Monday, April 9, 2012

Big 6 versus Indie Publishing part 2: of paddles and canoes

A few days ago, INTERN got an e-mail from her editor with the kind of bad news that drives authors everywhere into unhealthy relationships with cheap vodka: the title INTERN had come up with for her novel had been, quote, "roundly" rejected by the Sales Team, who were requesting that a new one be dreamed up, stat.

Roundly rejected! huffed INTERN. They could have at least AGONIZED a little. They could have at least sent INTERN a letter explaining how this decision to veto her beloved pet title had ripped at their very SOULS.

After a day or two of mourning, INTERN felt pretty over it. After all, there are plenty of title-fish in the sea—and although INTERN was reluctant to admit it at first, the reasoning behind the veto seemed pretty sound. Over the next few days, INTERN's agent, editor, and assorted other publishing people all pitched in with ideas and suggestions, and the hunt for a new title has started to feel exciting and worth-it, not Tragic and Senseless as it did at the height of INTERN's emotions.

Interestingly, the hardest thing to deal with was not the title-rejection itself, but the reactions of (non-publishing savvy) friends and relatives:

"They can't make you change the title of your book. It's your BOOK."
"What do they know about titles? That title was perfect!"
"You should refuse to change it."

Even worse were the looks INTERN got when she delicately explained that she had signed a teensy little thing called a legally-binding contract giving her publisher final say over the title of her novel—like she was some kind of abused animal, or at best a prize nincompoop.

"So they can just tell you what to call YOUR BOOK?'
"They don't control the cover art too, do they?"
"What if they want to call it something dumb?"

All of which leads INTERN to one of the key issues in the Big 6 versus Indie Publishing debate: who gets to paddle the canoe.


The canoe-paddling discussion goes something like this on polite days:

Team Legacy: "Hang with us, and you'll have a whole team of canoe-paddling experts to guide you through the Rapids of Publishing!"

Team Indie: "Here's your oar, kid. Sink or swim!"

And like this on rude days:

Team Legacy: "Look at those poor indies paddling their cheap, junky canoes into the rocks."

Team Indie: "Look at those poor legacies trying to paddle their bloated, inefficient canoes by committee."

Of course, there's no reason the two teams can't coexist, with people who insist on absolute control paddling their canoes alone, and people who are willing to give up some control in exchange for more support enlisting the skill and know-how of a publisher. If you insist on absolute control, you need to be certain you really have as much titling/covering/marketing chops as you think you do. If you give away some of that control, you need to be certain you're working with a publisher you trust.


A few years ago, INTERN was renting a rambling old house with a bunch of other twenty-somethings. We wanted to put in a vegetable garden, and our landlady agreed to pay for the rototiller, seeds, and truckloads of compost and mulch if and we put in the manual labor.

High fives! Grabbing of trowels! Buying of beer!

Planting a garden on Landlady's dime was awesome: there were so many resources, so much mulch. But it soon became apparent that Landlady was not going to sit idly by while a bunch of eager but fantastically overconfident kids made expensive mistakes with her investment. She wanted to see a planting schedule. She wanted sketches of the proposed garden's layout. She pointed out that blueberry bushes needed to be pollinated—you couldn't just stick 'em anywhere, as INTERN and the gang had been planning to do.

Basically, she imposed rigor and a certain degree of party-pooperism to what would otherwise have been a free-for-all. Was it aggravating? Sometimes. Was it worth it? Yes. Would the garden have been better off without Landlady's funding and her interference? At the time, no—although it's certainly possible that a more experienced (and, um, responsible) group would have done just fine without it.


Is it an outrage that most publishers retain control over a book's title and cover, or is it an effective way of saving authors from their own (sometimes cheesy and non-marketing savvy) selves? Published authors, have you ever had a title rejected? Seeking-to-be-published authors, have you ever felt conflicted about the potential surrender of control a traditional book deal would entail? Is it better to have a publisher chime in on your plans to plant avocado trees in Maine, or would you rather attempt it anyway, thank-you-very-much?

INTERN wants to know!


  1. At this point in my career, I feel like it'd be most beneficial to me to let an experienced book marketing team do their thing. I mean, I personally am not clueless about marketing -- I work in marketing -- but my marketing experience isn't in selling books. Yet.

    I totally worry that I might get some title or cover I dislike or feel doesn't represent the spirit of the book. At the same time, I know that the goal is less to have the most perfectly representative cover ever and more to get people to pick up and hopefully buy the book. Those are two very different goals. And hopefully at some point I can reach a happy medium where I can have a title I'm 100% in love with because my name will be the thing selling the book. *I can dream*

  2. One HUGE factor in the naming of a novel is knowing what the competitive titles are, even those that haven't hit shelves yet. While a self-pubbed author may love their title, they don't have the inside info to know that 80% of the titles for Paranormal in a given season had "dark" or "Light" in them, which means that a title with one or both of those words will have a harder time standing out / gaining name recognition that one that doesn't.

    Information like that is a huge plus to having a marketing department handle the heavy lifting on a novel, IMO.

    1. Extremely good point, Josin! Over the course of INTERN's own title tribulations, she's been fascinated to find out some of this inside information...titles that sound too much like other titles, certain words publishers like to avoid, different considerations for YA titles versus adult, etc. Perhaps material for another blog post...

    2. Comics are sometimes strategically named to be placed right next to similar, more famous titles in the comic book stores. Since floppy comics are alphabetical by title, naming your series WILD C.A.T.S. will get it put right next to X-MEN on the shelf -- and, bam, you get the same audience picking it up, especially if the new comic is basically a generic rip-off of the comic it sits next to.

      Coming up with a title that's good marketing is very savvy. It can also be very crass. Lately, the titles I'm seeing on bookshelves in my category (Young Adult Fiction) are feeling more and more like the latter.

  3. LOL, I am going through this right now. Yes, my family and even my unpublished writer friends are like "fight the good fight! save your title! you can do it!" Meanwhile I'm like uh, yeah, I'm kinda frustrated but it happens, I'll get over it. MEANWHILE my published writer friends are like "And!? We've had to change ALL of our titles, all 47 of them!" while muttering "amateur". So yeah.

    1. EXACTLY! it's so hard to talk down these well-meaning friends who want you to you to tell your publisher where to shove it. it's like..."I don't want my publisher to shove it anywhere! I just want a good title!"

      It's nice to know that getting your title axed is pretty normal...sometimes, INTERN longs to be this genius who gets everything right on the first try, and having someone say "no" has been a good lesson in growing a thicker skin, and learning that what matters is getting it right eventually, not getting it right instantly.

  4. I appreciate how you don't try to turn this into a debate over who is right/better. As you said there's no reason we can't all paddle our canoes of whatever size.

    Personally, I look forward to getting help with my title. Titles just aren't my thing. On the other hand, as someone with design experience, I'm a little nervous about the cover. But that's a bridge I will happily (I say now, ha ha) cross when I get to it.

    But again, as you say, it depends on each writer, their strengths and weaknesses, and their preferences.

    I hope you end up with a rockin' title -- and cover, for that matter!

  5. I can understand why she wanted to make sure that you and your friends treated her land properly, but I think she shouldn't have tried to control every aspect of the gardening, especially since she probably would have had to pay professional gardeners a lot more to plant vegetables.
    On the other hand, I wouldn't mind if the publisher or someone else suggested a title for my book, because I don't like the ones I've come up with so far.

  6. I'll check in as an indie author. There are certainly decisions I'm glad I got to make, like the title and cover art. Given the results I've gotten so far, I think I made good choices.


    I had to spend hours looking for the right picture, finding and hiring graphic designers, proofreaders, and editors, and making final decisions on the cover and interior layout. Those are hours I could have been writing, if I hadn't chosen to self-publish.

    More to the point, they are hours not everyone will give to the project. The writers who resemble Intern and her gardening friends won't necessarily dig into the research necessary to self-publish a marketable book. Those authors, and the ones strapped for time, have the most to gain from the traditional publishing model.

  7. My first book is due out in a few weeks. It was originally titled "Elemental." (It's about four brothers who control the elements.) My editor loved it, but when it sold as part of a three book deal, we were having a hard time coming up with follow up titles for the sequels. She suggested changing the title to "Storm," and finding other titles for the following books. I disagreed. I loved "Elemental," and I loved my proposed title for book two, "Incendiary," (about the brother who controlled fire).

    The sales team did not share my love for these titles. I listened to all the reasoning, and I agreed.

    We went back to "Storm," which works well with "Spark" and "Spirit." Like you said, I was kinda sad for two days. But then I realized they were right. I love the flow of Storm, Spark, and Spirit. Sometimes I'll even say it reallyreally fast, like Stormsparkandspirit, and it rolls off the tongue a lot better than Elemental Incendiary Whatever.

    And you're also right about family and friends: I think they unknowingly make some of this writing stuff harder than it needs to be. :-P

    1. Ooh, INTERN never thought about the added challenge of coming up with titles that would fit together well in a series! That's taking things to Level 2. Congrats on your upcoming pub date!

  8. Oh, and I, too, liked your title. SIGH. But, I'm still team Big 6. I see the benefits of both, I do, but I think, in certain cases, they know best. They know what sells. And selling is important, right? RIGHT?

  9. Sounds a bit like relating a marital tiff to some-certain singleton friends of mine.

    "He said THAT? You don't have to sit there and take that!"
    "You need to march right back in there and set him straight - no apologizing."
    "Who does he think he is?!"

    And I'm loving their love, natch, but it's like... c'mon, y'all, it's a crossed pair of wires, not grounds for divorce.

    Anyway, grats you for getting it sorted so quickly - and without anybody having to sleep on the couch!

  10. I would love to be able to hand over control of my title and cover and other marketing decisions to a publisher. LOVE. I have no problem with it at all.

    And I know what you mean about well-meaning family and friends actually making things a little harder than they need to be. But their hearts are in the right place.

  11. My first book's title was fine with everybody. BUT... the design team didn't like that my name came with a "Jr." attached. (My dad wasn't anyone famous, and in a way that's why I liked using the suffix (or whatever it's called), especially since he'd died just a few years before.)

    No, they had a problem because my name, with the "Jr.," was then too long. It would require smooshing the letters together. Or, alternatively, it would require padding the title out with empty space fore and aft. And it was just generally unwieldy. It loaded extra syllables into the mouths of anyone who might need to say the name.

    So, the "Jr." went. As in your case, everyone else was horrified, and I got over it.

  12. All my titles are negotiable. We're not married. But it doesn't mean I'm callus or past touchiness.
    Not only the big-six, but most publishers retain control over titles and cover. It’s just that some smaller publishing houses ASK FOR YOUR INPUT. It sure makes it easier to handle whatever they ultimately decide to do.
    Chin up. Intern knows they'll come up with a good title. With 90% of the proceeds, they want the book to sell at least as much as Intern does.

  13. As an up and coming (read: unpublished) author, I would LOVE to have complete and total control over my work. Title, cover and all. However, I'm also the type of guy who likes to have people tell me how things should be done as I am Not Good at peroogling things and finding things out myself. So as much as I would grumble, I would probably agree with the Legacy guys and girls about titles/covers etc.

    - Kid

  14. When someone is paying you to write, you necessarily lose control of part of the process. As a former journalist, I surrendered that part of my ego a while ago. My job is to write; I have no idea (nor do I particularly care) about the rest of it. I'd much rather trust a team of experts to navigate thru the maze than have to figure it out alone.

  15. I've had 2 titles rejected, and had to fight for one (though I won). In my opinion, everything in book publishing is by committee. Sometimes I'm on the committee, sometimes I'm not. I have to trust they're making good decisions (even when I believe otherwise). They've got the marketing armies, and if B&N or Amazon wants something different (and I've seen titles changed as a result of their pressure), I have to bow to that, because I want to make $ as much as I want artistic control. I'd rather have parts of the book world be out of my control than have a book that doesn't sell because the title isn't hooky enough (or whatever).

  16. I'll also chime in as a self-published writer.

    When I was represented by two different agents a few years before deciding to go it alone, I was disconcerted by a couple things: one agent absolutely adored my my title, which is not the title I ended up using; the other automatically considered it a working title and attached no importance to it as far as I could tell. The first agent also wanted me to write a significant epilogue that may have ruined my chance at writing book two, something more than half my eventual readers have asked for when they've contacted me.

    Although I'm not a control freak by any means, I was terrified that eventually I'd end up with some silly chic lit title and a pair of high heels on the cover despite my serious writing background. I eventually severed my relationship with my agents due to some complicated circumstances.

    I have to say that I'm pretty sure that the book I published a year ago is the book I was meant to write, inside and out. It's been hard, no doubt about it. Deciding to self-publish a memoir, as opposed to genre fiction, meant I had a lot of hurdles just to have people open the book and read.

    The things I really regret about not having a major publishing house behind me are a publicity department, since I've paid my own publicist, and some type of advance rather than neurotically having to watch my Amazon numbers on a monthly basis. But I've also loved the way that my book has achieved a level of success without that backing and without the big advertising budget on its own merit.

  17. I know you already know this (wish I could have used italics back there) but Twilight was originally called Forks by Stephanie Meyer. *

    Might it have been a bestseller titled Forks? Maybe, who knows. But it took a trained eye/ear/professional/marketer, whatever, to foresee that tweens and teens would be drawn to a book w/ a more wistful title, like Twilight, instead of Forks. And I for one think it was a good call. --> Forks? Eh.

    *Stephanie Meyer still waxes on how she liked her title better.

  18. I know you already know this (wish I could have used italics back there) but Twilight was originally called Forks by Stephanie Meyer. *

    Might it have been a bestseller titled Forks? Maybe, who knows. But it took a trained eye/ear/professional/marketer, whatever, to foresee that tweens and teens would be drawn to a book w/ a more wistful title, like Twilight, instead of Forks. And I for one think it was a good call. --> Forks? Eh.

    *Stephanie Meyer still waxes on how she liked her title better.

  19. LOL!
    A few years ago I had the opposite experience. Everyone loved the title--including the long list of imprints which rejected the book. "Sorry we don't have better news... Not a good fit at this time... but, hey, AWESOME title!"

  20. (Could you add Twitter to the login options? I've seen it elsewhere that way. The current list of options is pretty limiting.)

    Sometimes you want to plant a garden no one knows how to plant, full of alien fauna from another planet. In those cases, plant experts may be able to give broad advice, but they can't always help with the specifics.

    Sometimes you want to plant this alien garden with the help of the plant experts, even when you know it'll be as much a learning experience for them as for you, but the plant experts aren't looking for alien plants -- they send that message loud and clear with the list of expectations they hand anyone who submits a gardening plan to them. It's a checklist, and the type of garden, size of garden, and the hypothetical value of the garden are all given in precise detail. No mention of alien plants. Not even any blank space on the checklist for "things we haven't thought of or that might be innovative." And at the bottom of the checklist, there's a warning that if you submit a plan for a garden that doesn't fit the checklist, they'll throw it out because all you're doing is wasting their time.

    In those cases, the would-be gardener doesn't get to choose between self-gardening and expert-guided gardening, because the experts don't want what they're offering, period. The would-be gardener does what they have to do alone, or on rare occasions with a network of other gardeners whose plans don't fit the checklist, not because their design for a garden is flawed or like one of a million other plans that have already been accepted, but because the experts don't want to take the risk of innovating. Alien plants scare them. The experts want to stick to what they already know.

    It's one thing to get rejected because your garden is a mess; it's another thing entirely to get rejected because no one wants the kind of garden you're growing.

    The road less traveled is, more often than not, the road traveled alone -- and not always by choice.

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