As I am getting set to start writing my book on the Afterlife (the plan is to begin the first week of August), I am mulling over possible titles. And just as I have been in the midst of my muddling, I have received this question.
Dr, Ehrman, can you explain a little how you go about choosing a title for your trade books ? Is it a collaborative effort between you and your agent or publisher? Can it be a difficult process where the title can change as the book progresses . And if so,, can you give just a couple examples when you had decided on a title (could you name the original title ) and changed the title to the book that finally appeared at our local book store ?
I’ve dealt with this issue on the blog before. Here is what I said about it four years ago, soon after publishing How Jesus Became God.
In my previous post I discussed the strategies behind giving a title to a scholarly book. When it comes to trade books, written for popular audiences, it is a different ballgame altogether. Whereas scholarly books are meant to sound erudite and learned, or if they are meant to be “clever” then only clever to those on the academic inside who catch the allusions, trade books are meant to be witty and intriguing for a general reader, and a sign that the book will be really interesting and about something that the reader wants to learn more about. In the best cases, the reader – a non-scholar – should read the title and think, “Huh, I’d like to know about that!” or “Huh, I wonder that that’s about.” The trick is to be able to grab a reader’s attention without being overly sensationalized, and that’s a very fine line indeed.
It’s hard to know whether a title will accomplish its task or not. I thought my last book “How Jesus Became God” would be a real grabber. But I’m not sure it was. The best titles for my books have always come – unlike that one – not from me but from my publisher. My two favorites, I think, are Lost Christianities: The Battles For Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (published with Oxford as one of my first trade books; an editor came up with the title) (it actually was an editor with a different press who proposed the idea of the book to me and gave it a title, before I decided to publish it instead with Oxford) and Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (my first book with Harper, since Oxford at the time wasn’t sure they wanted it) (big mistake). There’s a funny story about that title, that I’ll tell at the end of this post.
Trade publishers such as HarperOne, the branch of Harper Collins that publishes books in religion (they used to be called Harper San Francisco, which was descriptive enough, but not very appealing), specialize in all things having to do with trade books, and so they are real experts.
What typically happens is the editor thinks up a bunch of titles and bounces them off his editor friends and colleagues and bosses until they settle on something. Then they ask the author. The author objects. (I’ve objected to every title so far!) The editor talks the author into it. The editor then takes it to the marketing department, who weighs in. If they like it, it’s a go; if not, it’s back to the drawing board.
You may have noticed that sometimes on Amazon a title is announced, but when the book gets published, it has a different title. That’s because a change has been made (possibly because of a marketing department, or because of cold feet, or because of a better idea, or whatever) after information about the publication was released before the title was set in stone.
One other thing about titles is that if a book is published overseas the overseas branch of the publisher may change the title. That happened with Misquoting Jesus, which in England was released as Whose Word Is It? That’s a truly awful title, in my opinion, and I didn’t even know that they were going to use it until I got a box of ten British editions of the book with a different cover. The book didn’t do at all well in England. But then again, most books on religion don’t, unless they are harshly atheistic or very conservative evangelical, since most people are not church goers any more, and most that are seem to lean toward a conservative understanding of things. (Or so it seems to me.)
Anyway, the title Misquoting Jesus. I came up with a number of titles (I always suggest things to the editors so they can realize more fully why authors should not be allowed to give books their own titles), none of them any good, like: The Changing Face of Scripture: A Search for the Original Text. Not exactly a heart-stopper. The editors debated back and forth, and with me, for a long time what it would be called. The title first released to Amazon, if I remember correctly, was The Monk and the Messiah, which I rather liked. But the title I especially wanted was one my editor came up with, that I was really enthused about. Since the book was about how the text of the New Testament had come to be altered over the centuries as it was transmitted by scribes copying it, he thought (at one point), that we should call it Lost In Transmission.
I thought this was terrific, and pushed for it till the end. I didn’t like Misquoting Jesus because the book is not really about how the words of Jesus came to be misquoted, except insofar as scribes changed their texts of the New Testament (but not just Jesus’ words – and not just the Gospels), and I thought people would roundly object and even make fun of the title. Boy was I wrong about that. I’ve had scores of people tell me that they think it’s a terrific title. So once again, chalk one up to the editors, and another well-deserved loss for me.
Anyway, as I was saying, I kept pushing for Lost in Transmission. The reason the editors finally decided against it was that they thought that if someone were browsing the bookshelves in Barnes & Noble, and saw that title, they would assume that it was a book about Nascar.
I pointed out to them that that would almost certainly improve the sales.
But I lost the debate and am glad I did. When the book made the bestseller list, my editor sent me a special leather bound copy, embossed with the title Lost in Transmission. So in a sense, I got my title…..