher. Please check out the excellent information shared by Jordan Dane, P.J. Parrish, and Laura Benedict.

TKZ emeritus Nancy J. Cohen explores how to use covers to establish a brand.

Jim Bell offers invaluable advice on choosing a title.

With my fourth book coming out this summer, right now I’m deep into working on title choice and cover creation. I want to share the steps I’ve taken, not because I’m an expert, but because they demonstrate the mysterious, murky process of creative evolution.

My first book in the series, Instrument of the Devil, was traditionally published. They retained my title but nixed my cover idea. They offered several redesigns and, with my approval, decided on this:

I wasn’t in love with it but, hey, they paid me so they’re the boss.

Then, six months after publication, they shut down operations and I became an orphan.

I decided to go indie and published the second book, Stalking Midas, in August, 2019, and the third, Eyes in the Sky, in January, 2020.

 

 

Publishing those two books taught me a lot but there were more lessons to be learned while wrestling with the unruly gorilla that was book #4.

Here’s a quick story summary:

Investigator Tawny Lindholm’s plans for a romantic Florida vacation with attorney Tillman Rosenbaum vanish when they’re caught up in Hurricane Irma. Tillman’s beloved high school coach, Smoky Lido, disappears into the storm, along with a priceless baseball card. Is he dead or on the run from a shady sports memorabilia dealer with a murderous grudge? During a desperate search in snake-infested floodwaters, Tawny becomes the bargaining chip in a high-stakes gamble. The winner lives, the loser dies.

Here are the realizations and steps along the twisty paths I followed to find a title and cover:

#1: I can’t do it alone.

The author is too close to the story, too enmeshed with the subplots, relationships, and minute details. Objectivity and distance are close to impossible to achieve.

Fortunately, I’m surrounded by a smart, supportive community of writers. They provide that much-needed objectivity and distance.

First, I asked the gang for title ideas.

The working title was Lost in Irma, because the story is set in Florida during the 2017 hurricane that knocked out power to millions of people.

Lost in Irma was lame so I tried variations like Flight into Irma, Escape from Irma. Finally, a member of my critique group pointed out an obvious reason that “Irma” would never work for a thriller—it brings to mind the legendary humorist, Erma Bombeck. Well, duh, why didn’t I realize that? Because I lacked objectivity.

A title needs to convey the genre, main plot, subplots, and themes, all in a few select words. Pretty overwhelming, right? Let’s break the elements down, piece by piece, and see if any of them trigger ideas.

The genre is thriller. The main plot is the search for the missing man, Smoky. Subplots include difficulties caused by the hurricane, including power outages and cell phones that don’t work; gambling addiction; baseball; the troubled relationship between Tawny and Tillman; a teenager trying to teach her rambunctious pup how to be a search dog. The themes are friendship, loyalty and betrayal.

Now, how to combine them into a title?

Another critique buddy, an attorney, specializes in laser focus. She said: “Somehow you should convey there is a mystery to be solved and it happens in the middle of a hurricane.”

#2: Get out of the corner.

A five-day-long power outage underscored much of the story, resulting in these title ideas: The Long Darkness, Flight into Darkness, Time of Darkness.

Sometimes the mind gets stuck, fixated on a single idea, even if it’s a bad idea. I felt like a Roomba, trapped in a corner, bouncing off the same two walls, getting nowhere.

Another critique pal pointed out, while darkness is important to the story, it’s not relevant enough to include in the title.

She kicked my mental Roomba out of that corner and sent me in new directions.

More tries: Presumed Dead, Gamble in Paradise, No Escape. Still not there.

The McGuffin is a valuable stolen baseball card and another suggestion was to use the baseball motif: Foul Pitch, Curveball, Pinch Hitter. Still not there.

Another suggested using pivotal plot events, like the discovery of Smoky’s deserted, wrecked boat and the gruesome evidence the dog finds in the swamp. Those ideas didn’t yield good titles but merited consideration for cover art, described in #5 and #6 below.

#3: Many Brains are Better Than One.

Creativity feeds off imagination. The more imaginations at work, the more creativity thrives. It’s like shaking a bottle of carbonated beverage. Open that cap and watch what bubbles up.

My smart friends stimulated my imagination with their varied ideas. At last, a title bubbled up that says thriller and suggests the root of Smoky’s problems—gambling.

Dead Man’s Bluff

For now, I’m pleased with that unless something better comes along.

~~~

Finding the right cover image is every bit as hard as finding the right title.

Many authors hire a professional designer and that is often the wisest path. My experience with pros has been expensive and unsatisfying but that isn’t always the case. If I find an artist who’s the right match, great. For now, it’s DIY.

#4: The Author Can’t See the Obvious

 

I searched for images of Hurricane Irma. Here’s an early choice I sent to my critique group:

Several immediately shot back: “That looks like a breast with a nipple.” Just shows how blind an author can be, even when it’s right in front of her nose!

 

 

 

#5: Don’t Be Afraid to Experiment

 

There’s a lot of trial and error in this creative process. You need to learn what doesn’t work before you can recognize what does. Most experiments aren’t great.

Tried a color version here.

A bright, eye-catching picture but it did nothing to draw reader into the story. It was also too busy and hard to read.

 

 

 

Next, I searched for images with people or objects tied to important plot developments.

After Smoky disappears, Tawny and Tillman find his wrecked boat, indicating he might have drowned while trying to make a getaway by sea. This photo seemed promising.

 

#6: People are Happy to Help

A subplot involves a Lab pup in training to be a search dog. He eagerly plunges into the swamp to search for the missing Smoky. Although he finds crucial evidence, he also screws it up, adding more complications to the story.

The dog angle became another avenue to explore. A friend put out a call to Search and Rescue (SAR) colleagues for photos of a dog working in water. SAR responded with many great pictures. These good folks were happy to help out a complete stranger. They didn’t even want payment. If I used their photos, their only request was acknowledgement of the SAR group, the dog, and the handler.

Photo courtesy of Sean Carroll, Clackamas County Sheriff Search and Rescue, OR

 

Here are a few dog samples:

Photo courtesy of Steve Deutsch, Search One Rescue Team, Lewisville, TX

#7: Don’t Let Your Cover Mislead the Reader

I drafted several covers with dogs and sent them to the group. One woman made the astute observation that having a dog on the cover sent the message that it’s a dog story. She was dead on—while the subplot is important, it isn’t the main focus.

A cover shouldn’t mislead readers. If you raise their expectations for one type of book but it turns out to be another, they rightfully feel cheated.

Fortunately, that same woman sent a hurricane photo that caused bells to ring in my mind. More on that in a minute.

#8: Ask an Artist

Another writer pal is a gifted watercolor artist with an excellent eye. I sent her three samples. She patiently explained what worked and what didn’t and why.

 

 

The colorful wave and boat: “An image directly in the center of the frame is not as appealing as one off center; the imbalance creates a sense of movement or dynamics that a centered image does not.”

 

 

 

Photo courtesy of Kerrie Garges, Alpha K9 SAR, Bucks County, PA

 

 

She liked the offset title of the dog cover. However, the dog wasn’t a good choice as discussed in #7 above.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The windswept beach: “A Left to Right orientation appeals to me better than the R to L orientation on the shore design.”

 

 

 

 

 

So, I flipped the photo to a mirror image of the original. Now the palm trees blew to the right. That required cropping a different area of the photo and rearranging the lettering. Yet, one subtle change of orientation made a big difference.

 

 

 

 

Then I remembered a different artist had made a similar suggestion about my third book, Eyes in the Sky. In the original photo, the cliff was to the left. She suggested flipping the image to put the cliff on the right to make it consistent with the design of the second book, Stalking Midas. Again, the objective outsider’s view looked past the author’s tunnel vision for a better solution.

Artists notice small details like photo orientation that authors may not. That might make the difference between a reader choosing your book or passing it by.

#9: Enlist a Focus Group

Once you have three or four polished contenders for cover finalists, it’s time to attract cold readers. How do you capture the interest of someone browsing in a bookstore (hope they reopen soon!) or scanning thumbnails of covers online?

Find a focus group. But how?

Seek out reading groups on social media. Become active and contribute to discussions in your genre. Then politely ask for their help. Post several sample covers and take a vote. Even better, connect the voting to a drawing for a free book when it’s published.

Locate avid readers among your friends, coworkers, neighbors, acquaintances from the gym, clubs, churches or temples, librarians, your kids’ teachers—anyone who loves to read.

Book clubs have been great supporters of my previous three books and are an ideal focus group. I sent emails to more than forty people with a brief plot summary and three sample covers–the boat, the dog, and the windswept beach–and asked them to vote for their favorite.

Votes came in overwhelmingly for the wind-swept palm trees on the beach—the same photo that had set off bells in my head. Their opinions confirmed my intuition that this hurricane photo captured the right mood and tone that accurately depicted the book.

An added benefit: the book club folks enjoyed being part of the creative process. “I love voting on the choices,” wrote one. Another said, “This is fun.” Several asked to be notified which cover won. I benefited from their valuable feedback and they’re eagerly anticipating the next book in the series. Win-win.

When people play a part in the mysterious, creative process of building a book, they become invested in the outcome.

Interested, engaged readers are treasures to an author.

#10: Embrace New Ideas. At this point, I’m satisfied the title and cover do a good job of conveying the genre, mood, and plot. But better ideas might still come along…maybe even from TKZers’ comments!

During the creative process, an author should remain open to suggestions, especially from readers. You don’t have to take them but always listen.

Control and autonomy are two major benefits of self-publishing. An indie author isn’t locked into anything until s/he hits the “Publish” button.

~~~

This sums up my process through the evolution of title and cover. When Dead Man’s Bluff is published this summer, readers will have the final vote.

The creative process is mysterious and highly individual. What I find helpful, you might find useless. There are no right or wrong ways, only ways that work for you.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how you start the evolution as long as you start it.

Get ideas flowing, no matter where they come from. What starts as a trickle may turn into a torrent that carries you to your goal.

~~~

TKZers: What makes a book cover appeal to you?

Do you have a system for choosing titles and/or cover designs?

~~~

 

 

To read a sneak preview of Dead Man’s Bluff, visit this link.

5+

How Do You Pick a Title?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

It goes without saying that titles are important. So I won’t say it. Instead, let’s explore how you go about finding the right one for your book.

Sometimes a title will come to you the moment you have a concept. Other times you may start writing without a title in mind and put off the decision until later.

Have you ever had a title come to you, demanding a novel be written to go with it? I have one right now that I love. I just don’t know what the book is about yet. But someday I’m going to write that thing.

I don’t know of any formula for finding a title, but here are a few suggestions (please share your own in the comments):

First, look over a bunch of titles of books in your genre. Go to Amazon and search the bestsellers in that category. Get a sense of how they sound. If you’re writing thrillers, for example, you probably don’t want a title like The Policeman and His Lady or A Cold Wind Bloweth the Badge.

Second, make two lists, one of nouns and one of adjectives. For example, when I was under contract for legal thrillers, I wrote down a bunch of legal nouns: trial, guilt, jury, witness, justice, evidence, etc. Then I wrote adjectives with thriller possibilities: night, dark, hidden, and so on.

Put the lists side by side and mix-and-match, e.g., Dark Justice. Hidden Guilt.

Next, play with phrases that have key genre words. I was doing that one day when I thought of the word alive. How could I use that in a phrase for a thriller title? A little more playing around and I wrote Your Son is Alive. That grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. I had no idea what the book would be, only that it demanded to be written. So I wrote it and published it.

After you’ve come up with half a dozen or more titles, do a little testing on people you know:

“Hey Stan, which of these do you like best? Dark Justice, Justice in the Dark, The Darkness of Justice, The Justice of Darkness, or The Girl Who Searched for Justice in the Dark?”

If you’re doing a series, a “link” word or phrase is often a help. John Sandford’s Prey series, for example. I did a lawyer thriller series with the word Try in each title. Why? Because I had planned the first one to be Die Trying, but some writer named Child had used it. I could have gone ahead anyway (titles cannot be copyrighted, see below) but I decided against it. Then the play on words, Try Dying, came to me and I liked it.

The other titles in the series are: Try Darkness and Try Fear. I actually made a list of more title possibilities, e.g., Try Justice, Try Running. But when I got down to Try the Veal, I determined I had enough. (FYI, the first book in that series, Try Dying, is free today through Wednesday in the Kindle store. Use this link.)

Okay, suppose you come up with a title and then find out another author has already used it. Can you use it, too? Yes. Titles are not copyrightable.

But that’s not the end of the matter. How well known is the other author? There’s a “rough” copyright protection out there in the form of consumers who are likely to be very upset (and nasty in their reviews) when they learn that your novel bearing the same title as Big-Name Author’s book is not actually by Big-Name Author.

If the book was published ten years ago, however, enough time may have elapsed that this won’t be a problem. Use common sense. How likely is it that a significant number of readers will be confused? I once had a title ready for a book I was prepping to publish, when I saw that Mr. Harlan Coben had a book with that same title about to come out. Ouch! I could have gone ahead with it, but in addition to the confusion, I knew I’d have reviews that would say something like, “What a ham-fisted way to try to feed off Coben’s readership!”

So I changed the title. (For the curious, the book is Don’t Leave Me. My original title: Stay Close.)

While titles cannot be copyrighted, in some cases they may be trademarked. You can’t, for example, write a novel with Star Trek in the title without getting a letter from a law firm with several names on the letterhead. Actually, you probably won’t get that far, because Amazon won’t allow you to publish it. So don’t get clever and try to write The Space Adventure of Civil War General Harry Potter.

Okay, over to you. How are you at picking titles? Do you have a method?

8+

How to Come Up With a Title

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

My favorite genre for pure reading pleasure is the pulp and mass market crime fiction of the golden age—roughly 1929 (the year The Maltese Falcon was published) to the early 1960s (when secret agents started to take over). Some of the titles from that period reach out and grab you by the lapels. A couple of my faves:

I Wake Up Screaming. This is a noir by Steve Fisher, first published in 1941 and made into a fine film starring Victor Mature, Betty Grable, and Laird Cregar.

Kiss the Blood Off My Hands. How’s that for a grabber? This was British noir by a writer named Gerald Butler. It came out in 1947 and was turned into a movie starring Burt Lancaster and Joan Fontaine. The novel itself is a dark but riveting read with a surprise ending. In form and feel it reminded me of The Postman Always Rings Twice. Speaking of which, where in the heck did that title come from?

In the preface to Double Indemnity, Cain wrote that the title comes from a conversation he had with the screenwriter, Vincent Lawrence, who spoke about the anxiety he felt when waiting for a postman to bring news about a submitted transcript. He would know when the postman arrived because he always rang twice. Lawrence described being so anxious that he would retreat to the backyard to avoid his ring. The tactic failed. Even from the backyard, if he failed to hear the first ring, he always heard the second. Always.

This conversation birthed a title that became a perfect metaphor for Frank and Cora’s situation.

“The Postman” is God, or, Fate who “delivers” punishment to Frank and Cora. Both missed the first “ring” when they got away with the initial killing. However, the postman’s second ring is inescapable; Frank is wrongly convicted of Cora’s murder, and sentenced to death. The motif of inescapable fate is also evident in the Greek’s initial escape from death, only to succumb to the second attempt on his life.

So let’s talk a bit about how to come with titles for your books.

As with any creative pursuit, the way to get a good idea is to get lots of ideas, then toss out the ones you don’t like. Thus, when you do title brainstorming, don’t edit yourself. Let the titles flow!

In How to Write Best-Selling Fiction, Dean Koontz talks about his method of title-storming. He uses the example of a story he was going to write about dragons. He just started listing titles with Dragon it them:

The Cold Dragon
The Warm Dragon
The Dancing Dragon
The Black Dragon
The Eternal Dragon

He went on to different variations, such as The Dragon Creeps and The Dragon Walks.

After about forty titles he got to this: The Dragon Came Softly. And then he tweaked it to: Soft Come the Dragons.

And that was the title that set off lights for him—and sold.

So try this:

1. Create a list of single words related to your plot. Kill, blood, bomb, cop, detective, mother, father, child, darkness, kidnapping. Then spend some time riffing off each one, using them in several possible titles.

2. Come up with a word that is the potential theme of your book: Justice, revenge, love, hate, evil, good, God, the devil. Play with those. Mix and match.

3. Maxims or quotations might provide fodder for a title. There’s an Irish blessing that goes:

May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May you be in heaven an hour
Before the devil knows you’re dead.

That became the basis for one of Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder books, The Devil Knows You’re Dead.

4. Create a deep, dark secret in your protagonist’s life that you can work into a title. Example: The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris.

How to Title Series Books

A title hook for a series is a good idea if you can pull it off. In my first Ty Buchanan legal thriller, I came up with the title Die Trying. Turns out Lee Child used that for one of his Reacher books. Instead of chucking it, I tweaked it and came up with Try Dying. I liked that for a number of reasons, and found a place in the book for that phrase. (That’s another tip. You can give a memorable phrase to a character in the dialogue, then use that phrase for the title. The title of the novel that was the basis for the classic noir Out of the Past is Build My Gallows High. That’s something the protag says to the femme fatale in both book and movie.)

Then it occurred to me that Try could fit a series. So I wrote Try Darkness and Try Fear. I haven’t done a fourth, though many readers have asked me to. The reason is I feel Try Fear has the most perfect ending I’ve ever done and I am loathe to mess with it.

I do, however, have a list of a dozen more Try titles. I used to tell people that when I got down to Try the Veal I’d end the series.

Other well-known series hooks include the Prey books by John Sanford, and the color-coded Travis McGee books by John D. MacDonald.

Or use a character’s name. My current series features Mike Romeo, so it’s easy to do: Romeo’s Rules, Romeo’s Way, Romeo’s Hammer, Romeo’s Fight. When I get to Romeo’s Codpiece, I’ll stop.

Final note: Titles cannot be copyrighted, so you can use one that’s been done before, with the following exceptions:

1. Some titles are trademarked. You can’t use Chicken Soup for the Soul or Harry Potter, for example, without hearing from a lawyer.

2. Other titles are “effectively” trademarked. That is, they belong to books that are classics, or were such big hits that to purloin that title would cause massive blowback from fans and Amazon (which would not carry the book to avoid consumer confusion). So don’t title your book The Da Vinci Code or Mystic River.

But if all else fails, put Girl in the title.

So what is your approach to coming up with titles? Do you like to have a working title before you begin writing?

8+

Same Book, Different Title

When my book The Tsunami Countdown came out in the UK last week, some of my Facebook fans were initially confused. They had already read a book of mine about tsunamis called Rogue Wave, so they asked me if The Tsunami Countdown was a sequel or a new book. In reality, Rogue Wave and The Tsunami Countdown are the exact same novel. The only differences are the title and cover.
Readers who have encountered this phenomenon before wonder whether it is a cheap trick to get people to buy the same book twice. They’re frustrated because they’ve already purchased Rogue Wave on Amazon UK and now Amazon is selling The Tsunami Countdownunder a totally different listing. Or perhaps they bought Rogue Wave on a trip to the US and now they’ve picked up The Tsunami Countdown thinking it was a new book, only to be disappointed to find out they’ve read it already.
So how does this happen? The problem stems from the fact that Rogue Wave is published by Simon and Schuster for the American market and The Tsunami Countdown is published by Little, Brown UK for the British and Australian markets. According to the contracts, Simon and Schuster has exclusive rights to the North American market, and Little, Brown UK has exclusive English-language rights to the rest of the world.
These two completely separate companies have their own ideas about what titles and covers work best for their markets. Technically, residents in each market should never see the other version. However, because of the Internet and jet travel, readers can encounter both versions of the book quite easily. Although the ebook version of Rogue Wave is not for sale in the UK, Amazon stocks used copies of the print version. And because Rogue Wave came out in 2010, some of my UK readers decided not to wait and hunted down a copy, even though contractually it shouldn’t be for sale in the UK.
Little, Brown UK certainly doesn’t want to dupe readers into buying my book. That’s not a good way to build long-term readership. They simply felt that The Tsunami Countdownwas a stronger title than Rogue Wavefor their market.
Readers then ask why I went along with this plan. Why didn’t I settle on one title or the other and do away with the confusion? One reason is that I, like most authors who aren’t named Stephen King or John Grisham, don’t have the final say on the title. Many readers don’t realize that publishing contracts typically give title decisions to the publisher. I will certainly object if I feel that a title is bad, but the final decision is out of my hands. In this case, I liked both titles, and I trusted the publishers to know their markets better than I do. I’ve had readers say they like one title over the other, but it hasn’t been a landslide in either direction.
For my book The Roswell Conspiracy, which I’m self-publishing in North America but which is published by Little, Brown UK everywhere else, I decided to stick with the same title and cover they chose to minimize confusion. It was a tough decision because I loved the title Silent Armageddon for that book. I think it’s evocative and captures the high stakes in the novel, but it would have meant developing a completely new cover and responding to repeated questions about why the titles were different. In the end, I decided my favored title wasn’t worth it, though I still miss it.
The irony in all this title confusion is that I originally self-published Rogue Wave/The Tsunami Countdown under a completely different title: The Palmyra Impact. If my original title had stood, none of this would be an issue, but neither of my publishers liked The Palmyra Impact because it was deemed to be too esoteric.
I understand the readers’ frustration. I try to make it clear on my website that my books with multiple titles are actually the same book. It helps, but it doesn’t solve the confusion for people who only see the book in the store. Unfortunately, it’s an idiosyncrasy of the publishing world. Just ask JK Rowling. When her first book came from the UK to the US, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stonewas re-titled Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Even if my situation isn’t optimal, at least I’m in good company.
0

Title Trauma, Part Trois


Recently, both Joe and John have been kind enough to share their title traumas. Funny how these things seem to go around, it’s like lice in a schoolyard. I thought I’d seize the opportunity to discuss what’s been happening in my neck of the woods.

More of the same, sadly. A few weeks ago my new editor (which bears discussion in a later post, the revolving door aspect to the editor/author relationship these days) announced that she no longer liked the title for my next book. Neither did anyone else at the publishing house, apparently. The words “it induced grimaces at the editorial meeting” were mentioned. She gently suggested that they would, in fact, much prefer a new title. Ideally in a week or less.

Now, I’m already up against a killer deadline with this book. I need a finished draft by January 1st, which means I’ll ideally finish my extremely rough, nightmarish, barely-legible draft by December 1st, then spend the next four weeks frantically trying to fill in all the bracketed spaces marked “physics stuff.” (Sadly, I am not kidding about this. Since nuclear physics has never been my strong suit, and the contract negotiations dragged on interminably, I was unable to devote much time to research prior to starting the book. So “physics stuff” it is, until I figure out exactly what I need to ask my wonderful, kind, and knowledgeable friend Camille Minichino during the editing process.) At some point in there, I’m presumably expected to celebrate the holidays, too, with everything that entails.

Facing a grueling schedule like that, when I’m trying to crank out 10 pages a day, minimum, the last thing I wanted to think about is coming up with a new title. And as John said, you become attached to titles, develop a certain affinity for them. I’d already changed the working title once, from “K & R” (which stands for Kidnap & Ransom) to “Tiger Game,” something my agent and I settled on after long consideration. And I thought, all things considered, it was a solid title for a thriller. Paired with good cover art, possibly a great one.

But no: the publishing house had decided that “Tiger Game” simply would not do. New title, please. Oh, and by the way, we’d really like it to be something powerful, with a lot of punch. But not something that’s been done to death. So please steer clear of “War and Peace” and it’s ilk.

Yikes. Part of the problem was that my previous two book titles derived largely from their settings. Both took place in small, relatively-contained locales. I knew the titles before writing a word of either story, and no one ever complained. In fact, they loved “Boneyard” so much that the main comment has been, “Can’t you come up with something more like “Boneyard?”

The new book is a bit of a departure for me, however, in that it jumps around the country, from San Francisco to New York to San Antonio, and the story involves everything from skinheads to border crossings to dirty bombs. Not exactly something that lends itself to pithiness.

So I did what I could. I canvassed my friends. Who are lovely people, but as it turns out, not so good in the title department. Offerings included “Watch Your Back!” and “The Obama Project,” which, as my book has nothing whatsoever to do with the President-elect, I chalked up to pre-election day exuberance. “Bungee Jumpin” was also mentioned, although there are neither bungees nor jumping anywhere in the storyline.

Thrown back on my own resources, I rounded up the usual suspects. I scoured a 181 page book of gang slang terminology, which produced such gems as “Diamond Shine” and “Thunder and Rain.” I searched the web for nuclear terms, eliciting “Top Off” and “Kill Radius.” I pored over quotes from militia members and other extremists, and (oddly enough) while following this vein skimmed through speeches of our forefathers. Books of poems were opened, then shut in frustration. I sent email after email to my editor with potential titles, over 100 in all. “Dirty Chaos,” sounded too negative. “Invictus” was too esoteric. “The Patriot Project” generated a ripple of excitement, until it was shot down by higher-ups.

Things started to take a grim turn indeed. There was talk of postponing the book launch, which until then had been scheduled for November ’09. Which was not necessarily the worst thing in the world: when it comes to a book purchase most people are swayed by the title and the accompanying cover. So if it came down to going to market with a title we were lukewarm about, or waiting for inspiration to strike, I was all for waiting, The question was, if that happened, when would I get on the calendar? A crime fiction author wants their books to come out yearly, ideally around the same time every year. We were already going to miss that window with a November release date, but if forced to wait until 2010…

It was stressful, to say the least. I spent every spare moment poring through books on the border patrol. I started a contest through my newsletter, offering a $50 Amazon gift certificate to anyone who supplied the perfect title. (This generated a lot of responses, but although some came close to the mark, none quite hit it).

It’s not an easy thing, to find a title that resonates with me as an author. After all, I was the one whose name was going to be on the book. The one who would be referring to that title ad infinitum, mentioning it nightly on a tour. Years into the future (with any luck,) this title might even be included in my obituary (I’ll admit, I have a tendency toward morbidity. Those of you who have read my work are probably not surprised to hear that). The search became somewhat all-consuming. I’d wander through my house, chanting titles over and over to myself until the words lost all meaning. I typed them out, all caps, in enormous font sizes to get a better sense of how they’d look on a cover. I agonized.

And then I woke up one morning, after spending hours the night before clicking through an online “random word generator,” contemplating “Desert Day,” “Rock Sundae,” and (I kid you not) “Saint Cobbler.” “Bungee Jumping” was starting to sound pretty darn good in comparison. “Bungee Jumping” could be a winner.

Thinking that, I opened my trusty “Alternate titles” file, which was now pages long, and there at the top were the words “THE GATEKEEPER.”

I have no idea where that title came from, honestly I don’t. I initially thought it must have originated via the contest, and went back through all the emails I’d received in the week prior: nothing. Checked my internet history: nothing. It’s a mystery.

But I loved it. It struck a chord. Turns out there was a Clinton-era border patrol initiative called “Operation Gatekeeper,” which jibed perfectly with my storyline. Sent it to my agent to double-check that I hadn’t lost my grip on these things: he loved it. And my editor practically swooned.

Phew.

So, barring any unforeseen circumstances (and as every author knows, unforeseen circumstances are the nature of the publishing beast), THE GATEKEEPER will be released as planned next November.

Now I just have to finish the darn thing.

So I’m curious: what do you all think? Is it a winner? Or should I have gone with “Bungee Jumping” instead?

Please say you love it.

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The Name Game

By Joe Moore

Book titles are critical. It’s that first impression when a potential reader glances down at the new fiction table in the local bookstore. And even if you’ve got a great title, you hope the publisher’s art department doesn’t somehow screw it up with the cover art. I’ve seen books with good titles that were almost impossible to read from a distance. And others where the design was so busy, it gave me a headache.

When Lynn Sholes and I decided to collaborate on our first book, we used CORPUS CHRISTI for the working title during the three years it took to write. Since it was a thriller about cloning Christ, we thought using the Latin for Body of Christ was cleaver. But when we sent it off to our agent, she pointed out the error of our ways. Could be a travel guide to a city in Texas. Could be a novelization of a Broadway play running at the same time. So we changed it to THE ENOCHIAN PROPHECY, a brilliant title that no one could pronounce or spell. Our publisher wisely changed it to THE GRAIL CONSPIRACY which has stuck in all the foreign translations except German.

Book 2 had the working title of THE THIRD SECRET. Steve Berry released a thriller by the same name so our agent changed the title to THE LAST SECRET. So far, it has worked for the foreign publishers that have translated it, although we haven’t seen the German version yet.

Book 3 had a working title of INDIGO RUBY for the year it took to write. The title had a great deal of meaning for at least two people: Lynn and myself. Again, the publisher stepped in and wisely renamed it THE HADES PROJECT which is exactly what the book is about. Clever.

BLACK NEEDLES was what we called number 4 which was the name we gave the deadly retrovirus that formed the threat of the book. Cool title, but it really didn’t tell the reader anything about the story. Could be a book about a knitting club for witches. So the publisher finally settled on THE 731 LEGACY. The book involves the Japanese WWII biological warfare division called Unit 731 and how its legacy propels the story. OK, we agree that was a wise decision and makes sense.

The working title to our next one is THE PHOENIX APOSTLES. We’ll see if that makes it to print.

Sometimes it’s better to leave the titles to the marketing and sales department and just stick to writing the story.

So why are titles important? Paul McCartney’s working title of the Beatles classic “Yesterday” was “Scrambled Eggs.”

Have all your working titles made it to the cover of your book? If not, were you happy with the final version?

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