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WORDS FROM FRIENDS

PUBLISHING CONUNDRUMS

The moment when signing the contract that I see the words working title

KILLING THE BABY
or
GIVING THE BOOK A NEW TITLE



I had to kill one of my babies last week. It might have been my favorite baby of all. The baby was the title of my memoir, to be released by Terra Nova Books, Fall 2016. Writers talk about cutting favorite passages or phrases as killing our babies. A baby might be the most wonderful group of words I’ve ever written, but it just doesn’t belong where I’ve put it. My book’s title, as many of you know, was The Silver Cup. And I loved it. I thought it was intriguing and at the same time expressive. The memoir's first title was Longing for Home, which I thought was not nearly so interesting, perhaps even hackneyed. Besides, The Silver Cup had come to me as if I were a lightning rod in the path of a heavenly bolt.

When I read The Silver Cup in my publishing contract, I saw the dread parenthetical wordsbehind it—working title. But in subsequent meetings with my editor and the publisher, The Silver Cup was mentioned so often by name that I thought it was safe. I know that publishers often want to change a title. In fact, I always want to apologize for the subtitle of my Viktor Frankl book, which my editor changed. Viktor Frankl: A Time to Live became Viktor Frankl: A Life Worth Living, and I always feel I need to say, “Every life is worth living.”

Last week I got an email from my editor suggesting that we think about whether the current title (without the more explanatory subtitle) would draw as many readers as it could. Would a reader, seeing just the spine of the book on a shelf, pick it up, open it, and hopefully want to buy it? The editor supplied me with some guidelines for thinking about a title’s function and marketability. He suggested a couple of titles that were definitely more explanatory but, in my opinion, quite boring.

Curiously, as I read through Marty’s missive, I didn’t feel a clutch of anxiety, which I often do when my work comes under the knife. I thought the guidelines made sense, and I would do anything I could to get potential readers to take the book off the shelf; I'd even kill my baby. I had also had a few inklings from readers that had given me pause. It seemed that their associations with a silver cup didn’t evoke exactly what I hoped for. I was determined to treat the editorial request in a rational way, to not feel I had to defend my cub.

So I did what nerds do. I researched. Hooks and titles. All the articles said what I’d read before: there are no hard and fast rules about choosing a title. There are only suggestions. Presumed rules have been broken, resulting in both successes and failures. There’s the hypothetical rule that titles shouldn’t be more than three or four words long. But what about Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus? I mentioned to the editor that it’s been said that the title of a nonfiction book can simply intrigue, as long as the subtitle explains, which was my thinking in the case of The Silver Cup: My Journey From Loss of Faith Through Exile and Beyond. Marty kindly agreed that that is one option.

Next I did what writers do and contacted fellow writers and a couple of other readers, asking for feedback. They responded quickly to my ideas for change, choosing favorites, offering suggestions of their own, and reflecting on the function of titles. Then I faced the perpetual dilemma of how to use conflicting feedback. I made a list of six titles and subtitles I could live with and wrote the pros for each in blue, the cons in red. I asked Marty to brainstorm them with me, sent him one additional opinion, and we settled.

DRUMROLL!!!

AND THE NEW TITLE IS . . .


TO DRINK FROM THE SILVER CUP: FROM FAITH THROUGH EXILE AND BEYOND

.

I’m pleased, and the folks at Terra Nova Books are pleased because the title is a little more explanatory, and the subtitle a little shorter. It’s similar enough to the original that I won’t lose the name recognition I’ve been working so hard to build. Moreover, the title continues to reflect the importance of communion in my journey—both the sacrament and the embrace of community.

Thank you to my friends for their quick and helpful responses. Thank you to Monica Friedman, who rose up in righteous indignation to say that being asked to change my title was akin to being asked to name a seven-year-old child. And thank you to my editor, Marty Gerber, who made the process relatively painless.

I'd love to hear what you think of the new title.

© Anna Redsand 2016 All Rights Reserved
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