Friday, August 28, 2009

Title Tales

By John Gilstrap

My next book—the second installment of the Jonathan Grave thriller series, to be published next July—finally has a title: Hostage Zero. It’s got heft, I think. It sounds intriguing. And it provides lots of opportunities for the art director to design a terrific cover. At the end of the day, that’s what a title is all about, right?

Good title + great artwork = interested consumer.

For me, a title and a cover have done their job when they compel a potential customer to pick up the book and crack the spine. After that, the prose of the book takes over as sales agent. A book is a consumer product, after all, and packaging matters.

I just wish that the journey to nail down a title was less arduous. I’m coming to grips with the fact that I’m just not very good with titles. They rarely stick. Here’s my publishing history to date (my original titles are in parentheses):

Nathan’s Run (Nathan!)
At All Costs (Most Wanted)
Even Steven (Even Steven)
Scott Free (Scott Free)
Six Minutes to Freedom (Six Minutes to Freedom)
No Mercy (Grave Secrets)

I know it looks like a three-three split, but no one in the entire publishing pantheon liked Six Minutes to Freedom as a title, but it stuck because no one could think of anything else.

A week or so ago, I floated a title trial balloon via Twitter and Facebook to see what people thought of Hard Target as a title for the new book. The response was swift and overwhelmingly negative. Who knew that a bad Jean-Claude Van Damme movie could sully a two-word phrase forever? And who knew how many people are titillated by the word “hard.” I mean really, people. . .

Over the weekend, I got what I thought was a great inspiration for a title, and I floated it to my colleagues here on The Killzone: The Cost of Betrayal. The response was supportive (although not particularly enthusiastic), but it was received warmly enough for me to proffer it to my publisher. The return email read, “er . . . keep thinking.” It was too specific, I was told. We need to think more “atmospheric.”

I have no idea what an atmospheric title is, but on Monday, I floated the possibility of either Mortal Wounds, Mortally Wounded or Precious Cargo. Yeah, I know they all suck, but I wanted a damn title. I’m tired of calling a year-long project Grave 2.

Then I got this email from my editor: “Here’s a title I like a lot: Exit Strategy. This won a ‘great’ from [our sales manager].” I liked it. Done deal, right? I mean, if the author, the editor and the sales manager like a title, what could go wrong?

The publisher hated it. Yep, even used the H-word. I don’t know why she reacted so negatively, but she’s really good at what she does, so I concede to her tastes.

Finally, someone came up with Hostage Zero. It feels right and it tastes right. I have a title!

So what about you folks? How much do you stew over your titles? Do your working titles typically last through to publication, or do they change? As avid readers, do titles matter beyond that first impulse to look at a book? Are titles more than just marketing devices?


  1. I love the title, but I have to admit it made me think of a recent Zombie book one of my Creative Writing students was reading last year, Patient Zero. But he really dug that book, and I think both titles are pretty grabby, so you're in good shape.

    (Then again, I think Exit Strategy would've been pretty cool too, so what do I know?)

  2. I like the title, but I like Exit Strategy, too. The book I'm querying now is on its third title, and probably not its last--especially if it ever makes it to the publishing stage.

    My WIP is just called the "Irma Jean book" because I haven't come up with anything better yet.

  3. I think Nathan! is a great title for the Broadway musical of Nathan's Run.

  4. Titles are important to readers because they signal the type of book, almost as much as the cover art does.

    Think about it: The difference between The DaVinci Code and The Cinderella Pact. You can so see where the author is going here.

  5. I like Hostage Zero. Got the word Hostage and the letter Z (for some reason, "Z" is just a cool letter to me). You know it's going to be a tense thriller.

    My original title for Diamonds For The Dead was Hidden Facets. The name the publisher picked is much more eye-catching (and hopefully, reader-catching), although Hidden Facets makes a lot of sense after you read the book.

  6. 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 that it could be mistaken for a travel guide to a city in Texas or 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.

    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 and it stuck with the publisher.

    Book 3 had a working title of INDIGO RUBY. 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 it's about. Clever.

    BLACK NEEDLES was what we called number 4 which was the name we gave the deadly retrovirus that formed the central 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 present-day story. OK, we agree that was a wise decision and made sense.

    The working title of our just completed new thriller is THE PHOENIX APOSTLES. We'll see if that makes it to print.

  7. I love Hostage Zero, John! It sounds very active and has a strong sense of threat. One immediately think, who is the hostage? Why is he/she hostage zero, as in Ground Zero, or something else important? It makes you want to open the book to find out. Well done!
    I came up with the titles for all my books--Dying to be Thin, A Killer Workout, and Makeovers Can be Murder. Coming up with title #2 and 3, however, felt like murder. I considered and rejected about 100 titles for each one.

  8. I like Hostage Zero. It's informative, different, short...

  9. Hostage Zero doesn't ring with a certain coolness...the whole letter Z thing ...

    Reading this makes me wonder if I should start thinking up alternatives already for my own to hand something to the publisher they reject my current titles.

    65 Below - terrorists in Alaska winter
    Faithful Warrior - Marine turned pastor turns man-hunter
    Cold Summer - co-sequel to above two

    From what you say it looks like there is no hard rule on what is or isn't accepted out there. So I guess its a 50/50, eh?

  10. I have the same issue, John- either I know the title before the book is written (Boneyard) or I go through over a hundred of them, becoming increasingly frustrated until I finally resort to a random word choice program (Coffee Flowers, anyone?)
    Miserable. With "The Gatekeeper" (aka Tiger Game, along with about a dozen other working titles), we almost delayed publication because no one could agree on a title.

    I love Hostage Zero. I would definitely buy a book with that title.