During the recent Words & Music: A Literary Feast in New Orleans, literary agent Jeff Kleinman again led the event’s most popular session for writers, a gathering of an A-list of agents and editors, answering audience questions. Refer to Part I for the full list of agents and editors.
In Part II, agents and editors weigh in with their opinions on what makes a great book title, what stops them reading a submission, and what parts of their jobs just aren’t fun!
What Makes a Great Book Title?
“Titles are really, really hard! I can tell you as an agent, with most of the books I sell, the title changes in the process. So you can keep busting your butt to get a great title and ultimately when it goes to publication it can be a different one…”
“I work primarily in non-fiction and in that universe many times an author and I have slaved to find the right title, settled on an acceptable title because it was just time to go out with the material, with the knowledge that it’s going to become a community decision at the publisher level.”
“If I get material, fiction or non-fiction, that has that amazing title that matches the voice, that intrigues me right off the bat. It does certainly help but I also tend to not penalize authors who haven’t found the perfect title because I understand what a process it is and I do value the publisher’s input, their marketing team’s input, the sales team’s input and hope that authors understand that as well.”
“I have what I think is a rather great title story. I got a novel in and I really liked it but there were fundamental problems with it that I might not have addressed with the author and the agent were it not for the fact that I was so in love with the title of the book and the promise of that! A great title can position the book and give you a sense of the story and the audience. In this case the title was, ‘People Who Knew Me’ and I loved the title so much I wanted the book that went with it. I worked with the author prior to acquisition and she came back and revised it and we bought the book. So yes, you don’t need the perfect title but if you have it, it’s really worth gold.”
“The title should be memorable. There are a lot of titles you come up with, live with for a couple of days and it just doesn’t stay with you. You realize it just doesn’t have that certain ring to it, so the elements need to be there that can surprise and be memorable.”
What makes you stop reading a submission?
“To whom it may concern… or group mailing a whole agent list… or reading something like, “This is the best book you will ever read in your whole life.”
“Cliches are cliches. A string of adverbs is a string of adverbs. Lazy writing is lazy writing. I tend to read too much of a submission hoping it will get better. But the rule should be, if you can’t grab me in the first chapter, I’ll put it down.”
“Yes, lazy writing: adverbs, too many adjectives, anything that can be regarded as ‘purple prose’ – anything too elaborate or too outlandish. And I have a personal pet peeve; I seem to get a lot of novels that begin with the protagonist driving a car. Also, anything that doesn’t have a distinctive voice and you know that very quickly.”
“And something I’ve seen a lot recently, where people start by staring. They’re staring off, thinking about stuff. ‘Jane stared at the room of people.’ That long moment of stasis… that can stop me reading.”
What part of your job do you hate the most?
“Having to say ‘no’ to a book. We have to reject books much more than we get to say ‘yes.’ I think authors sometimes believe we like saying no but the opposite is true. Having to say no is the most difficult part of our jobs as editors. We’d much rather say yes, but saying no is part of our job and the part we don’t enjoy.”
“I think it’s losing a book that I’m passionate about. If it’s a hot property and there’s an auction between publishers and it’s a blind bid, you just don’t know if you’re going to win. Some of them hurt more than others but the books that you lose that you love, that stays with you for weeks. I feel this kind of tender place and hole there. When you’re mounting a campaign in-house to get that book support, from marketing and publicity, you own the book that whole time in your mind and you’re constantly living with it, thinking about how you can bring it to market, how you can improve it, improve the ending, thinking about the title… It’s your baby and then suddenly you lose it in the auction and it’s gone and it’s no longer yours and that’s hard.”
“As an agent, the un-fun parts of running a small business, when the computers don’t work, the small challenges of being a business owner. And, never getting an answer from an editor and you have to chase them, and the author is asking why we haven’t heard from the editor. That can wear on you…”
Conclusion: Agents and editors are people, too. They get excited about great books, just like us. They get their hearts broken when it doesn’t work out, just like us. They crave originality and ‘the personal touch’ just like us. And yeah, their computers break, just like us.
It was obvious that these masked men and women, regardless of the pitfalls they’ve experienced and the ongoing challenges of a competitive publishing industry, are also eagerly anticipating the next author and book they’ll be able to successfully bring to market…