There have been some comments on the blog lately, and I thought I'd respond to some for all to see.
This was in reaction to a recent entry, in which I expressed frustration with punning titles:
I thought I read somewhere that authors, especially new ones, have very little say in the title of their book. The marketing department of the publisher makes this decision. If so, is it not unfair for you, or anyone, to prejudge an author's work when the title was determined, not by the author, but by someone who probably didn't even read the book?
I rarely lament titles in my reviews, but I did so in the case of Gillian Roberts. She's one of the best in the business, but for some reason, and hopefully it was not her decision but her publisher's, the titles of her Amanda Pepper series got to be "punnish" in the late 1990s. In my opinion it cheapened the whole series.
As a publisher yourself, I would be interested to know, who decides the titles of the books you publish? The author or someone with the company?
There are a few questions here, so let me take them individually.
In terms of prejudging books, it is true (at least for me) that a punning title on a published book does create a certain set of low expectations. That said, I do recognize the value in puns as a marketing technique in terms of establishing a theme for a series. In many ways, it is the same technique as using numbers (think Janet Evanovich), colors (John D. Macdonald, Walter Mosley), nursery rhymes (James Patterson) or the same word (J.D. Robb) in each title of the series.
However, as an editor, I receive manuscripts before they have been published; and you are right, the title is by no means set in stone at that point. Good titles are really hard to come by, especially when you are thinking in terms of a series. But I believe that titles do convey quite a bit to the marketplace, and I know what I think a punning title conveys: on the positive side, a very light read; on the negative side, forced humor and complete forgettability. Now this may or may not be the case for the book itself. But if I'm judging a book by its cover (and I sometimes do), then the title is a very important part of that equation.
It's true that at the larger houses, authors (especially newer ones) don't have much control over their titles. That said, it isn't true (in many or even most cases) that big, bad editors and publicists shove titles and plot changes down the throats of unwilling writers. Don't forget, we have to work with these writers for years (in some cases), and our goal is a good, positive, productive relationship. Thus titles often are created as a result of brainstorming sessions in which the author and agent take part.
This leads to one of my problems with series books (about which I have blogged before). Once you commit to a theme for titles (see numbers, colors, nursery rhymes above), the tail can begin to wag the dog. You come up with your title first, then fit your plot to it. I do love a great title, and as vehicles for establishing a series, consistency in titles is highly effective. (An exception I make here is the J.D. Robb series, which includes "Death" in the titles. I have nothing but respect for Nora Roberts, but the titles are so similar it makes me crazy.) The problem is that ultimately readers come to see the books as all the same. But this may not be a bad thing, especially if a writer can establish him/herself as comfort food.
The key thing to keep in mind is that all series books seek to brand themselves. The author becomes a brand; the protagonist becomes a brand (which is why you see "A Mary Smith Mystery" on so many covers), and the common word/theme in the title become a brand. Branding is essential to success in a world in which sensory overload is the norm. So, my practical side likes a good branding; my more aspirational side wishes we didn't have to resort to corniness/hokiness quite so often.
Keep in mind, too, that authors who want to keep writing and earning royalties have a vested interest in continuing to sell books. I've found that very few authors who hit the big time turn up their nose at marketing or publicity techniques designed to sell books. I don't know anything about the Gillian Roberts line, but I would be very surprised if she were not part of the decision to go punning with the titles.
All of this said, keep in mind that I am just one editor in a sea of editorial perspectives. The key takeaway point is that my personal reaction to a punning title is a cringe, even though I understand that the author may consciously be trying to be commercial or mass-market (which is far from a bad thing). But a really clever title is much more than a bad pun; and I really can't think of any classic mysteries that use puns for their titles. Conversely, I seriously doubt that any book with a pun as its title is destined for study in university literature classes.
Here is a comment, in response to my entry regarding the difficulty some writers encounter in revising their manuscripts based on editorial feedback:
Trying to help some aspiring authors see, let alone deal with, the room for improvement in their work can sometimes feel like suicide prevention duty. But I also think your advice should come with the proviso that not every editor suggesting major changes in a manuscript will be doing so for anything other than commercial considerations. Which doesn't mean their suggestions should be dismissed out of hand, mind you. It just means the author should proceed with caution if he feels the recommended changes could have a detrimental effect on the integrity of the book he's attempting to write.
The wisdom of this statement cannot be argued with. However, I would make one addition to it: If your goal is to write a book into which you, and only you, will have input -- one that will land on an editor's desk and be published exactly as is -- you have two choices: Send to a university press with zero profit motive and hope it appeals to an editor there, or consign yourself to a life of frustration.
Publishers are in business to earn a profit. Our employees have to be paid and our children have to be sent to college; and I apologize for none of this. Neither of these goals is accomplished by publishing books that nobody wants to buy. By submitting your work to 99% of publishers, you are tacitly agreeing to the financial reality of publishing fiction in a massively, hugely, unspeakably competitive world -- one in which already successful or wealthy people decide to become novelists, get contracts, and then spend their entire lives writing and marketing their work. (James Patterson is a good example, and I feel comfortable mentioning his name here, because the facts of his career are so well known; but there are some other soon-to-be-bestselling mystery novelists who are following a similar path. This is not a criticism of them or their techniques--I love working with such people).
So, if you have gotten to a point where you have the attention of an editor (perhaps 3% of fiction writers get there) who gives you feedback that you decide to reject, then you deserve to remain unpublished. And you have done all of us a favor, at least in terms of the financial side of the business. While we editors like to believe we know everything, we certainly don't, but we know a heck of a lot more than 99% of writers, which is why we have the jobs we have.
I don't mean this to sound hostile, as the writer of the comment makes the very valid point that a writer has to feel a sense of integrity about his or her manuscript. I respect that, but at the same time that respect does not mean that I am under any obligation to commit my time or my company's resources to that book.