The Issue of Self-Publishing Control: Book Titles

savage1Control: I believe that is the best aspect of self-publishing. Sure, in the discussions that rage endlessly across the internet about trad-publishing vs. self-publishing, the major issue always seems to revolve around money. Yes, we get better royalties when we self-pub. When my first book was published by a NY house, my royalty rate for the first 100,000 books sold was ten cents per book. You read that right: ten cents. After that, it “jumped” to twenty-five cents.

But that issue has been beaten to death. I believe people overlook the bigger picture of self-publishing, and that’s having control over the way the book is packaged and presented.

The number one issue is the title. The title gives our readers the very first glimpse of the story. In just a word or two or three, we have to convey some idea of the story line, the genre, and the overall feel of the book. That’s a tall order.

My first book was an historical romance. Not exactly high literature, but that’s what I was reading at the time — reading and having extreme disappointment in. With almost every other book I read, I found myself muttering, “I can do better than this.” So I did. My book was set in the American West of the 1800s and the protagonist was a half-breed, raised white in New York society, who ran away to Kansas to search for her Cheyenne family. I titled it The Rare Breed.

When I sold that book to the NY house, the first thing they did after I signed the contract was change the title. My book became Love’s Savage Destiny. Believe me, I was not pleased. My book was not a bodice-ripper, and I wasn’t too keen on it being presented as such, but all of this was now beyond my control. In my haste to hook up with a traditional publisher and have a credible house logo on the spine, I had given up any influence over the cover or title of the book. The cover, luckily, wasn’t bad – not overly titillating but still suggestive. My book was definitely on the sensual side, but although the sex was graphic in a flowery way, I always felt that the real story was the heroine’s growth through her journey. The title and cover implied no growth except perhaps in the leading male character’s anatomy.

I still remember the first time my husband and I went to a chain bookstore to see if my book was on the shelf. The store had one huge wall full of romance novels, and we both scanned the shelves looking for mine. No, no, no, no … After several minutes of fruitless search, my husband finally said to me, “There’s a lot of Savages up there.” And there were. Way too many.

Because my publisher had the option on my next book, I dutifully sent it to them. It, too, was a western romance, this time set in Arizona’s Superstition Mountains. Again, the romance was strong but still secondary (I thought) to the heroine’s struggle to understand the father she never knew, the one that left her gold from the Lost Dutchman Gold Mine. My title was Superstition Gold, alluding not only to the literal gold but also to the gold of her new-found romance and relationship. As before, I would never consider the book a bodice-ripper.

My publisher begged to differ. I received a letter from them announcing the new title of the book was Love’s Savage Embrace. They also hoped I would be as “thrilled” with the title as they were.

Yeah, no.

It was at that point that I swore one day I would write a romance novel and call it Love’s Savage Armpit.

In any event, both books went through several iterations with my publisher and then finally were allowed to lapse out of print and the rights reverted back to me. Still uncomfortable with the bodice-ripper association, I republished them under my original titles and with less titillating covers, although I do reference the other titles on the publication page. (I’d hate to have readers think they were hoodwinked into buying the same book twice. “Hey, this sounds familiar….”) But I’m much happier with the books being presented in a more thoughtful, less scintillating way. Sure, I like sex as well as the next guy, but I’d still rather that my readers know my stories have more to them than that.

And now, being self-published, I can do just that.

Some of you might be wondering, did my books sell better with my titles, my covers, or with the publisher’s? It’s impossible to say; it’s apples and oranges. When the publisher put the books out, they were in drugstores and grocery stores, available in the turning wire racks where impulse buyers might see them. Now that I market my own books and the industry has changed so much, all my promotion is online or in person. The only thing I can tell you is that both books now embody the vision I had for them from the very beginning. They are my books: my stories, my titles, my covers, my packaging.

That’s the freedom of having total control.

Author: Melissa Bowersock

Melissa Bowersock is an eclectic, award-winning author who writes in a variety of fiction and non-fiction genres. She has been both traditionally and independently published and lives in a small community in northern Arizona. Learn more about Melissa from her Amazon author page and her blog.

30 thoughts on “The Issue of Self-Publishing Control: Book Titles”

  1. Great post, Melissa. I’d been toying with the idea of going the traditional route with my next book, but it seems the publishers are clueless about what’s going on in the marketplace, particularly where e-books are concerned. We can do the kind of rapid response to competitive pricing that they can’t. Which publisher is going to do a freebie or a a 99 cent sale to draw attention to a book when needed? Sales are standard retail practice. Without sales, moving merchandise becomes an even bigger challenge.

    1. You are absolutely correct, and that’s another reason why indie is so much better than trad. The behemoths just can’t jump fast enough. And, as you say, clueless about the marketplace. They’re constantly reacting to what sold last year, last month, not what’s hot right this minute. Our ability to be flexible and responsive is another major advantage. Thanks for adding that.

  2. At least your publisher was consistent. 😀 (Love’s Savage Armpit sounds kinky….)

    Seriously, thanks for the cautionary tale. Sometimes I wonder whether we know how good we have it!

  3. Exactly, Melissa. And since I see no indication that their meddling created oodles of cash for you it means that they got it wrong. When i found out publishers could do whatever they pleased with my work if i wanted them to publish it it pretty much clinched the self-publishing option for me. But then, maybe I’m a control freak.

    1. Yvonne, you’re right–no millions for me. Oh, sure, it paid a few bills, paid for a vacation, but certainly no windfall. I’m glad I had the experience; I learned a lot, but indie is the way for me. It’s more work but it’s more fun and it’s waaaay more satisfying.

  4. That’s another reason I self-publish. Lord knows if Harlequin had bought “Cowboys and Olympians” what they would have changed the title to. And because I stuck to my guns, that little book reached #1 on Smashwords and is a constant seller on Amazon.

    1. I have to laugh. I sent my first book to Harlequin and they liked it, but wanted me to change the heroine to an all lily-white girl who had only been raised by Indians. I declined. Like you, I shudder to think how the book would have ended up. Certainly not like I envisioned it!

  5. Shoot! I once wrote for Harlequin. My very first book published was a black character romance. I liked writing for Harlequin. I had some great editors and I learned a lot. It got snarky at the end because accountants became the roiling force in the top spots. Harlequin as I once knew it is no more. Folks did sneer at romance authors back in the day… I guess they still do. But my banker didn’t. Still doesn’t.

    1. Jackie, I really didn’t like it when they sent me their requirements outline. The heroine must be between 18 and 22 years old, the hero must be between 30-38 years old, etc. Just insert names. They really just wanted a plug-n-play romance and I could never go for it. But I’ve always been a rebel. Glad you had a good experience with them.

  6. ‘Love’s Savage Armpit’ – I would so buy that book. When is it coming out, Melissa? -grin-
    On a serious note, I think you’re right about control being a huge, unspoken issue; these books are our legacy to the future, so they should reflect our vision, not the bottom line of some corporation.

    1. A.C., I never got around to Love’s Savage Armpit, but I did write a romance satire called The Pits of Passion by Amber Flame. It’s completely over the top and lampoons every aspect of the beloved genre. I really never thought any publisher would touch it with a 10-foot pole, but one did and issued it as an e-book. I’ve since published it as both a paperback and an e-book, of course.
      And yes, this control is hardly ever talked about, but I feel it’s the largest advantage to self-publishing.

  7. Although I enjoy having control over my self-published titles, there is much to be said for distribution in grocery and drug stores. Given the choice between a big royalty or volume sales, it makes more sense to take the volume.

    However, the major publishers have generous return policies and CreateSpace does not. Therefore, self-publishers are unlikely to see their titles displayed in brick-and-mortar retail locations. On the other hand, I’ve read that mainstream publishers aren’t doing much these days to promote new authors. If the promotion isn’t there, the volume won’t be either.

    1. Dave, the industry has changed so much since my first book was published. Yes, my book was available in many grocery and drug stores, but as to marketing–zero. And that, I believe, has not changed. I think many authors think being trad-pubbed is their ticket, that the publisher will do all the marketing, set up book signings, etc., but it’s just not true. No matter how we publish, we still have to do that work. Knowing that from the get-go makes it easier to shoulder the work.

  8. I self-published using Createspace and kept the English language rights but sold translation rights. The book has just come out in Europe with almost identical cover design and illustration and the title translated faithfully. The translator himself tried only to be as faithful as possible to my text.Makes me wonder if this bulldozing of the author’s views on the best way to present their work is mainly an English-language thing.

  9. Melissa, I found myself shaking my head and chuckling while reading your post. Many authors can do nothing but grin and bear it during title and cover changes. Although I’m sure you were thrilled to find a traditional publisher, I bet that you’re much happier now that you have control of your books.

  10. This is a very interesting article, Melissa, but all through reading it I was wondering whether you had had any good professional legal advice before signing a contract with your first publisher. It is not difficult to insert a clause into the contract that restricts changes the publisher can make to both your story and your title. It’s your work, after all, and although they are paying for the publication, you are granting them the privilege of publishing it. As the author you hold the cards, their only trump is that they’re bearing the cost of production – and they’ll take most of the profit.
    You already have control, so use it and don’t sign without ironing out all the wrinkles in the deal first. Of course, if you’re desperate to see your work in print…..but then you’re giving it away.
    This may mean you have to learn a lot more about the whole process of trade publication, but you’re going to have to learn that anyway if you self-publish, and then you’ll carry the full marketing burden as well. At least with a reputable trade publisher you get some marketing support. Good ones are also open to sensible negotiation over things they think need changing. They should be able to make a clear commercial case to justify what they want to change. You, in return, need to be able to explain why your carefully crafted title is the one that will serve the book best and make it stand out from all the other savages on the shelves.

    1. Ian, you make a good point–for today. But remember that this was over 30 years ago and I was a wet-behind-the-ears newbie. It never occurred to me to have a lawyer look at the contract, and I had no reference for even thinking of such questions or demands to negotiate. It was just the way things were done. The publisher was the “expert,” and I was just following their lead. Nowadays, of course, it’s a different ball game, thank goodness. I have no regrets, though; I learned a lot and can look back and laugh at it all.

  11. Melissa, I like having complete control over the process. I don’t know any other way, and I appreciate when trad pubbed authors share their experiences.
    I read lots of different genres, and the network I have established with so many talented and supportive authors has encouraged me to experiment, not only with my reading but with my writing.
    Although I never considered myself to be addicted to romance novels, I have an old Harlequin romance called Sweet Sundown that I’ve kept for years. It is set in Australia, and was beautifully written. For a young girl from New Jersey it was exotic. I think this continues to be the draw of romance – escape. I love that pretty little story.
    Great post.

    1. Thanks, Lois. You’re lucky in that you’re writing in this time when we’ve come so far and learned so much, and we have lots of options. It’s really an exciting time to be a writer.
      And I confess, I have a handful of old romances that I keep around and re-read. The ones that are well-told, that balance the romance with the parallel story and keep things in perspective, are fun to have on hand. Of course that includes my own!

  12. Control is always accompanied by “out-of-control”, of course. Indie authors put up with emotional and financial roller coaster rides every month. They are totally in control of what they put into circulation, but have absolutely no control, they sometimes feel, over who gets to see their publications, and how, or how often. Certainly no control over who buys what.
    Relinquishing creative control sometimes seems like the easier option when you are faced with decisions over promotions that might not work, or interviews that backfire, or reviews that are unpredictable and damaging. Giving away control seems the easier option when everything, but everything, to do with a book is up to you.
    A different title or cover might seem like the more flexible choices when the more important aspects of discoverability and exposure face you in the morning. And the evening. And the afternoon.
    But at other times, when sales figures are good and the higher royalties kick in, everything seems rosy. Still, it’s not easily won. And it’s neither regular nor permanent. It’s such hard work that there are mornings when you do wonder whether the game is worth the candle.

    1. Rosanne, you bring up some good points. No matter how much control we have over our book, over the title, the cover, the promotions, we have zero control over the outcome of our work, i.e. who buys (or doesn’t). It’s true here and true in life in general, and a truth we really don’t want to hear. Which takes us to your second point, how much we would love to give it all up to someone else to do the work and take care of us. Unfortunately, I think many of us discover the price tag to that–the work may get done by someone else, but not the way we would want it done.
      Now I have to ask, what does it mean, “whether the game is worth the candle”? Must be an Aussie-ism!

      1. It’s a saying straight out of Victorian historical novels, Melissa – a real period piece. A card game that was going nowhere was termed ‘not worth the candle’ to see it by. The candle was more expensive than whatever would have been won or lost in the game. So they blew it out and went to bed. It does translate to how I feel sometimes about some – only some, mind – of my titles: “is the energy I spend promoting them worth the time, thought, money, or trouble?” Of course it’s not as cut and dried as that – I do get a lot of enjoyment from the work itself.

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