Searching for the Perfect Title: Ted Conover on 'Rolling Nowhere,' 'Coyotes,' and 'Newjack'
A series from award-winning authors and teachers of writing literary journalism on what they learned from the experience of titling their books.
The search for a perfect title is, of course, collaborative. It’s you and your editor, but it’s also your best friends and the publisher’s sales team. The search for the title of my first book, about riding freight trains with hoboes, lasted for months — for the entire time I wrote it. And the night I mailed it in — the typewritten manuscript, pre-computer — my mother had me to dinner in Denver. The good news: I was finished! The bad: except for the title.
Over dessert we brainstormed. I knew my ideas weren’t working and soon she could see that I didn’t like hers, either. “So tell me some titles of actual books that you do like,” she said. (Dialogue here is reconstituted to the best of my ability.) I told her I liked the title of Jack London’s story collection about hoboes, The Road. I liked Hard Travelin’, a biography of Woody Guthrie, and I liked a book of photos and interviews called Riding the Rails. Of all the books about hoboes I’d read, I said, getting distracted, the best was a collection of semi-autobiographical stories from the Great Depression by a man who had been homeless named Tom Kromer. I told mom how the book was dedicated “to Jolene, who turned off the gas.”
“What was the book called?” she asked.
“Waiting for Nothing,” I answered. “Doesn’t that say it all?”
The wheels were turning in mom’s head. “How about Rolling Nowhere?” she suggested. It struck me as perfect — the railroad-specific version of Waiting for Nothing. I added the subtitle, Riding the Rails With America’s Hoboes. Coffee was poured; such was my relief that it might have been champagne.
By the time the book came out, I was in graduate school in England. The Viking Press airmailed me two early copies. Holding that first book of mine in my hands was one of the highlights of my life, except … for the subtitle. The publisher had changed it from “Riding the Rails With America’s Hoboes” to “A Young Man’s Adventures Riding the Rails With America’s Hoboes.” I got on the phone to New York.“What’s with ‘A Young Man’s Adventures’?” I demanded. “That’s not what we agreed on.”
My editor, who otherwise had done a great job, sounded defensive. “We just thought that described it better,” she said. “You were young then.”
The book came out a year later as a Penguin Travel Library paperback. A few years after that it went out of print. But with the success of Newjack, Vintage Books, my new publisher, agreed to bring Rolling Nowhere back. That’s when I learned that you can sometimes change a subtitle. So for many years, the complete title has been what it was meant to be all along: Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails With America’s Hoboes.
Coyotes wasn’t my first choice for my second book, which recounts a year of travels with Mexican migrants; my first choice was Mojado, which means “wet” in Spanish. It was slang used jokingly by Mexicans themselves, which is why I liked it. But my editor put the kibosh on that. “How do you pronounce it? Mo-JAY-do?”
“Mo-HA-do,” I corrected him.
“Well, forget it. Books with foreign titles don’t sell.”
I don’t remember how we came up with Coyote, except that it had the benefit of being a word in English as well as Spanish. That it didn’t refer to the migrants but instead to the smugglers didn’t bother my editor, who thought it conveyed an atmosphere — and finally I agreed.
A few months before publication, he sent me the Vintage Books catalogue. There was my book, with an evocative photograph by Sebastião Salgado on the cover, and the word coyotes, plural, emblazoned across the top. Again I called New York. “What’s with Coyotes, plural?” I asked.
“Oh,” said my new editor. “It turns out that a novel is coming out at the same time from another house called Coyote. We added the ‘s’ so there wouldn’t be confusion.”
“Why didn’t they add an ‘s,’?” I demanded.
“Don’t worry, Ted — it’s basically the same,” he assured me.
My next book, about Aspen, was with the same editor. We agreed on that title, Whiteout, with its connotations of loss of perspective, of wintertime, and of cocaine. There were no surprises except for the first cover art he showed me: a photo of two women in bikinis and fur coats standing near the Little Nell gondola. After my flat rejection, he sent another one, of a photo of a snow globe they had commissioned just for the occasion. Inside the globe was the title of my book, chiseled out of a snowy mountain. I was very happy.
Newjack, about my 10 months as a New York State corrections officer, got its title from inmate slang for a rookie officer. That’s an idea I like: a title derived from the argot of a subculture. My new editor and I agreed upon it immediately. The only problem it has ever caused: Occasionally a reader confuses it with the movie Newjack City.
I had a new editor again for my next book, about roads. We struggled and struggled until one day I blurted out the idea I’d been husbanding for a while but was afraid to say out loud. “How about The Routes of Man?” I said.
There was silence. “Did you just pull that out of your hat?” he asked.
No, I said — I’d had the idea for a while. But I was afraid it might sound sexist. He didn’t think it did. And like me, he appreciated the echo of the classic photo book by Edward Steichen, The Family of Man, and the double-entendre with “roots of man.” The only hitch with it has been that some people pronounce routes as “routs,” and miss the double meaning. Ah well.
For my most recent book, which is about how to research and write the immersive non-fiction that I’m best known for, we considered the titles In Deep, Inside, The Art of Immersion Writing, and The Deep End. But after a long discussion over the phone, my editor and I agreed on Going Deep. As I hung up, I thought it might be a good idea to check online for books with that title. Already there was a memoir about football called Going Deep, as well as romance novels, gay and straight. So we moved the phrase to the subtitle, settling on a simple label for the title: Immersion: A Writer’s Guide to Going Deep.
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A version of this story was first published in the Fall 2017 issue of LJS, a peer-reviewed journal from the International Association for Literary Journalism Studies, a multi-disciplinary learned society whose essential purpose is the encouragement and improvement of scholarly research and education in literary journalism (or literary reportage).
Meet: About the Author
Ted Conover is an author who combines anthropological and journalistic methods to research social groups. His research has led him to experiences such as riding freight railroads across the western United States and working as a corrections officer. Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing (2000), based on his time as a corrections officer, won the National Book Critics Circle Award in general non-fiction and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Read: David Abrahamson and Alison Pelczar on Titles
Titles are no doubt a great source of stress for writers — a quick Google search will turn up pages and pages of articles offering advice on the subject. Much of the advice is conflicting, and the only general consensus seems to be how important a good title is. Titles have to sell the book by sounding good while also giving the reader an idea of what’s to come; they have to be catchy, short, and informative, all at the same time.
To make matters more complicated, it’s not always possible to know before publication how well a title will work. We can laugh now at the fact that The Great Gatsby was originally titled Trimalchio in West Egg or that Of Mice and Men was originally titled Something That Happened, but we can’t know how F. Scott Fitzgerald or John Steinbeck felt about those working titles.
Emanuel Haldeman-Julius, a publisher whose Little Blue Books pamphlet series sold hundreds of millions of copies, knew well the power of a good title. He would pull books from his list when their sales weren’t meeting his expectations. Then they’d go to “The Hospital” to be rejuvenated with new titles before rerelease. A few editorial assistants would brainstorm a potential list, and one of those would be tried.
The process could work quite well: Fleece of Gold sold 6,000 copies in 1925 but the following year, rereleased under the title The Quest for a Blonde Mistress, it sold 50,000 copies. Sometimes, even Haldeman-Julius’ young daughter would help; after reading the book Privateersmen, she summarized that it was about seamen and battles, so it was retitled The Battles of a Seaman.
How enticing those titles seem point to something else that can’t be predicted: how well a title will age. Eighteenth-century novel titles were short summaries in themselves, such as the full title of Daniel Defoe’s story of Robinson Crusoe, The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who Lived Eight and Twenty Years, All Alone in an Uninhabited Island on the Coast of America, Near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having Been Cast on Shore by Shipwreck, Wherein All the Men Perished but Himself. With an Account How He Was at Last as Strangely Deliver’d by Pyrates (1719). The greater detail was necessary at a time when novels were still entering the cultural mainstream, and it would take more than a word or two to pique a reader’s curiosity.
More recent classical works often have titles derived from other works. Popular sources include Shakespeare (Brave New World; Pale Fire), the Bible (The Sun Also Rises; Absalom, Absalom!), and the works of major poets (Of Mice and Men; I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings). Now, it’s common for works to have single-word titles — but the pressure to summarize, or least capture the essence of, the work within nevertheless remains.
Those articles online do offer a few modern suggestions to creating titles, but take any or all of the advice at your own risk. Methods range from A/B testing to random title generators (which can generate titles as inane as The Missing Twins to as nonsensical as The Teacher in the Alien).
Common title structures make something like a random title generator possible; the titles can sound real, albeit not always. And because there are no copyrights on titles, some small subgenres of fiction do see titles recycled every few years. But picking a title that truly fits takes a bit more work.