Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

The problem of book titles


Thanks to everyone for advice and support about the title of my forthcoming novel. I really appreciate the input because, frankly, I’m kind of floundering at the moment over what to do about it.

I think I’ve landed on a new title though: Fifty Shades of Beige.


The real function of titles is to provoke the reader into buying the book. Controlling the ideas the reader gets when she sees the title is key, yet that’s a pretty tall order when you think about it. You don’t know what’s already in that reader’s head. You don’t know whether a phrase you think perfectly encapsulates the book has a negative connotation for her or whether she’s aware of your allusions or insinuations at all.

One thing you have to assume, though, is that any given reader is aware of other works in the culture, especially popular ones, so if your preferred title happens to resemble another work’s there’s going to be an instant association. Sometimes this is ideal; you want that association, for the purposes of parody, for instance. Or you’d like the reader to have that other work in mind as a background texture or reference. If I called a book Catch-23, I’d want the reader to think I’m riffing on the original.

For a writer like me, though — that is, obscure — to publish a book with a title nearly identical to a current movie feels like it would be either a wily or desperate move to trick readers into buying it. I have no idea how popular Zach Braff’s Wish I Was Here will be (its description doesn’t sound too hot to me). But the fact that it will still be in the public mind (no matter how limited that public might be) when my book comes out automatically sets my project up as a derivative. If his movie were coming out next year, I might risk it, thinking that my novel would be on the market first and that would be obvious if anyone took a look at the publication date. But his movie’s coming out in July. Seems like a no-win situation.

So I’ve pretty much decided to change the title even though, as many of you point out, there’s likely no legal risk here. It’s a matter of how I want potential readers to see my book, and since this is one element that I can actually control, I think I’ll eliminate from their minds that even-subconscious connection with Braff’s movie.

Look for a poll in the coming days that will toss out a few possibilities. I already have some good candidates, though (sigh) none as good as Wish I Were Here.

I’m really gonna miss it…

10 comments on “The problem of book titles

  1. Green Embers
    June 25, 2014

    Why not Yoda speak it? Here, Wish I Was 😆

    But yeah, it seems like you’re doing the right thing.

  2. John W. Howell
    June 25, 2014

    Wish I Were Here

  3. ericjbaker
    June 25, 2014

    If I weren’t a heathen, I’d say this a blessing in disguise. My honest opinion (I’m willing to post a dishonest one upon request) is that ‘I Wish You Were Here” is an ok title but not intriguing. Unless the cover is crazy-ape bonkers, I could imagine my eyes passing over that in the store. I think you can dig deeper and come up with something more you.

    • Kevin Brennan
      June 25, 2014

      But you ARE a heathen, so…

      You may be right. You know how it is. You fall in love with a title, and it becomes the book, in a weird way. Now I’m gonna have a slightly different book on my hands…

      • ericjbaker
        June 25, 2014

        I’m having the reverse problem. I can’t think of a title for mine. I’ve flirted with 3 or 4, but none of them flirted back. I might have a new one, but I’m going to run it by my spiritual adviser first.

        Even a heathen has a spiritual adviser. Go figure.

      • Kevin Brennan
        June 25, 2014

        Just call it “Ben Hur.” If the protagonist is a man, call it “Ben Him.”

      • ericjbaker
        June 25, 2014

        The name “Star Wars – Episode VII” was bouncing around my head. Do you think that’s taken?

      • Kevin Brennan
        June 25, 2014

        I think so. Just count up till you get to a Roman numeral that’s not claimed yet…

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This entry was posted on June 25, 2014 by in Writing and tagged , , , .
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