Crafting A Book Title That Rocks

Mar 292011
 

Culinary mysteries sport some of my favorite food-based titles of all time, full  of puns and double entendres.

Yesterday my agent said she’d just told someone how my book, Will Will Write for Food, got its title. She suggested I tell you as well.

I hadn’t thought about that story for a while, and it’s a good one. Should you be faced with coming up with a witty book title one day, you might be able to use it. And I give a few suggestions for coming up with good titles at the end of this post.

(Isn’t it ironic? As a freelance editor, I can come up with great titles for others, but I had so much trouble with my own.)

Back when I turned in my manuscript for the first edition, I had a loser working title. My agent (who does not like to be named),  my publisher (who no longer works at the publishing house and the publishing house no longer exists) and I went around and around for two months, trying to find a better one.

Ready to know the name of the working title? How to Write About Food. Can you imagine anything duller? Still, it took six rounds to arrive at the winner. Here’s what happened, including my agent’s great idea that solved the problem:

Round 1: Publisher and I brainstorm on the phone. We figure out the subtitle but not a new title.

Round 2. I tell my friend, a voracious reader. She emails me a long list of potential titles, including:

  • The Sensuous Art of Food Writing
  • Blending the Pen and Palate
  • Writing with Flavor.

Round 3: Agent rejects them, so I send her more ideas, including:

  • The Tools of Food Writing
  • The Food Writer Within
  • The (or A) Writer’s Guide to Food Writing
  • The Food Writer’s Handbook
  • The Art and Craft of Food Writing
  • The Path to Food Writing.

Round 4: Agent likes a few. I pass them on to the publisher. The publisher likes The Writer’s Guide to Food Writing. Upon reflection, I decide the book should be for anyone who wants to write about food, not just writers. The publisher comes up with The Complete Guide to Writing About Food.

Round 5: I suggest cutting that title to Writing about Food, or going with The Art of Writing About Food. But ultimately, we’re right back where we started. Both titles are straightforward and dull. Time is running out, and I’m drawing a blank.

Round 6: Agentsuggests I send an email to 20 of my closest writer friends, asking for help. It’s Friday. I need ideas by Monday. The winning title comes from my friend Josh Greenbaum, a former writer I knew from my high-tech magazine job. His suggestion is Will Write for Food. It’s perfect: simple, clever, and concise.

Several other friends sent in entries, including The Dish on Food Writing, my runner-up favorite, from the husband and wife writer team of Greg Patent and Dorothy Patent.

So if you’re working on a book title, don’t go through this much hair pulling. Here are my three best tips that might save you the trouble:

1. Be short, witty and specific to your book’s content. Don’t come up with a general title that leaves readers wondering, such as Meals Anyone Would Love.

2. Research the names of competing or similar books and draw from them. Someone spent a great deal of time on them, so why not benefit? Researching will also show you how books like yours are named, and what’s appropriate.

3. Short, direct words are instantly successful in titles. You’ve only got a moment or two to communicate, so get the qualities of your book across quickly. Cookbooks, particularly, have titles using words like Greatest, Best, Quick, Easy, Complete and “Secrets of. ”

Now it’s your turn. Got a story about a book title? I’d love to hear it. Or if you think there’s a ridiculous book title out there, let’s see it.

  57 Responses to “Crafting A Book Title That Rocks”

  1. Great suggestions. I imagine assigning a title to a book is similar to naming a child – when it’s right it’s right.
    Kudos to Josh for coming up with a wonderful title and of course to you as well for writing said book – which I devoured.

  2. Loved this story! Love everything about your site/blog! You’re a true inspiration. Over here, working on a book proposal. Titles? No clue! Warmest, Leticia

    • Thank you, Leticia! I guess you’ll be coming up with lists too. Sharpen your pencil.

  3. Good piece, Diane, and helpful. I’m struggling with this myself right now, with a book on writing your own way, which, by the way, is my working title. My agent and publishers scoff at it, and we go around and around, looking for something “catchy.” The straight shooter in me wants a title that says exactly what the book is about, especially since the book teaches writers how to shoot straight. Sooner or later, we’ll find a curved bullet.

    • A curved bullet! What an image, Don. You will eventually get it, I promise. Don’t give up until you get something you’re happy with.

      I kind of like the title you’ve chosen, although I admit to getting frustrated with writers who want to “write their own way,” especially when they don’t get things like leads, parallel structure, lazy adjectives, etc.

  4. Sounds like much the same process as naming a food blog. I was always coming up with puns and titles a bit too clever, while my husband wanted to simply use my name. As usual, we landed somewhere comfortably in the middle (aka: Eating with Angie).

    • Yes, you have to be careful not to be too inside, because you might be the only one who gets it. You don’t want to make people work too hard.

      Sounds like a good compromise to me, Angie.

  5. Dianne: You’re an excellent mind reader as I was just wringing my hands over this very issue earlier today. I’ll be putting your suggestions into motion immediately!

    • Congratulations on your book, Aida. I’m sure the content already rocks. Now you just need a title to go with it.

  6. Not yet ready for book titles but so enjoyed this. I agonize over names for blog posts and/or recipes.

    • Yeah, I guess agonizing is part of the fun of being a writer, eh? We just can’t help ourselves.

  7. I always thought I should title a book “My Dad Found God on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway”. I didn’t have a book to go along, but we had a vw bus that broke down on the BQE quite a few times and my dad would lay his head down in his hands and among all the cursing would repeat over and over – “Oh God, Please God, Help me God”, until my brother and I jumped out and started pushing.

  8. I’m glad to see writers with awesome titles like yours also struggled! I find it almost physically painful to think up even a working title that I can query an agent with (note that I’m talking fiction). Generally they end up as “_____ [main character]‘s story” for the longest time. Argh!

    Short, witty, specific, and direct, hm?

    • Yes, in non-fiction. In fiction you can be more obtuse and mysterious. It’s a whole other ballgame. Sorry, that’s probably not helpful.

  9. Great post. My newest grill book was originally titled How to Grill Everything. But the publisher cut so many recipes for space (the book would have been 2 inches thick) that “Everything” wasn’t feeling quite right in the title. We had to change it. When signing my previous grill book, Mastering the Grill, I wrote “Fire It Up” then my name. The publisher caught wind of this and thought Fire It Up was the perfect title. So it came to pass. Fire It Up pubs in mid-April. I’ve already signed a few copies of the new book. Guess what I’m writing before my signature? “Be a Grill Master.”

    • Thank you. Maybe that will be the name of your next book, Dave, if you keep going the way you’re going. It has a nice ring.

      Very funny about the “Everything” title, but I respect that you changed it. If I saw “Everything” I would expect a huge book, a la How to Cook Everything.

    • My son recently gave me Jane Hornby’s “What to Cook & How to Cook It” which, on one hand, is rather general and obtuse, and one does wonder what she could be offering us inside. But on the other hand, it did stir up my curiosity and I was anxious to open the book and find out.

      I love the name “Fire It Up” and it would have the same effect on me – I’d want to find out what was inside.

  10. I appreciate you sharing this information with us. I LOVE the title of your book – it’s fun, and a lot less intimidating at first glance, and that’s really what a new writer needs.

    • True. No one wants to be intimidated by a book title. Challenged, maybe, but not scared!

  11. I have play titles I wish I could take back. I did like the evolution of The Little Red Riding Hood Stories which morphed into: Little Red: Life in the Hood! (And it sells 15 years later). These days I spend more time researching titles – there’s a lot of competition and the title needs to grab if someone is even going to peruse the play. I loved the title Will Write for Food the first time I saw it and knew – even though am not a professional food writer – that I had to read it.

    • How wonderful, Claudia. And I beg to differ. Seems like you are a food blogger now, so I hope your time with the book wasn’t wasted.

      Great title on Riding Hood and congrats on the fact that it’s still in print. And yes, I am a big fan of researching titles. It tells you what kind of structure and words would work.

  12. How interesting this is! I’ve always felt your book title was pretty darn clever, and I think it’s great that the title came from a friend. He probably feels a little jolt of joy every single time he sees a copy of your book. (How do you thank someone who, essentially, names your book? It seems like it would be kind of a big deal.)

    • It is a big deal. I thanked him in both editions of this book, and thanked him in this post. And now we’re going to dinner at his house Sunday night because he read it.

  13. From my experience, some publishers will buy a book proposal and then title the book with whatever moniker their marketing department deems salable. There was nothing we could do about it. And the books were already written at the point of the title change so the titles were off base and not really reflective of the content. This has happened with two of our books with two different publishers. Anyone else with this experience? It was (is) a nightmare.

    • How awful for you. It’s true that the publishers can name the book however they like. I suppose that sicking your agent on them didn’t help either.

  14. I recently started doing some freelance food writing, and although I have no problem with content, I frequently struggle article titles. Luckily I have an editor who enjoys coming up with titles so I’ve been able to get out of it for the most part so far!

    Incidentally, I’m also a musician and have gone through this same exact process when trying to come up with band names. Believe me, it is tough to come up with something catchy, original but not contrived or pretentious, that “fits” your music and look… we have also resorted to polling friends, etc!

    • Yes, usually editors end up writing the titles anyway. Do you look at the magazine for reference and try to find one based on previous titles? I had a job once where a boss told me there is no shame in imitating. His mantra was to look at what worked before and copy it, changing it just a little bit.

      I love reading band names. It’s one of my favorite past-times when perusing the datebook section of my newspaper.

  15. Great story of how your book got named–and I do think you went with the best option in the end! When I was trying to come up with a title for my cookbook (about wheat free, egg free, dairy free, refined sugar-free desserts), I wanted to incorporate the idea of “healthy” and “dessert” in one. My working title, which I loved at the time, was “Healthy Never Tasted So Sweet.” Then, just weeks before I had to send it to the printer, our biggest chain of supermarkets here in Ontario launched a healthy-eating campaign with the trademarked phrase, “Healthy Never Tasted So Good.” They used variations for every type of food in the line; eg, “Fat-Free Never Tasted So Good” or “Sugar-Free Never Tasted So Sweet,” etc. I didn’t want to use anything even vaguely similar, both for legal reasons and because I didn’t want to be associated with the store. I came up with Sweet Freedom only days before my deadline, and now like it much better than the original. And I’ve been told there’s a popular allergen-free bakery that opened in the US since then, with the same name as my book (will have to get there some day). ;)

    • Sweet Freedom is a terrific title because it communicates immediately. Funny how these things sometimes work out for the better.

  16. First of all, I love your title “Will Write For Food”. I found it when it first came out, when I was doing a search for, well, making money writing about food, and because of the keywords in the title, it came up as one of the first books in that category. The title is so catchy; I bought it without hesitation. Great snap decision on my part!

    In considering titles for my own book, I have rolled a few around in my head, and bounced a few off friends & family. Lots of possibilities. The one thing I know I DON’T want to do is use a faddish word in the title. Someone suggested “Rock Star Canning” and I thought “Really? I don’t think so. 20 years from now I don’t want people looking at my book on their shelf and laughing about using that term.”
    Surely that’s a consideration as well? To think twice before using catchy terms that might not be so hip down the road.

    That being said , I just Googled “Rock Star Cooking” and noticed there is a book coming out in October 2011, with those words in the title, and the people involved are pretty savvy chefs.
    What do I know?! LOL

  17. Funny, I love coming up with titles for other people too, but when it was for my own book I had zero perspective. My husband saved the day and came up with the perfect title (it’s not a food book, but one on Deaf Culture – Reading Between the Signs). For my freelance food articles, the editors often change what I think are clever titles. sigh. Good reason to self-publish.

    • Good one. My husband helped me brainstorm for the book also. I should have credited him.

      Yes, magazine editors put their own stamp on titles, although they probably appreciate that you tried.

  18. I’ve had similar struggles coming up with titles, and then (internal) struggles when I come up with something and my agent or publisher wants to change it. Mostly, I figure they know more about books than me and I defer and, mostly, I haven’t been sorry. I also think that a title that sells a proposal might not be the same as a title that sells a book, and it’s worth having the strongest title in each case, even if it means changing titles mid-course.

  19. A food writer friend came up with my “Kneadlessly Simple,” title, too. Some writer pals and I were throwing around ideas like “Bread Make Simple,”” No-Knead to Knead,” when one suggested the word “kneadless.” About 10 seconds later, “Kneadlessly Simple” popped out of her mouth, and we all turned and said, “That”s it!”

    BTW, I just posted on why subjecting your recipes to brutally honest criticism can be a good thing for food writers to do. You might find it interesting.

    • That is a terrific title, Nancy. How wonderful that you could bat it around with writer pals.

      Will go take a look at your post.

  20. This is a great story! I’m glad to know that you were able to get so much input from others. From the time I was in journalism school, I have always struggled with titles. Freelancing presents similar challenges because it’s the title that will, in part, hook the editor and want to buy your article. Sometimes I can come up with clever titles but most often they are so straightforward and rather dull. I’m going to keep working on it!

    • When I was an editor I never expected the writer to come up with a great headline, to tell you the truth. Still, it does’t hurt to try.

  21. When I worked as a techncal writer prior to my culinary career, a cartoon frequently posted around writers’ cubicles was a caricature of a scruffy panhandler holding a sign saying, “Will technical write for food.” That was in the early 80s. So the trope’s been around for a while, but IMHO you chose the perfect title for your book.

    • Funny! And there’s Will Work for Food — sometimes people think that’s the title of my book. Thanks, Mary Margaret.

  22. Naming – kids, dogs, blogs, books – is always such a responsibility and one that I struggle with.
    The name for my blog came in a flash as I stared out of my study window at the garden bed in front of me and has been much commented upon. I’m not sure that I could hit on another one so easily, though.

    • There’s something so evocative and lyrical about your title, Amanda. No wonder people like it.

  23. Catering to Nobody
    Now that’s a great title. Thanks for your article, Diane. It really goes to show how the cover does make the book in many ways.

    • Those titles are so fun. I also love Roux the Day and The Crepes of Wrath. You know somebody was having a good time.

      Thanks, Gilda.

  24. Great post, Dianne, and so interesting to follow the process of your finding your book’s title. And once again you’ve proven the power of words! And of course, the title of anything is the first thing people will read and either it grabs them or it doesn’t. I have always loved the title of your book and thought it extremely clever and to the point. My son recently bought me Jane Hornby’s “What to Cook & How to Cook It”. On the surface it may seem awfully pretentious but it actually made me curious to look inside and see what she was talking about! Another thought-provoking post!

    • Thank you, Jamie. I’m lucky that serendipity on Josh’s part turned out so well for me.

      That is a super-general book title, but if it made you curious, then it works. I’d give it high marks for being authoritative, that’s for sure.

  25. Titles stump me too. Nice to know I’m not the only one. The subtitle always comes easier.

    • Yes, for me too. But in this case, part of the subtitle became the title, and then we were back to square one.

  26. I am almost finished reading the amazing book that you are talking about. You are helping me become a better writer, thank you. After 17 years in the catering business one of the cookbooks that I am writing is a memoir with recipes. My working title is Affairs to Remember because that was the name of our business, but I will take your suggestions from this post to heart.

    • Thanks for the kind words. Hmmm. Affairs to Remember. That could be about secret rendezvous you’ve had over the years and look back on fondly. Somehow I don’t think that’s your intention. Keep working it…

  27. Just finished your book and now reading your blog. I am so inspired by your stories. Working on proposal now. I think I got a name but don’t know if I should discuss it :)

    • Oh yes, please discuss your title! It will help you figure out if people get it or like it.

  28. OK – Here it is: The Dinner Dilemma.

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