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How a Book Gets Its Title

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…..


Finishing my Work on the Afterlife
What I Saw at St. Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai



  1. Avatar
    godspell  July 22, 2018

    I see this all the time at the library I work at. Digital records have to be corrected, because the publisher changed the title just before the book went to press. The subtitle on the cover often differs from the subtitle on the title page, because (I assume) they had to get the covers made up in advance, and didn’t want to spend the money to get new ones made.

    It’s much more of a problem with scholarly works than mass market stuff. But many a successful author of fiction has had titles foisted upon him/her by editors. And authors themselves often vacillate over titles. Tolstoy published what we now call “War and Peace” in serial form, and called the first installment “The Year 1805.” He toyed with the idea of calling the entire book “All’s Well That Ends Well.”

    Well, it’s not like Shakespeare could sue. (And titles aren’t protected by copyright.)

  2. Avatar
    mtelus  July 22, 2018

    Does your book discuss near death experiences?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 23, 2018

      I had planned on doing that, but decided against it. What I *will* discuss are *ancient* NDE’s!

      • Avatar
        Pattylt  July 23, 2018

        Could you possibly rethink this? I hear an awful lot of religious people use NDE as proof of their beliefs (yet ignore competing religions identical claims…except for the God involved). I think it would be a worthwhile endeavor, even if just a few paragraphs debunking it. Probably too late, huh?

        • Bart
          Bart  July 24, 2018

          I’ve thought long and hard about it, but I’ve decided to stick to my point, which involves where the ideas of heaven and hell come from

        • Avatar
          mtelus  July 25, 2018

          PattylT, when you say competing religious identical claims, can you name some?

          Here are some that come to mind, some religious, some metaphysical.

          1. Reincarnation in Hindiuism is very close to NDE as far as God sends souls back to earth. There are accounts from those who had NDE that says God would send souls back to Earth in a new incarnation or souls would chose to go back to Earth.

          2. The Egyptians also talked about NDE and I feel it played a big part in their idea of the after life with all their ceremony for the dead.

          3. There are Christians who are unaware of NDE, so it doesn’t drive their faith. And those who are aware of NDE probably only acknowledge the aspects that support the Bible and ignore aspects which are heretical. I think miracles and exorcism are probably more impactful for many Christians and they would not give NDE any special distinction beyond that.

          4. There are scientific reports that psychedelics like LSD and Ayahuasca can produce a similar transcendental experience to that of a NDE. There are other reports that Shamans, Voodoo priest, and Buddhist monks can have a transcendental experience similar to a NDE where they can have an Out of Body experience or Astral Project.

      • Avatar
        ShonaG  October 31, 2019

        Isn’t it completely out of your field and a bit pointless? The afterlife whether it exists or not is unknown and unknowable not like you can have a historically accurate afterlife – you can historically accurate beliefs about afterlife, you get them in mythology and other holy works. Tolstoy has already covered the Kingdom of Heaven being on Earth.

        • Bart
          Bart  November 1, 2019

          I”ve actually done a lot of research on NDE’s as it turns out…. But I agree, the afterlife is unknowable. But some people claim it *is* knowable. And those are interesting claims with interesting “proofs” that have to be evaluated.

  3. Avatar
    BrianUlrich  July 22, 2018

    I noticed that in some Bible translations, the past perfect tense is used in Genesis 2 to refer to the creation of plants and animals. I assume this is to harmonize the chapter with Genesis 1, but how ambiguous is the Hebrew on this point? Are the translators of, say, the NIV actually going against the Hebrew here, or is it a plausible translation?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 23, 2018

      Yes, the Hebrew doesn’t have a pluperfect. The NIV allows one to put Genesis 2 into the context of Genesis 1 in order to harmonize the two.

      • NulliusInVerba
        NulliusInVerba  July 23, 2018

        Professor Ehrman, if I recall correctly, you have previously stated a preference for the NSRV. Is that because you consider it the most accurate translation or do you have another reason or perhaps a number of reasons? Thank you.

        • Bart
          Bart  July 24, 2018

          In my view it is suitably literal but also extremely readable, and yes, as accurate as they come. I do have some biases. I worked for the translation committee of the NRSV for a few years, the last year of its being done full time.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  July 23, 2018

      Hebrew grammar — especially Biblical Hebrew grammar — would be thoroughly alien to a modern English speaker. I can tell you as a Hebrew speaker myself (I’m Israeli-American) that reading the Hebrew Bible in the original is a completely different experience from reading English translations. It’s probably a lot like a classicist reading Homer in the original Homeric Greek. For instance, like Homer, much of the Hebrew Bible really is in verse. You truly get the sense of its rhythm, meter and rhymes, just like you would with English poetry. Also, like much poetic composition, the Hebrew Bible verses tend to be rather terse — saying a lot in few words.

      Of course, one of the characteristics of Semitic languages is that they tend to say a lot with few words already (cf. the Arabic of the Qur’an). And it’s doubly so for the Hebrew Bible. As a result, most modern English translations have to fill in the gaps, so to speak, of the Hebrew in order to express that which is in implied in the terse Hebrew verse. Along with that, there are countless puns and parallelisms in the Hebrew that are pretty much untranslatable. This all makes for a totally different experience reading it in the Hebrew. It’s almost like a totally different book. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if you’re not reading it in the original Hebrew, you’re missing half of the experience (similar to how Muslims will tell you that if you don’t read the Qur’an in the original Arabic, you’re missing half of it).

      Here, let me give you an example of what I mean. Genesis 2:7 reads, transliterated from the Hebrew.

      Wa-yiyitser, YHWH elohim
      Eth-ha-adam, ‘aphar min ha-adamah
      Wa-yiphach b’aphiyo, nishmath chayyim
      Wa-y’hi ha-adam, l’nephesh chayyah

      Translated literally, that would be:
      And would generate [imperfect tense as past], YHWH Elohim,
      the Man [adam], dust from the ground [adamah];
      and would blow [yiphach] in his nose [aphiyo], life-breath [chayyim],
      and would be(come), the Man [adam], to living soul [chayyah].

      See how it reads and feels very different?

      • Avatar
        Pattycake1974  July 24, 2018

        The reading in Hebrew definitely has a melodic tone to it. We chose the same titles yesterday, and this morning I asked a specific question about the word Elohim. You pretty much just answered it! (I think so anyway. We’ll see after it’s moderated) Are we linked up or something? How weird is that!

  4. SonOfZeusTruly
    SonOfZeusTruly  July 22, 2018

    This should be a movie scene. A man saying I was John the Baptist and he says, ” I remember standing by a lake at night and Jesus walks up behind me and says…” That would be a couple thousand years ago how could you remember that? How could you remember what John said to Jesus? How could you remember what Jesus’s look like? How you could you remember he liked to stand on rocks at night and feel the wind on his skin while we were asleep? That would be a holy movie scene…

  5. Avatar
    Wilusa  July 22, 2018

    Of course, with an author who’s written as many trade books as you have, *your name alone* will tell potential readers whether they want to buy it!

  6. talmoore
    talmoore  July 22, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, if you want to sell a lot of this book, in my opinion, its title needs to meet two criteria.

    A) It should have the name “Jesus” in it.
    B) It should imply that what we think Jesus thought of the afterlife is wrong.

    Let me offer a few examples that you’re more than welcome to use*.
    1) Did Jesus Believe In An Afterlife?
    2) Did Jesus Believe In Heaven?
    3) Did Jesus Believe In Hell?
    4) Jesus And The Afterlife
    5) The Afterlife After Jesus
    6) Jesus Before The Afterlife
    7) Heaven After Jesus
    or if you want to cut straight to the controversy and sell books
    8) Jesus Before Hell
    9) Hell After Jesus

    *legally relinquished

    • Avatar
      Pattycake1974  July 23, 2018

      Ha! Both of us came up with the same title: Jesus and the Afterlife. It does seem rather catchy.

  7. Robert
    Robert  July 22, 2018

    Wow, a leather-bound book about NASCAR–now that’s a book I would definitely buy! Or not.

  8. Avatar
    Jim  July 22, 2018

    To me, the cover design is a big key. If someone designed a steamy romance-like book cover and put it on say Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, after people bought the book and then realized this isn’t what they were after, … well too late, no refunds. 🙂 🙂 🙂

  9. Avatar
    ardeare  July 22, 2018

    It’s interesting that you’d bring this up because, for quite some time, I’ve felt “Inventing the Afterlife” is a horrible title. You can invent the typewriter, a lightbulb, or an artificial heart and it’s a good thing. But when you invent the afterlife, heaven, or God, it’s not. It comes off as presumptuous and implies to the reader that the ending was written first and the rest is just filler, in my humble opinion. Again, I’m not focusing on the content or direction of the actual book, only on the wrapping paper.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 23, 2018

      My view is that the idea of heaven did not exist at one time (no one talked about it). It then did exist. That means it came into existence. And that means someone came up with the idea. And that means it was invented.

  10. Avatar
    Lilly  July 22, 2018

    A fascinating, insightful and sometimes humorous look at the nuances involved in choosing a title. Sounds as difficult as trying to decide what to name one of your children.

    Thank you

    On second thought, choosing a name for one of children sounds much easier 🙂

  11. Avatar
    rmallard  July 23, 2018

    I have been at the San Diego Comic Con the last few days and the panel I went to yesterday had editors and marketing people as well as authors. Granted this was a panel for science fiction/fantasy novels but the thing that came across loud and clear was the primacy of the marketing people in choosing things like covers and titles (less so on titles since a lot of fantasy and science fiction books are series based) but how typically the marketing people know what they’re doing because of the impact on sales figures. I think your experience shows that if you want to reach the widest audience you have to trust the experts. And while I am on the topic, I do have to say that I think that some of the titles have been a little too cute for your books but I buy them because you have such a solid reputation and I have enjoyed all your books tremendously.

  12. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  July 23, 2018

    Maybe your editor can test out the proposed title and make a decision from there. Some possible titles to play around with—
    1) Jesus and the Afterlife: How the Concept of Heaven and Hell Developed in the Ancient World

    2) Reinvention(s) of the Afterlife or Reinventing the Afterlife: How the Ideas of Heaven and Hell Devleoped in the Ancient World

    3) Misconceptions of the Afterlife or Misunderstanding the Afterlife: Why Jesus Never Preached About Hell

    4) Some Standing Here Will Not Taste Death: What Jesus and the Early Christians Believed About the Afterlife (and How It’s Changed Over the Last Two Thousand Years)

    5) Annihilation of the Wicked: Why Jesus Never Preached About Hell or What Jesus Taught About the Afterlife

    6) The Evolution of the Afterlife: How the Ideas of Heaven and Hell Developed in Early Christianity

    7) The Rich Man and Lazarus: How the Ideas of Heaven and Hell Developed in Early Christianity

    8) Christianity and the Afterlife: Understanding the Origins of Heaven and Hell in the Ancient World

  13. Avatar
    mikezamjara  July 23, 2018

    Dr Ehrman, I just finished Misquoting Jesus and I my questiion is about your top 10 verses that not were in the originals. I reproduce the list below.
    1) 1 John 5:7 There are three that bear witness in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one.
    2) John 8:7 Let the one who is without sin among you be the first to cast a stone at her.
    3) John 8:11Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.
    4) Luke 22:44 In his anguish Jesus began to pray more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling to the ground.
    5) Luke 22:20 And in the same way after supper Jesus took the cup and said, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.“
    6) Mark 16:17 These signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons and they will speak with new tongues.
    7) Mark 16:18 And they will take up snakes in their hands, and if they drink poison it will not harm them, and they will lay their hands on the sick and they will become well.
    8) John 5:4 For an angel of the Lord went down at certain times into the pool and disturbed the waters; and whoever was the first to step in when the water was disturbed was healed of whatever disease he had.
    9)Luke 24:12 But Peter rose up and ran to the tomb, and stooping down to look in, he saw the linen clothes by themselves. And he went away to his own home, marveling at what had happened.
    10) Luke 24:51 And when Jesus blessed them he departed from them and he was taken up into heaven

    ¿Do you know when were those verses included in the bible? I suppose they were included in different times.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 23, 2018

      Yes, different ones at different times. We don’t know exactly when for any of them — only when they *start* showing up in manuscripts that today happen to survive. Obviously they were added either by the scribe of the earliest manuscript or, more likely, but a scribe producing a manuscripot that that later scribe used.

    • Avatar
      ardeare  July 23, 2018

      For me, your first example of 1 John 5:7 is the most important. I also suspect that very, very few Christians realize there is even a discussion about its origins.

  14. Avatar
    Silver  July 23, 2018

    You frequently mention the fact that the four gospels are anonymous and were not given their traditional names until later. Was the gospel of Thomas named/identified as such before the canonical gospels received their titles, please?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 23, 2018

      It makes a specific authorial claim for itself in teh opening line, claiming to be written by Thomas.

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  July 25, 2018

        I’m currently reading Dale Martin’s New Testament History and Literature. Do agree with his assessment that some sayings in Thomas are more likely to be what Jesus actually said than their synoptic parallels? Do you think that would suggest an early version of Thomas predated Mark or Q?

        • Bart
          Bart  July 26, 2018

          Yes, some of the sayings that overlap with the Synoptics may well represent older forms.

  15. Avatar
    Silver  July 23, 2018

    “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.”

    Is this something that would be understood in USA, please? As a Brit I’m afraid the second sentence above is lost on me.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 23, 2018

      Ha! Yes, NASCAR stands for National Association of Stock Car Racing — a bona fide “sport” (incredibly), especially in the American south

  16. Avatar
    Silver  July 23, 2018

    In your text book ‘The Bible’ (page 306) you note the following:
    “Those who had received the good law of God, according to Paul had come to misuse it. Rather than seeing the law as a guide for their actions as the covenant people of God, they began keeping the law as a way of establishing a right standing before God, as if by keeping its various injunctions they could earn God’s favour….. Instead of making people right before God, the law shows that everyone is alienated from God; the law brings a knowledge of sin.”

    Do you then think that Paul came to believe that the Jews could NEVER, EVER have been right with God even if they had followed God’s law EXACTLY when it was first given? Could there NEVER have been a righteous Jew? When the law was first received was it not sufficient (along with sacrifices) to ‘save’ the Jews?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 23, 2018

      Paul thought that the Law itself taught that everyone was under sin. So keeping the law meant recognizing that one was sinful and needed redemption. Keeping the law itself would not bring the redemption — it needed to be something else.

  17. Avatar
    prestonp  July 23, 2018

    I can picture a book inside cover reading as follows: “From perhaps the most recognized and respected Biblical scholar of all time, Bart Ehrman shares his deepest held personal convictions about the significance of Jesus Christ.”

    The opening paragraph:
    “Jesus’ teachings of love, and mercy and forgiveness, I think, really should dominate our lives,” he says. “On the personal level, I agree with many of the ethical teachings of Jesus and I try to model my life on them…” Erhman

    Bart, I have an idea for a book for you. Write in great depth why you believe being like Christ is so important for everyone. You could emphasize His love, mercy and forgiveness that should dominate our lives. Expound upon and develop those themes and why you believe they are vital, relying upon all your scholarship and 40 years of research.

    • Avatar
      stevenpounders  July 23, 2018

      To whatever extent your proposed book content would be true or interesting at a personal level for Dr. Ehrman – Dr. Ehrman tends to write books in his area of expertise, which is history – not theology.

      • Avatar
        prestonp  July 24, 2018

        “stevenpounders July 23, 2018
        To whatever extent your proposed book content would be true or interesting at a personal level for Dr. Ehrman – Dr. Ehrman tends to write books in his area of expertise, which is history – not theology.”

        Hey Steve, I recommend such a book for Bart to write because when you consider all that this guy knows, for him to pick Jesus as the individual he believes should be the dominant influence in everyone’s lives, well that is extremely, extremely, significant, don’t you think so, too? Until I read that he said that in an interview with NPR, I never knew he believed that. I knew he loved Him back in the day, but since he doesn’t believe in Him or in God anymore, I was startled to see that he holds Jesus in such high esteem.

        I would like to find out why he said that. What does he see in Jesus now and upon what does he base his opinions? What verses of scripture lead him to believe that Christ is all about love, mercy and forgiveness?

        “Paul knew Jesus’ brother, James, and he knew his closest disciple, Peter, and he tells us that he did,” Ehrman says. “If Jesus didn’t exist, you would think his brother would know about it, so I think Paul is probably pretty good evidence that Jesus at least existed,” he says.

        In Did Jesus Exist?, Ehrman builds a technical argument and shows that one of the reasons for knowing that Jesus existed is that if someone invented Jesus, they would not have created a messiah who was so easily overcome. “The Messiah was supposed to overthrow the enemies – and so if you’re going to make up a messiah, you’d make up a powerful messiah,” he says.

        When Raz asks Ehrman about his relationship to Jesus, Ehrman says that most of it is very historical but that Jesus teaches us valuable lessons.

        “Jesus’ teachings of love, and mercy and forgiveness, I think, really should dominate our lives,” he says.

        Where does he find that information? For which teachings does he credit Jesus? Where does Bart find Jesus modeling mercy? When did Jesus demonstrate forgiveness in Bart’s opinion? Where does he or how does he tease out the “real” Jesus from all that is superfluous?

  18. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  July 23, 2018

    Hebrews 13:18-19,23. Are these pseudo-Pauline interpolations, or do you think Hebrews is the work of another associate of the Timothy who accompanied Paul?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 23, 2018

      Claire Rothschild has made an interesting case that the reference to Timothy was made by the author in order to make readers think that he was Paul (even though he wasn’t). If so, this is what I call a non-pseudonymous forgery (as I define it in my book Forgery and Counterforgery)

  19. Avatar
    Lilly  July 29, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, like yourself, I live in a deeply conservative Christian region . I pass by many churches with signs displaying, ‘ What if You’re Wrong ? ‘ Or better yet, ‘ Eternity in Hell is a Long Time . ‘ Since you are beginning your next book on the Afterlife, it appears that these various versions of Pascal’s Wager continue to influence one’s belief. That it is safer to believe and risk nothing , than not to believe and miss the an ‘ Afterlife. ‘ An eternity with God and never ending peace with family and loved ones .
    Do you think Pascal’s Wager continues to have an impact on Christianity ?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 29, 2018

      Yes it does. But it doesn’t make much snese in our modern pluralistic world. It’s not a matter of Yes of No, because there are too many competing views. What if you choose the choice your fundamentalist churches tell you to choose, but the Muslims are right? You’re still burned.

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