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The Worth of a Title

Lately, I’ve been mulling what I should title one of the books on which I’ve been working. Now that the manuscript is finished and ready to be marketed to potential publishers, my search for an appropriate title has become intense.

The title an author assigns to an article or a book can make it or break it. That’s true first with the acquisitions editor or committee, the person or persons at the publishing house with the power to accept or reject a submission on which the author has labored for incalculable hours, weeks, months, or even years. But it’s no less true with the readers in the marketplace if the manuscript is accepted and published. So it behooves us writers to consider carefully what we name our creations. The value of one’s creation is, rightly or wrongly, the worth of its title. Its perceived worth is wrapped up in those few words that announce the article or grace the cover.

If the editor agrees to publish the article or book, he or she might choose to retain the author’s original title. But sometimes the original title gets changed along its circuitous and lengthy path to final publication. That can be either good or bad.

Take, as examples, the following changes that some wise editors made to manuscript titles that are now famous books:

  1. First Impressions became Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austin).

  2. Something That Happened was changed to Of Mice and Men (John Steinbeck).

  3. The Last Man in Europe was retitled 1984 (George Orwell).

  4. Fiesta morphed into The Sun Also Rises (Ernest Hemingway).

  5. Atticus was renamed To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee).

  6. Mistress Mary became The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett).

  7. Tomorrow Is Another Day was retitled Gone with the Wind (Margaret Mitchell).

Many writers have not been so fortunate as to have such wise editors, and their titles were changed to something no one remembers because their creations, through no fault of their own, failed the market test.

In my own years of writing for publication, I’ve had good titles and bad titles retained, original titles changed to better titles, and original titles changed to much worse titles. Following are a few examples of titles that were changed. I’ll let you, the readers, decide if the changes were good, bad, or just plain ugly. (I have my own strictly unbiased opinions!)

I’ll start with my first book, published by a traditional publisher, so I had little say in what the final title would be. Originally, I titled it with a main title and a secondary title, which is a common practice for nonfiction books: Governing the Confederacy: Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries. The gods in the publishing house, however, ditched the main title and retained only the subtitle as the sole title.

Then the articles. I’ve given the original titles first, followed by the editors’ revised titles in parentheses. Again, you be the judge.

  1. “The Slanted Window” (“Through the Slanted Window”)

  2. “A Peach of a Product from the Palmetto State” (“Do I Dare to Eat a Peach?”)

  3. “Waiting on Grandparents on Christmas Eve” (“Christmas Eve Reunion”)

  4. “Write Your Own Life Story” (“The Beloved Country”)

  5. “The Lost Art of Porch Sitting” (“Think, Pray, Listen”)

  6. “The Enduring Legacy of Noah Webster” (“A Man of Many Words”)

  7. “All Aboard the Dollywood Express” (“Hooray for Dollywood”)

Some of my published articles were reprinted several times after their original publication. In many instances, their original titles were changed every time they were republished. (Titles, by the way, are not copyrighted.)

  1. “The Day I Met Royalty” (reprinted as “The Prince’s Visit”)

  2. “The Lost Art of Worship” (reprinted as “The Importance of Worship” and “Is Worship a Lost Art?”)

  3. “The Ready Writer” (reprinted as “Producing the Ready Writer”)

So my search for the perfect title for the just-completed manuscript continues. It’s as important a task as the search for the right publisher. At this moment, I have amassed sixteen possible titles during my brainstorming sessions, with multiple variations for several of those options. I’d much rather be researching or writing, but I’m engaged in a critical, if less inspiring, part of the writing profession. Where, oh where, is the Muse when you need her?

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