Writers: When Your Friends Hate the Title, Change It!
by J. Lawrence Matthews
An acquaintance who had written a fictionalized version of his work experience recently asked me for advice about how to market his manuscript. I told him to first make sure it was as good it could be.
“Has it been professionally edited?” I asked.
“Have you given the manuscript to friends and family so that they can critique it?”
There was a pause, then, “No.” The manuscript was ready to shop, he said, so why bother imposing it on friends and family?
I told him it would be well worth the ‘bother.’
“Tell them you don’t want to hear whether they liked it or not, you want to hear what parts of it they didn’t like or didn’t buy, and exactly where it lost them.”
I’d done it with my first novel, and although the feedback didn’t change the plot, the theme or the characters, it helped me find weak spots in the manuscript before publication so that I didn’t have to read about them in Amazon reviews afterwards.
Turned out to be about the best decision I ever made, writing-wise.
Asking only for negatives is the key: it frees up your friends to be honest.
And if you’re worried it will be uncomfortable or upsetting to hear what a friend doesn’t like about your novel, you’ll find it’s exactly the opposite, because you’re learning what will help you make the manuscript better.
In my case, almost every time one of my friends cited a specific scene, snippet of dialogue or bit of action as being dull, out-of-left-field, or just didn’t work for whatever reason, that little voice in the back of my head said, “Yep, I kind of knew it wasn’t exactly right, but I thought I got away with it.”
But I hadn’t gotten away with it.
And now I could fix it.
Getting back to my acquaintance with the work-related novel, he called several months later after doing what I suggested.
“For the most part, it was what I expected,” he told me. “They raised a few issues with the storyline that I had to fix. Nothing major, but very helpful.”
Then, he dropped the bomb.
“Oh, and all the women hated the title. But nothing I can do about that—”
“Wait. All the women hated the title?”
I asked what the title was, and he told me. I understood immediately why it turned off women. (It made the book sound like a fast-paced Tom Clancy conspiracy/thriller, yet, from what I knew about the plot, it absolutely was not a Tom Clancy conspiracy/thriller.)
“Then you ought to change it,” I said.
He was aghast. He didn’t want to change it. The title was the title. It had always been the title. He couldn’t think how to change it. Etc. etc.
I pointed out that he had been given a gift. Most authors never get such honest feedback about something so important, until it’s too late.
“And women are at least half your readers. Why turn them off before they even buy it?”
Still he resisted, so I told him my own title story.
My book had been called The Death of Sherlock Holmes ever since the idea popped into my head a dozen years before publication. I thought it was a great title. I mean, who wouldn’t want to read about the death of Sherlock Holmes? As it happens, plenty of people, but nobody bothered to tell me until one day my editor—who had earned my complete trust by the way she had edited all 550 pages of the book, thoughtfully and with integrity—said, “You know, you might want to reconsider the title.”
My instant reaction was panic.
“But that’s the title,” I sputtered. “That’s what it’s about!”
“Actually, Jeff, it’s about a lot more than the death of Sherlock Holmes,” she said quietly. “It’s about bigger things than that.”
Inwardly, that little voice in my head told me she was right, but I thought I could never find another title and I didn’t want to go through the hard work of trying. I asked friends and family what they thought of the title. They agreed with my editor!
I began to consider changing it.
First, I employed Hemingway’s method of writing a list of one hundred different titles and crossing them off one by one. Nothing worked. I tossed ideas back and forth with my editor. Nothing clicked. Then one day I decided to reread the entire book with fresh eyes and an open mind. In the second-to-the-last scene, a phrase jumped right off the page.
“That’s it,” I thought.
Sure enough, my editor loved it.
One Must Tell the Bees was the new title.
After I finished telling this story to my acquaintance with the book whose title all the women hated, we moved on to other topics.
I don’t know if he’s taken my advice, but I hope he does.
And if he calls back, I’m going to tell him the story of my subtitle.
How to Get Your Friends to Tell You What They Don’t Like about Your Book:
- Ask friends within your target demographic. After all, asking an Old Adult to read a Young Adult novel won’t be any help.
- Ask friends who read a lot of books. They’ll have more to say and with better insights than an infrequent reader.
- Ask friends with skill-sets relevant to your book. If it’s got a beekeeper in it, for example, have a beekeeper read it. (I did!)
- Ask only for criticism. It may sound counterintuitive, but you’re really asking for their help, and friends are always happy to help friends.
About the Author:
J. Lawrence Matthews has contributed fiction to the New York Times and NPR’s All Things Considered. His short novella, The Case of the Disappearing Beaune was published in September 2022 by East Dean Press.
His novel One Must Tell the Bees: Abraham Lincoln and the Final Education of Sherlock Holmes (East Dean Press, 2021) is the first book to place Sherlock Holmes in America with Abraham Lincoln during the final year of the Civil War. New York Times bestselling author Bethany McLean called it “an audacious, fascinating page turner” and “a timely reminder that we can’t—and shouldn’t—erase the past.”