A book by any other name

Titles are hard. An author routinely makes about 200,000 individual decisions about what goes into a novel and what comes out, but those last few words are a group project involving the author, the editor, the marketing department, and the art director.

A book’s title has to reflect the story, but it also has to be marketable and not so abstract as to be impossible to illustrate. It’s a multi-faceted and collective decision.

Some wise and pragmatic writers call the book they’re writing “WIP” for work in progress. I always have a working title  and often that title gives me a thematic frame for the story I’m telling. So when the editor sends that little email saying, “We need to discuss the title,” I think, Oh, boy. Here we go…

The working title of Doc was Eight to Five Against. Those were the odds John Henry Holliday actually gave that he would get killed before he had time to die of tuberculosis. But, see? I had to explain that to you. And when you read “Eight To Five,” there’s a good chance that you’ll start humming a Dolly Parton song, right?

The publisher wanted the title to be just DOC, but I thought that was too Bugs Bunny and that every review would have some reference to a cartoon character. It took a month to wear down my resistance, during which time I was intensely frustrated and the publisher was intensely annoyed by my recalcitrance.

Ultimately it came down to having the right cover art to convince me that DOC was the right title. Nobody mentioned Bugs Bunny in any review.

My new book is about the women behind the 1913 copper miners’ strike in Calumet, Michigan. The working title was initially The Price of Copper — meaning the lives that were lost every week as the cost of doing business in a dangerous industry. I changed it to Unremembered Lives because not only the miners’ lives were forgotten, but also those of once-famous women like Annie Clements, Ella Bloor, Jane Addams and Mother Jones, all of whom figure in the novel.

For the past two weeks, my editor, the marketing department, and the art director at Touchstone/Simon&Schuster have tried to come up with something better but nothing satisfied all of us.

With permission, I took the debate to Facebook, asking people who follow the Mary Doria Russell page to LIKE the potential title that spoke best to them. This was remarkably useful.

Three of my own alternate titles fell off quickly: Unremembered Lives (awkward), A Christmas to Remember (too Hallmark, though it would have been a gut-punch double meaning at the end of the book), Bread and Roses (too associated with an earlier mill strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts). Those results let me release my grip on those titles gracefully.

The publisher had offered variations on a theme: “The Valiant/Marching/Fighting/Defiant Women of the Copper Country.” That also got very little support. There were lots of comments about how having “Women” in the title made male readers felt excluded. But people liked the word defiant. They liked the strength of it and the sound of it.

The two that appealed the most were The Price of Copper (mine) and Far Beyond The Copper Country (a variation the editor’s idea of Far Above The Copper Country). So I did a runoff between those two and I added The Price of Defiance, just to see what would happen.

The Price of Defiance got the most votes by far, but now I had three acceptable titles and told my editor, “I can work with any of these.”

The final three were turned over to the Art Director. The Price of Copper and The Price of Defiance are both very abstract, but she feels she can do a lot with Far Beyond The Copper Country. So it’s official. That’s the title and we await the next stage: cover art.

Meanwhile, the manuscript will go to Bonnie Thompson, the copy editor who’s done every one of my novels from THE SPARROW on. There are lots of other steps in the process, but it’s now officially in the Touchstone catalog and will be out next summer. Details to come as they arise…

13 thoughts on “A book by any other name”

  1. Incredible! I had no idea you had an alternate title for Doc in mind, because I couldn’t think of that book by any other title. And I never would have associated it with Bugs Bunny. It’s still the most poignant book focusing on Doc Holliday as a character that I’ve read, and the title evokes, for me, not only his nickname, but also the feelings that arise from the word doc, like doctor, treatment, care, easing of pain. Doc was a dentist who worked to mitigate pain, but the way you wrote about him I got the feeling that he was a very human, compassionate man who made some bad choices due to his illness and might have done a whole lot of good if allowed to live a full life. I really wish you would write another book about the man. He’s one of the most interesting characters I’ve ever read in any book.

  2. Thank you so much for opening this obscure passage to those who are curious about such things. As a composer I can identify somewhat with the personal challenges of the title, but the “committee” aspect of the publishing process was also highly fascinating (although frustrating for the author). Thank you also for the hours of enlightenment bedrocked beneath your breathtaking prose. Your works are among our most respected 21st century treasures of art.
    Harrell C. Lucky DMA

  3. And I still like An Unremembered Life because it reminds us of the many unremembered lives we have grown from, many of them our own ancestors. I was telling my husband about Thread of Grace and even in my fumbling words, the story was so compelling and interesting, he asked to read the book.
    I still hold with the statement I made to you at the Title Wave Bookstore here in Anchorage, you are our Thread of Grace.
    Can’t wait for this next book by any title!

  4. I’m sorry, Mary. Love you to death, but what about MY needs? Working at the “why” of your titles is part of my joy of your books. (I guess you’ll just have to get busy with another book, eh?)
    So happy you’ve nailed this one down! Clearing space on the bookshelf in three…two..

  5. I suppose illustrating it was a challenge, but I liked The Price of Defiance.

    And I guess Defiance of the Copper Barons might give too much away.

  6. This name changing might be more common than I thought. I was aware of changes in titles, and massive changes in length of books, watching drafts (sometimes multiple versions of chapter going back and forth within a single night) by a friend, Helen Dale, with her second novel “Bring Laws and Gods” between given to her agent (600 pp) and after publisher requests (450 pp), and between one publisher and another, changing name to “Kingdom of the Wicked” and splitting into two books of about 450 pages each.

    Then there is the problem for a close reader of keeping in mind changes such as when two characters are merged into one (keeping one of their names), or events are reordered. It is hard enough for a close reader to untangle this, but we only need to comment and our confusion over multiple versions can be disregarded by the author, while those acting as agents or for publishers must be able to keep /only/ the current version in mind.

    But how authors disentangle their multiple versions, I have no idea – because it must be incredibly difficult.

  7. Yeah, exactly. By the time I’m done with a book and it goes to the printer, it’s been through 40-50 iterations. Sections, chapters, and the whole manuscript get multiple passes by as many as 20 to 30 people. I am just now working through this book before it goes to the copy editor, and even now I’m finding a lot of places where the sequence of sentences is scrambled. It’s exhausting work and at this age, I can only do it for about two hours before I have to walk away. And after copy editing, I’ll STILL find things that are messed up… And then there are page proofs, and more corrections. And when it’s all done and published, there’s a 50-50 chance of a typo on page 17.

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