How important is a good title to selling a book? Well, let’s look at some of the foibles of the movie business when it comes to finding a good name.
Possibly the worst original name for a movie was $3,000. That was the original title for Pretty Woman—the original referred to how much the guy paid for Julia Roberts’ character.
photo by Towpilot
Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night
Who in the world came up with that title? Obviously Saturday Night Fever was much better. I don’t want to see any movie with John Travolta involving tribal rites.
photo by Gage Skidmore
A non-ridiculous title change involved Stephen King’s novella The Body. This was made into a classic coming-of-age movie, and they wisely chose the title Stand By Me. The original title was not bad, but the new one reached out to a wider audience. (Although one can just imagine what a movie nowadays would be like called The Body and featuring Wil Wheaton. Would it go straight to Saturday night on the SyFy channel?)
photo by Alan Light
Tonight He Comes
Is shorter better? This superhero movie was originally Tonight He Comes, which doesn’t really sound superhero to me. Then it was changed to John Hancock, then just Hancock. I don’t know if Will Smith ever commented.
Sometimes good titles are simply taken. The original title for Alien was Star Beast. Perhaps they realized that title was the same as a well-known book by Robert Heinlein.
And some changes are just dumb, in my opinion. The word is that Disney feared that boys wouldn’t want to see a movie about Rapunzel, so the title was changed to Tangled. Huh? Why give up such a well-known title?
So, what lessons do we learn for books? Well, titles matter. Was there something wrong with calling a movie $3,000? You betcha. But don’t say that only crass Hollywood people would do that. Think of the people you know who would name their stories something similar to Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night. If other writers can be ridiculous, perhaps you can be too in unguarded moments.
Sometimes shorter is better, as with Hancock. Or, the title simply has to be changed to reach the target audience, as in Stand By Me. No firm rules here. But you can put in a good deal of effort, only to find a good working title is taken. Titles are not subject to copyright, but a publisher will be leery of looking like they are ripping off someone else’s fame.
And of course, the marketing department may just insist their idea is better, and no matter how much you scream, you will not get your way.