Title Wars: The Battle Between Publisher and Author Over a Title

How do authors settle on a title? Surely, it is not as difficult as facing the dreaded blank page. You have already made past the desert and have found the oasis. The manuscript, like a pimple, is ready for a home. Rather it already knows where it wants to go. If only one can decide upon a title.

I am no genius, unlike some authors, whose advice is to have a title first and then write the story. To me that sounds more like opening the parachute even before jumping off the plane. Why should I vote without knowing the candidates contesting in the elections? I need my story first.

So I have the story. Now what? Then my job is to identify the core theme of the story. Let’s say the story is about a spinster. The recurring theme could be her marriage. Now I try and figure out what is it that is holding it all together? Is it one special moment? Something that the protagonist says or feels or experiences? Or should I use a metaphoric title that represents the story in the best manner? And so on.

It certainly is not nuclear research, this title settling business. Mostly, it will be apparent, like indigestion. But with some pieces you will have to work a bit more to get there and occasionally, a short story or a novel will make you work the hardest that you ever have. Presently, I’m going through one of those “occasions”.

My second book is almost ready for release. It has already gone through several acid tests and from an original eighty-five thousand epic masterpiece, has sat on the gas long enough to boil down to a much muscular sixty-thousand words.But  the hardest part for me hasn’t been writing the book, for two reasons – one, I wrote this much quicker than I wrote my first. For the obvious reason that the former was a short story collection, while this is a novel. And secondly, the story almost wrote itself. The hardest part, in fact, has been deciding on a bloody title.

Why has it been so hard to decide on a title for this book? I have no clue. I know the story. I understand the characters. I bloody well wrote it. Just when I’d think, Ah, this is an appropriate title, my publisher gets back saying, I’m sorry. I don’t think this works. Look at this, instead. She and I have been going back and forth over this. She has been rejecting the ones I have been sending her and I have been discarding hers.

The other day she emailed me another suggestion for a title and seemed excited about it. She said the title was suitable because it highlighted the love interest of the protagonist and showed her importance in his life. Also, she said, the title was different and new. Though initially I was drawn to it, I didn’t act on that impulse straight away. I slept on it for two days. I asked around, checked with my friends and got a mixed response. One said it was interesting, the other said it was a run-of-the-mill title. I said the publisher thinks it was the most unconventional title ever, to which the friend said, As a reader I won’t be much intrigued. Someone said, Eeeks. And though they had no idea about what the book was about (partly because I haven’t revealed much), they vehemently commented on the choice of title.

The title is vital. It is the first thing that a reader lays his eyes on. Gives him a glimpse, if you will, a gist of the novel in one to four words. He will then look over the cover design. Then he will flip to the back page of the book, read the synopsis and if he likes that, he will arrive at the first page, but will carry on further only if you hold his interest in those first few lines. And so, the title attains a great importance.

The more I thought about her suggestion, the more I felt it was not for me, not for my book.  Two days later I told her I wasn’t comfortable with her title choice, and with that, I sent her another list of probable titles. In reply, she sent me a long e-mail explaining in great detail why she thought her title was better than all the ones I sent her. She even took the trouble to break the title in parts and explain the relevance of each part. She said, Trust me. People will pick up your book. She said, I only have your best interests at heart.

In a way, it is quite heartening that she is taking such an interest in the project and not treating it like an oh-no-not-another-one. So much so that it almost feels like we are competing with each other and trying to vilify the other’s choice of titles. Why should she get to decide? As a publisher she has a say but shooting down all my ideas! Not cool.

I never expected so much discussion with her over this. I was gearing up for a grand battle when her edits had come in. But they were fine in a very anti-climax sort of way. They were aimed at enhancing the story. I didn’t have much to protest about. In fact it was her edits that transformed a Betty into a Beckett (From Castle, for the uninitiated).

So now I am gawking at this title and don’t know what to do. It seems okay but doesn’t seem okay. It looks like it is going down the chick-lit road, and that’s my biggest apprehension. I’m thinking of agreeing and also trying to come up with a few more titles of my own at the same time. But I am blank and freaking out. She said I had to reply ASAP as she was going to print a catalogue soon with all the forthcoming titles.

“Priya and Other Do-Withoutables” (Publisher’s idea). Go or No Go?

FYI, Priya is the love interest of the protagonist and though he feels she can be done without, it really isn’t so. So sort of an underhanded humour in the title.

Going with the title, Just Another Do-Withoutable


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