The Vexing Task of Settling on a Book Title

Perhaps my favorite book title of all time.

I met with my client yesterday to review the third version of the book proposal for his medical memoir. This time we went over the chapter summaries, which I had significantly reworked and beefed up to create a better sense of how the completed narrative will flow. We are hopeful that this one will be the clincher, and that our editor/agent will put her stamp of approval on it. But if it does pass final muster, we will face the daunting task of deciding on a subtitle that might instantly hook some editor’s interest, and make that gatekeeper to publication read on.

I was reminded that all authors struggle with this task by a post on a blog I follow, Writer Unboxed, appropriately entitled  “Untitled,” by author Anne Greenwood Brown. I plan to go back to this post and try out some of the amusing techniques she tested in her own endeavors to come up with a title for a new book. Just to give you a hint of what those techniques might involve, think algorithms.

The good doctor and I have been thinking about subtitles for over a year now, having agreed long ago on a title for the original manuscript, one we will keep now for the new book. To come up with that main title, I had researched extensively the titles of new releases from major publishers. I noted the convention of using one or two key words in the main title, and threw out some possibilities. My client did not like my first choice among all the suggestions that referenced his profession as a spinal neurosurgeon. But his wife loved it, and so did the editor, and he finally came around. The double meaning of the word is what clinched it; it is a word that very effectively evokes not only the author’s profession but also his values and the character strengths that allowed him to overcome great adversity in his youth.

Now, before I reveal that main title, and give you a chance to weigh in on a subtitle, let me run a few of the early contenders for title by you. Remember, my client, the ostensible author of this medical memoir, is an internationally known and respected spinal neurosurgeon who contributed significantly to the evolution of his profession. So for starters we played with the word “spine,” another word that suggests courage or strength of character. The subtitle (included on the first example below) reflected the original trajectory of the life story, from birth until reaching the height of his career. That subtitle won’t work for the reworked medical memoir. Hence, our search for a new subtitle. Here are those early candidates for title:

Early Contenders for Title

  1. Spine: A Journey From Refugee to Neurosurgeon
  2. A Spine Man
  3. A Strong Spine
  4. Spine and Spirit
  5. Spine and Soul
  6. Anatomy of a Spine Surgeon
  7. The Miracle Spine
  8. The Balanced Spine
  9. The Whole Spine and Nothing but the Spine
  10. The Honest Spine
  11. The True Spine
  12. The Straight Spine
  13. The Proud Spine
  14. Nothing But Spine
  15. The Spinemaster
  16. The Stalwart Spine
  17. Spine

Well, we eventually ditched the word “spine.” And, whether or not it was simply my repeating to him endlessly my own preference, my author decided, after enthusiastic reactions from friends, family, and the editor, to go with my suggestion. The working title is (drum-roll) . . . BACKBONE.

Now however, we are stymied over the selection of an appropriate subtitle, one that hints at the career of a spinal neurosurgeon who made game-changing contributions to the evolution of spinal neurosurgery. Some of our current attempts are below.

Current Contenders for Subtitle

  1. Backbone: Tales from the Dawn of Spinal Neurosurgery
  2. Backbone: Adventures in Spinal Neurosurgery
  3. Backbone: Pioneering Neurosurgical Inroads to the Spine
  4. Backbone: A Near Decapitation, a Summons from a Queen, and Other Tales from the Annals of a Spinal Neurosurgeon
  5. Backbone: Changing the Face of Neurosurgery, One Vertebra at a Time
  6. Backbone: The Inspired Life of a Neurosurgeon
  7. Backbone: One Neurosurgeon’s Courageous Quest to Conquer the Spine
  8. Backbone: A Neurosurgeon’s Memoir of Brains, Bones, and Battles with the Spine
  9. Backbone: The Triumphs and Defeats of a Spinal Neurosurgeon
  10. Backbone: The Making of a Spinal Neurosurgeon
  11. Backbone: A (Spinal) Neurosurgeon’s Journey, One Vertebra at a Time
  12. Backbone: Courage, Hope, Hard Work and Other Timeless Tools in the Trade of a Spinal Neurosurgeon
  13. Backbone: A Tool in the Trade of a Spinal Neurosurgeon
  14. Backbone: Scaling the Heights of Spinal Neurosurgery in Game-changing Times
  15. Backbone: A (Neurosurgeon’s) Story of Breaking Barriers between Brain and Spine
  16. Backbone: The Life and Game-Changing Career of a Spinal Neurosurgeon
  17. Backbone: The Struggles and Triumphs of a Spinal Neurosurgeon
  18. Backbone: Twists, Turns, and Triumphs on the Road of a Spinal Neurosurgeon

So, is your mind all agog now? Or perhaps it’s numb. Mine sure is. But I’d love to hear your take on the subtitle in the comments section. Give me your top five choices from the above list, or  if you would like to submit your own subtitle—or even suggestions for an entirely new title—I welcome all efforts heartily. Happy Wordsmithing!

6 thoughts on “The Vexing Task of Settling on a Book Title

  1. #15 would be my choice ….

    While reading through everything, I kept thinking, no, he broke the boundaries of his discipline by moving from neck to spine…

    I didn’t like the use of the word tale….it is so associated with fantasy and stories of the dark side….

    Whatever you come up with will be right in the end. So happy you are this far now.

    1. Thank you Twink2 for the comment. I will note your selection 🙂 I was hoping to get that distinction in there, that he did something groundbreaking in advancing spinal neurosurgery, especially instrumentation, and still have a snappy sound to the subtitle. The editor is also looking for that indication. And yes, good point about the word “tale.” I had not thought about that connection to fantasy. Hoping to accelerate everything now. The proposal (third version) is almost ready, and then I will polish up the second chapter rewrite. More on that in a phone conversation. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. Wow, this is thorough! I’m impressed with your research into publishing titles in addition to your own finesse at wordsmithing. Backbone is so much stronger (as a word) than spine. It even feels strong on the lips when you say it. My thought is to keep it simple to keep it strong. For that reason I like #6 best, followed by #10 and #5. Although I have to say #4 certainly catches me attention! Trust your gut and keep Backbone as the strong emotive word in the title.

    1. Wow…forgive my delay in responding Charli. Bad,bad, bad! The last couple of weeks have been intense. I can’t believe the work it has taken to streamline the proposal. It went from 78 pages to 49, so that gives you some idea. As of today though, the editor and I were still hashing around the subtitle. I must go back and see what numbers you chose…don’t have the post open. The editor likes a new one: Backbone: A Game-Changing Life in the High Stakes World of Neurosurgery. But yes, Backbone will stay. Forgive me too for not visiting the ranch. I am excited about the anthology and will respond to that once I get this monkey off my back!

  3. #8 for me, as it seems important to indicate that this is a personal memoir, but the alliteration makes it catchy.
    However, I’m wondering if any one title will cover all circumstances. At the moment, while I love the title of my novel Sugar and Snails, I’m conscious that it doesn’t work so well among the listings of academic books on the website of the professional magazine The Psychologist. Although they’ve welcomed novels for some time, I don’t think it’s struck them that the naming system is very different for novels and academic books. I suppose your client’s memoir is somewhere in between, combining specialist knowledge with accessibility to the layperson. Interesting post on the complexities of naming your book.

    1. Anne! Thanks for responding and forgive my tardy response. No way to treat a visitor! As you can see from my response to Charli, I have been slogging through edits…and just on the proposal. Now I will go back and see what your choice of subtitle was. Damn naming a book is hard. Interesting to hear of your experience with it. Sugar and Snails is certainly not academic to my ear, at least without a subtitle 🙂 And yes, an author seems to have much more leeway with a novel. The book I am working on is a medical memoir, so yes, some technical stuff but hopefully something anyone with an interest in that kind of think can enjoy. Again, thanks for responding. Will be back in the blog-o-sphere to visit you and Charli and Sherri et al soon!

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