Book titles are important. They serve as an introduction, a signpost to the reader and, hopefully, an enticement to open the book and read the first page (or turn it over and read the synopsis). I didn’t appreciate this until I discovered that US publisher Del Rey had changed the title of Michael A Stackpole’s fourth X-Wing novel, before publication, from Rogues Unbound to The Bacta War. One sounded like a bodice-ripping romance novel. One sounded like a sci-fi adventure novel. Realising that was the first time I began to appreciate that book titles are an important marketing tool.
Fast forward to 2014 and I’m publishing my first novel. I agonised over the title. To say I came up with hundreds of possibilities would be hyperbolic, but not by much. But when I landed on The Fey Man, it felt right. It felt like a good fit for the book, a signpost of what to expect, and it sounded good. I felt confident in my new book title.
Of course, good old self-doubt can kill any good feeling, and I began to wonder if I’d picked the right title within days of publication (this wasn’t helped by one reader who told me I’d misspelt the title; they thought I’d meant to call it ‘The Fay Man’). I knew I liked The Fey Man from a creative perspective. But was it the best title from a marketing perspective?
I began to wonder if ‘The Fey Man’ was more ‘Alice’ than ‘Wonderland’.
A book title isn’t just a string of cool words. It’s a name. And, like a name, you build expectations on it. Imagine I tell you I have a friend who calls himself ‘Scott Danger’. You’ve immediately formulated an opinion about him, haven’t you? Now what if I mention a friend called ‘Keith Brown’. You’ve got an opinion about him too, right?
It’s no different with books. A book called Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland evokes a different reaction to a book called simply Alice (which was Lewis’ original title). The first title has signposts that alerts the reader as to what to expect from the book, encouraging the right readers and discouraging those who are less likely to enjoy it. And I began to wonder if ‘The Fey Man’ was more ‘Alice’ than ‘Wonderland’.
So I began to brainstorm alternatives. Titles with ‘Faerie’ in it, maybe ‘quest’ or ‘war’, perhaps ‘dragon’ (perhaps excessive, given there was already a dragon on the cover)? In the end, I decided that ‘quest’ was a good one to include as well as ‘Faerie’, as both gave readers a good indication as to what the novel was about. Thus my alternative title was The Quest for Faerie. Now it was time to put to the test. My weapon of choice? A Twitter poll.
Spoiler alert: the alternative title won.
Hey Twitter peeps, I need your help settling a debate. Could you please vote for the epic fantasy book title you’d be more likely to pick up and read? It’d be great if you could also retweet so I can get as many answers as possible. Thanks, you’re great!
— James T Kelly (@realjtk) April 3, 2018
So, if the alternative title won, why didn’t I change the title of my first novel?
Well, there’s a lot of work involved. I would need to commission an alteration to the cover, rework the interior files to match, upload new files, publish a new paperback, unpublish the old one, then ask Amazon to link the new paperback to the ebook, then separately ask Amazon to push the updated ebook to everyone who already held a copy. I’d also need to change any references on my website, and forward the inevitable broken links, and so on, and so forth. And call me lazy if you will (“Hi, Lazy-if-you-will”), but I try to avoid unnecessary work where I can.
Taking huge, irrecoverable action based on a slim majority just seems like madness.
Changing the title of a book that’s already been published also carries the potential for confusion. Existing readers who see me talking about ‘The Quest for Faerie’ might think I have a new book out. None of my previous social media posts about The Fey Man would make sense anymore. Paperback owners would be stuck with the old title, ebook owners would have to decide which title they prefer. Although I can unpublish the old paperback, the Amazon listing doesn’t disappear, leaving two book listings with the same cover but different titles. So, no matter how hard I worked at clarifying things, there’d always be a risk of confusing a reader. And confused readers are not happy readers.
Of course, I knew all this going in. But I was prepared to undertake it all in the face of a clear and resounding call for a new title. But there wasn’t one. Frankly, the numbers just aren’t that impressive. And taking huge, irrecoverable action based on a slim majority just seems like madness. Numbers like that speak more to indecision than anything else.
That left the decision up to me. And I decided to go full Disney, believe in myself, and stick with The Fey Man. That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with ‘The Quest for Faerie’. But it’s a title very much created as a marketing tool. Whereas The Fey Man, for me at least, feels a little more creative, a little more mysterious, and feels more in keeping with the series as a whole.
Perhaps I made a mistake. But that’s one of the great things about this journey: any mistakes fall on my shoulders (as well as, fingers crossed, any victories). Of course, I’ll always listen when readers tell me that they want something. But, this time, they left me to call the shots. And I let my creative side take the reins.
Is ‘The Fey Man’ a good title for my first novel? Pick up a copy and find out for yourself!
★★★★★ – “A must read for fans of epic fantasy”