OLD POST ALERT! This is an older post and although you might find some useful tips, any technical or publishing information is likely to be out of date. Please click on Start Here on the menu bar above to find links to my most useful articles, videos and podcast. Thanks and happy writing! – Joanna Penn
Here's why and how, just in case you want to go through this sometime. It's quite a long, confessional style of post. I'm ‘fessing up to my mistakes, so be gentle with your comments!
Basically, none of us know what the hell we're doing when we start writing 🙂
Here's how my first book title journey went.
In November 2009, I joined NaNoWriMo in an attempt to write something fictional. Amusingly, I videoed the process – here's Day 1, and you can follow the whole journey here. The working title for the book on Day 1 was Morgan – and Morgan Sierra is still the name of my main character and alter-ego, so that hasn't changed.
Then I started to incorporate aspects of Carl Jung and psychology of religion into the book, and the working title became Mandala, after the patterns in Jung's Red Book which I was reading at the time. As I continued to write and edit over the following year, the title changed again to Pentecost – based on the pillar of fire that (in my story) empowered the stones of the Apostles.
I have a Masters in Theology from Oxford University, and although I don't adhere to any religion, my interest in all things religious/supernatural/paranormal/spiritual/psychological drives my writing. Oh yes, and my favorite movie is Con Air, which explains why I blow so much up in my books 🙂
“From the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona to Castle Houska in the Czech Republic, no one destroys landmarks better than Penn. Despite her penchant for demolition, Penn's GATES OF HELL is a must read. I enjoyed every page.” Amazon review from i Love Reading
I then decided that I would write books with titles that began with P in this series. So the next book was Prophecy – based on the prophecy in Revelation that a quarter of the world must die … (cue dramatic music) … and then I wrote Exodus, which doesn't even begin with P … you're getting the idea now that I didn't really have a clue back then!
At the time, I didn't do any kind of market research into the niche or my audience, or what the covers might look like, or what my target market would expect. I just ‘had a feeling' about the type of books I wanted to buy and read, and I buy anything with faintly religious sounding titles.
Back then, I knew a lot about non-fiction marketing, but nothing about how to market fiction.
I published Exodus in December 2013 and I started questioning my titles at that point. I was getting some 1 star reviews saying that the books weren't Christian (they're not, even though they are respectful to all religions). I wanted to target the Dan Brown market – but I should have realized that his breakout book was called ‘The Da Vinci Code,' NOT ‘The Jesus Code.'
While my books are based on biblical history and archaeology, they are about as Christian as James Rollins, Simon Toyne, Steve Berry and others who write mainstream conspiracy thrillers/action-adventure. I have a lot of Christian readers who enjoy the stories, and I am respectful to all faiths in my books, BUT I am not a Christian and I don't write books that are specifically Christian.
So the next book I wrote was: One Day in Budapest. A much more mainstream title that encapsulated the fast pace and also the geographic element of the book. I've continued to write ‘Day' novellas and am very happy with those.
I make up titles for new books as I am getting ideas, and usually change them at least once before publication. For example, Day of the Vikings started out as Ragnarok. Gates of Hell started out as Inquisition.
I changed my ARKANE covers again in March 2014, after a number of articles about using people on the covers convinced me to do the same.
We added a Lara Croft style figure on the first 3 books, and also changed Desecration from a white, artistic, literary cover to something more befitting a crime thriller (as below).
All of this demonstrates how hard titles and cover designs can be when you do this alone.
As for the title change – essentially, I've been considering a change since Exodus came out and recently I signed with a new agent. We have lots of ideas for potential foreign rights markets and changing the look and feel of the series now will help with pitching. So I bit the bullet, made the changes and despite the pain, I'm really happy with the result.
So, what's the conclusion from all of this?
It takes time to get to know your own voice as a writer
It takes a few books to really get to grips with what you're writing, who you want to be as a writer, how you want your brand to look and also what your books even mean.
It also takes time to understand what your readers think about your books. Who do THEY compare your work too?
My VA, Alexandra, and I recently went through over 1000 reviews on my books to work this out. My readers compare my ARKANE series to Clive Cussler and Indiana Jones, as well as Dan Brown & Steve Berry – with a hint of National Treasure, James Bond, Daniel Silva, Matthew Reilly and Kate Mosse. I'm happy with that 🙂 and so we used those authors as models for the new covers.
Surprisingly, the whole process of working through what the ARKANE brand is has made me more comfortable in my thriller writer skin. Taking a step back has enabled me to evaluate where I am, where I'm going, what I want to write next.
Although I've talked previously about my shadow side coming through in my fiction, about how I am two people, I am finally feeling that I am becoming a more integrated soul. To illustrate this, I've just changed my JFPenn.com site and made the whole thing a lot more smiley. My books are actually really fun – yes, a high body count – but pacy and full of adventure. Just like Con Air 🙂
It's time I embraced the entertainment side of being a writer and stopped being so serious! (I'm going to blame Oxford and my literary upbringing for that!)
So how does all this apply to your author journey?
Best practices for book titles
For non-fiction – unless you are super famous/have a platform and people will buy anyway – use SEO/keyword research for some part of your title, either the main title or the sub-title. Read more on this here, when I retitled my first non-fiction book and sales jumped 10-fold.
Fiction book titles are really difficult – so difficult that there are very few blog posts on it on the internetz. Fiction titles need to:
- Communicate a promise to the reader – which is further aligned to the cover images – which mesh perfectly with what the customer expects in the book. If there's anything that jars the reader in any imperceptible way, they won't buy.
- Resonate with genre – for example, literary fiction author Roz Morris commented on our podcast interview about a book she was originally calling Comeback, but actually that title was more like a thriller movie featuring Liam Neeson, not a literary masterpiece. So she changed it to Ever Rest.
Ultimately, the title, cover and description are your primary marketing materials for your book.
Yes, you need to write a great book. That's always the first thing. But if you don't nail those 3 elements, no one will pick it up or download a sample.
This is one of the mixed blessings of being an indie author – creative freedom means you get to title and cover your book how you want. And yes, you might get it wrong. Luckily, we get to change things if we want to.
One other thing, there is no copyright on book titles in English, so you can use a title that others have used. But I wouldn't publish a book called The Da Vinci Code or Jurassic Park. There is copyright on book titles in Germany and potentially other countries, so be careful with your titles in translation.
OK, let's get into the nitty-gritty details.
Won't changing the covers and titles confuse readers?
Readers can't download the same ebook twice, so as long as you keep the same numbers on the various stores e.g. ASIN on Amazon, then there won't be a problem. Also, you can add ‘Previously published as …' in all the important places.
The main issues have been print copies, as they require new ISBNs – but I gave the change a positive spin and did a giveaway of signed First Editions to my fiction email list (signup and free book here!) It was really popular and I got lots of positive feedback about the new covers and titles too.
Yes, you may end up annoying a few people but to be honest, I'm only 40 and I have many, many years of writing ahead of me. I want to position myself for the long term so I needed to do this now as I have more coming in the ARKANE series. Better to do it now rather than later, when of course, I become a 10 year overnight success 🙂
How to change ebook titles and covers
You don't lose reviews or rankings if you keep the same ID numbers on the various platforms e.g. ASIN on Amazon KDP. Just change your source files and metadata and republish. Add in an extra line ‘previously published as' so people don't get annoyed.
If you have lots of books, you will have to update the back matter and sales descriptions of all the other books as well to reference the changed books. It took me several days to do all this and it was extremely painful – BUT hopefully worth it! I also took the opportunity to add teasers about the next book in the series so hopefully that will also increase sell through.
Here's some more specifics per store.
KINDLE – It takes a couple of days for the cover to update even though the interior files will update really fast on the store. This meant that there were a few days where the title didn't match the cover and I held my breath expecting bad reviews. No way to get round that though and everything was fine. My author page looks awesome now 🙂
KOBO – No issues at all. Changes went through fine.
iBOOKS – No issues at all. Changes went through fine.
NOOK – The key field is on title, so you'll need to ask for their help. My sales have been so low at NOOK recently that I just went ahead and lost my history and reviews. If you have a huge audience on NOOK, then this might make you think twice about re-titling, but re-covering is no issue.
SMASHWORDS – No issues at all. Changes went through fine.
How to change print book titles and covers
Unfortunately, a title change means new ISBNs which means new files. You need to unpublish the old ones. Make sure you order a few copies for posterity. You never know, they may be valuable one day!
I use Createspace and free ISBNs so I created new projects for all 3 books, changed the interior and cover files and republished.
Link the new versions through Amazon Author Central and ask them to unlink the old ones. You can never get rid of the older editions in that they will be available as secondhand, but you can make sure the new books are linked to the Kindle version with all the reviews on.
I also updated the print files for all my other fiction books with the name changes as part of the series in the back matter and took the opportunity to update my Author Bio and other small things while I was there.
How to change audiobook titles and covers
My audiobooks are published through ACX and it has been a bit of a pain. It should be simple enough. Contact the help at ACX and ask for changes to the projects. Send them the updated cover, opening and closing credits and that should be it.
Unfortunately, because I sent 3 at the same time, the helpdesk got confused and loaded the wrong title and cover to the two of the books. I'd suggest this wouldn't be an issue with just one book – and it worked out fine in the end.
Was it all worth it?
Yes, indeed, although I suspect I will be updating links on this site for years to come. I needed to take a good look at my fiction brand and the new covers and titles give me a good base going forward. As the first 3 books in the series, they are super important and STONE OF FIRE is my permafree title, so it needs to look good. I'm confident that my agent will be able to take these to foreign markets and overall, I am super happy with the changes.
What do you think? This has been a megapost, so please join the conversation and let me know your thoughts in the comments below.