Business Musings: Rethinking A Title

 

I blame Marvel.

As I finished my Kris Nelscott/Smokey Dalton novel, Stone Cribs, I realized that the victim in the book, Valentina Wilson, was one amazing woman. And she needed a story arc all her own. I knew how she was going to end up, and who she would be years after the events in Stone Cribs, but I needed to write the story of how she got to that new place.

I started a novel about her. In fact, I’ve written that novel maybe six times. None of the drafts worked, because I was shoving bits of other novels into the drafts. I finally picked those strands apart, and figured out that I had several novels to write, not just about Val, but about her mentor, Pamela Griffin as well.

When I realized that Pammy was an important character, I got the title for the book introducing her and showing how she mentored Val. That book was titled Defenders. As was every draft thereafter. In fact, the whole series was titled Defenders.

I started this process in 2006. I talked to Dean about the title. We were both aware of the various Marvel Comics series titled The Defenders (and The New Defenders and The Secret Defenders and…and…) but I knew a mystery novel about 1969 wasn’t going to overlap in its marketing with a comic book series that had published intermittently. Even though there was a short comic miniseries in 2005 and then another in 2011, The Defenders never really caught the attention of non-comic readers the way that other comic book projects did.

I figured I was safe.

The title fit the book and the imagined series extremely well. I was excited about it, even as I struggled to make the first book work.

It took a lot of redrafting (starting over and finding the right voice) before I hit on the novel that I was meant to write. And the catalyst for me was a short story that I wrote to explain Pammy Griffin to myself. The story’s called “Blaming The Arsonist.” It appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine earlier this year.

“Blaming The Arsonist” took a few drafts all by itself. Initially, I thought it began in May of 1969, when the People’s Park turned into such a nightmare in Berkeley, California. But the actual story took place much earlier—in January of that year. The things you learn when you research—such as the fact that an arsonist was working the UC-Berkeley campus in January of 1969, and that arsonist was never caught. (At least that I know of.)

As I wrote “Blaming The Arsonist,” another character showed up. A former Vietnam Vet, a nurse, named June Eagleton, whom everyone calls Eagle. Once she appeared, I had the novel in my head completely because she was the missing piece.

Like Marvel’s Defenders, my Defenders was also about a team, and that team was Val, Pammy, and Eagle.

Only…Marvel screwed me up.

By the time I wrote the book that’s coming out in October, Marvel and Netflix had announced a TV series called The Defenders. I had a long talk with Dean about it. At that point, streaming wasn’t as big a thing as it is now. And no one knew if these Marvel properties on Netflix would take off.

But we knew the book would appear the same fall that the Netflix TV series would premiere, and that would result in a lot of confusion. Better to change the title of my book.

We batted around a million ideas, including synonyms for defenders. Guardians was wrong, sentinels was really wrong, and many of the other words just seemed like weaker versions of the same thing.

I don’t remember if I suggested A Gym of Her Own or if Dean did, but that title is the one that stuck.

It’s memorable. And we liked it inhouse.

We had trouble figuring out a cover for it, though. We even ran it by the hardcore Nelscott fans. Most of them were lukewarm about the covers they saw, and a handful said that the book didn’t sound like something they would be interested in.

All they had were mock-up covers and a title. That should have been a red flag. But it wasn’t.

Then one of my subsidiary rights partners, a man who loves my work, got the book. As far as I can tell, he didn’t read it because he went over it in a day (which he never does). I think he looked at the cover and the title, and decided the book wasn’t for their company.

His letter was lukewarm at best. I’d seen letters like that before, back when I wrote the first Smokey Dalton book. I’d also seen it with Kristine Grayson’s Tiffany Tumbles. Those letters were trying very hard to not to say this:

Your novel is about a group (type/protected class) of people we think will not appeal to our audience.

Now, I was starting to get a clue. That bothered me a lot, but I couldn’t quite figure out what he objected to. And since he was being cagey about it, I couldn’t figure out how to ask without being a whiny author.

We put the ebook up for preorder, and the sales were slow. We ran Amazon ads for all of the Nelscott books and by far, the one with the fewest clicks or even page looks was A Gym of Her Own. The one with the most was Street Justice, which is a great mystery title, even in teeny tiny thumbnail.

And that’s when Mystery Reader Kris spoke to Writer Kris. Would I buy a book called A Gym of Her Own? Absolutely.

But…

The title does not scream mystery or crime or noir. At all. It sounds mainstream. And even though the back cover copy talks about crime, it could still be read as mainstream/literary. Kris Nelscott has always been a bit of a literary darling. It wouldn’t be a big stretch to think she had written a literary novel.

Oooops.

So, I brought it up at WMG. And heard that a few others had noticed the sales were surprisingly slow, and there was an enthusiasm gap. We put together even more evidence from other responses, and realized that some readers thought the title A Gym of Her Own was synonymous with Feminist Screed.

Sigh. That’s not at all what this book is.

The best title for the book is, by far, Defenders. And I plan to write more books about Val, Pammy, and Eagle—some together and some separately.

Hmmm, rather like The Defenders on Netflix. Only they did the other series first—Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and the one I couldn’t watch, Iron Fist. Unlike Marvel, I wrote the overall first, and will do books about the individuals later.

Only when I talked about doing the individual books, we always had trouble with the marketing. Would the subtitle be a Gym of Her Own Novel featuring Val or A Gym Novel Starring Valentina Wilson or what? Too many words. Again, Defenders would have worked better. Defenders: Val or something like that.

But I couldn’t use Defenders. And I had gone the synonym route before.

Still, Allyson Longueira read aloud all the synonyms she could find. We discussed them.

And then we decided…Protectors.

Dean said, “That’s really what the novel is about. They’re protecting people.”

Allyson said, “It works with the overall series too.”

I said, “I already rejected that word. It’s too passive.”

And I had. Because in my mind, defenders are active people. They’re out in the world, fighting, which was the vision I had for the novel and for the series.

The word protectors, on the other hand, sounded like people who were dug in, who were maybe hiding or being quiet or being strong but not active. They would fight, but only when necessary which…dammit…is part of what the book is about.

Still, I was rolling the word around in my head when Allyson handed me the Advance Reading Copy of Gym, and I looked at the cover. With the cover Allyson had designed, three tough women near Sather Gate, the word protectors didn’t seem passive. It had a nicely menacing feel.

And it feels a lot more like a mystery than A Gym of Her Own. Less feminist screed, more crime.

I never would have settled on the word Protectors as the title of the book if it weren’t for Allyson’s cover. And while Protectors isn’t Defenders, it’s 9,000 times better than A Gym of Her Own.

So, about one month from publication, we’re changing the title. On everything.

We can do that because WMG Publishing is a nimble press. It isn’t hiring web presses to produce books six months in advance. It’s working on the same deadlines as indie writers. We could change the title one week after publication if we wanted to.

Plus, Protectors works for the entire series—or all four series, really. Because Val will have her novels, Eagle will have hers, Pammy will have hers, and occasionally the three of them will band together. We can use Protectors the same way I envisioned using Defenders. We really couldn’t do that with A Gym of Her Own.

Now all I need is the time to write the novels that are floating around in my head. Or rather, finish three of the starts that I had for Val. Take some of the material I had for Pammy and make that into a novel…with the three of them, I think. And write an Eagle book that’s been bugging me.

Plus there’s this hippie-dippy character in Protectors who really should get her own book. Does that make her part of the series too?

And suddenly…I’m overwhelmed with the amount of writing I want to do. Right Now.

You all know how that goes.

Titles are important. Sometimes they give the wrong message. I think A Gym of Her Own did that, unfortunately.

But titles should be memorable as well, and A Gym of Her Own is unique and memorable. Protectors is less so, but it works with the book’s theme so that helps. Plus, there will be more Protectors novels, so the title will get reinforced.

And then there’s this: The package for a book is still a package. With the wrong cover art, Protectors would have been a bad title too.

I think this package gives the series launch a better chance than the substitute title did. We’ll see how it all goes.

Because that’s the other thing about this new world of publishing: the launch is no longer important. The viability of the novel longterm is what matters. For this series (these series) to be successful, I need to write more books about these women. Which I really, really, really want to do.

It’s all about pacing.

And that’s a post for another day.


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“Business Musings: Rethinking A Title,” copyright © 2017 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.




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13 responses to “Business Musings: Rethinking A Title”

  1. […] but we realized that name wasn’t working (for the behind-the-scenes look at why that is, click here to read Kris’ blog post on that […]

  2. Widdershins says:

    Oiiiii! … glad you got there in the end. 😀

    I couldn’t watch Iron Fist either. 🙂

  3. Dave Raines says:

    I like “A Gym of Her Own” – for me, it alludes to “A Room of One’s Own,” which pleases me; but “gym” brings a physicality into that space or ownership. (Also, of course, I’ve read “Combat Medic,” which has introduced me to the place.) Still, “Protectors” seems more vigorous, and easier to brand with a series.

  4. Carolyn Hill says:

    Off topic a bit: I smiled when I noticed that the cover features Sather Gate on the UC Berkeley campus. I walk through that gate every time I go teach. 🙂

  5. Raymund Eich says:

    Kris, how much confusion would really have occurred if you had kept Defenders as the series title? I assume a reader looking for books set in the Marvel universe would quickly figure out from the cover art you posted, and a blurb about solving mysteries in the late ’60s, that this series isn’t what he’s looking for and wouldnt click buy. Likewise, a reader seeking a Kris Nelscott novel would probably not accidentally buy a Marvel product.

    What considerations am I missing?

    Full disclosure: I’ve published a fantasy novel entitled A Prince of the Blood by Raymund Eich, years after tradpub brought out a fantasy novel with the exact same title by Raymond E. Feist. (I wasn’t thinking of his novel when I wrote and published mine). I’m not aware of anyone mistakenly buying my novel and feeling gypped.

    • We considered it. Remember, we were initially going to do it. But some normal phrases end up meaning more. Think star wars, which is a great way to describe a million space opera books and was used pre-1977. So, when Defenders went to TV and especially when it became A Thing, we decided we were swimming upstream.

      Novels often share titles. It’s unavoidable. But some phrases are just too toxic or too Now to use.

      • So true about novels sharing titles. Before I published my fantasy novel Caught in Amber (in November 2015) I kept doing online searches, because I was convinced there was an old classic by that name and I wanted to avoid duplication. But I loved the title – it was perfect for my book – so if there wasn’t an old classic, I wanted to go ahead.

        I never did find the old classic I was convinced existed. But I did find a newer science-fiction book (published in 2013) using the title. I went ahead anyway. The other book looked to have a completely different vibe and audience from mine. It was dark and edgy and sci-fi. Mine is bright and hopeful and fantasy, more like The Secret Garden, except with cameo appearances by the Greco-Roman gods.

  6. mwlucas2014 says:

    Interesting stuff, Kris.

    The word “Protectors” has serious bad-ass connotations to me. I immediately think Larry Niven. I think you’ll do great with it.

  7. Protectors is a great title. This looks like it will be a terrific series.

  8. Bonnie says:

    Fascinating analysis. Although I adore the Smokey Dalton books, love the world, I didn’t immediately rush to purchase A Gym of Her Own. I wasn’t sure why. I figured I’d pick it up sometime but it wasn’t a “Oh!! Goody! New Nelscott book. Must have!” Protectors excites me and perhaps it was because of the connotations of the title. Something to remember for my own title struggles…

  9. ThePolyBlog says:

    Agree completely, A Gym Of Her Own would make me think it was a bit of a cheesy reference to A League of Their Own, and I’d run the other way. I’m not sure Protectors helps me much, a watered down version of Defender which would have been perfect. 🙁 Protectors isn’t a put off though…and without seeing the book of course, maybe it’s the right heft of a term. When I read your musing though, I was thinking more like some sort of knight or warrior, and when I ran the synonym generator to see how I would handle such a challenge, the word I liked the most was Paladin! hehehe

    Good luck with the new series, and thanks for letting us peer behind the naming curtain.

    P.

  10. I don’t know that it says “feminist screed” to me – maybe because I know quite a few very feminine women that can tie the majority of men into knots.

    But “A Gym of Her Own” doesn’t say “mystery,” either. Actually, it’s a “Huh, what’s that about? You’re not giving me a clue here…”

    I’m not sure about titles that emphasize a place, either – even if it is almost a character in its own right. I think of “Barney Miller” – I’m not sure it would have had the same impact if the show had been named “Precinct (whatever, I don’t even remember the fictitious number offhand).” The place was central – you felt disoriented the very few times they actually left the precinct room – but wasn’t in the title.

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