The Evolution of a Book Title

I’ve been getting a lot of email from readers who are confused about the title of my next book. No wonder they’re confused; until a few weeks ago, I didn’t know what the title would be, either! Readers may think that authors choose their own titles, but they would be wrong. The title (along with the author’s name and the cover design) is a crucial marketing tool, and a bad title can kill your sales — or it can make them.

Which is why my publisher, my in-house publicist, my agent, even my UK publisher, all get into the act.

It can drive an author crazy.

About a year ago, I provided my publisher with the bare bones of what I thought the book was about. I told them that a continuing character named Joyce O’Donnell would get murdered, that there’d be Satanic overtones to the death, and that I didn’t know much more than that. My editor took a cue from one of our rambling phone conversations and suggested the title COPYCAT. I loved that title, and I told her I’d try to make the book fit it.

If that sounds like putting the cart before the horse, you’re absolutely right. But everyone at Ballantine was so enthusiastic about the title, I thought I should try to make it happen.

The problem is, as I wrote the book, it changed into an entirely different creature. That’s what my books do. They change shape, they morph into something unexpected, and I have no control over that. It just wasn’t turning into a COPYCAT story.

It was turning into a book about the history of Satan.

As the book took shape, I was able to give Ballantine enough of a description for a flap copy, and here’s what it will say:

“If the darkest, most inhuman impulses could live, breathe, and walk among us, what shape would they take? What face would they wear? And who could stand against them? If anyone can answer such questions, it’s New York Times bestselling author Tess Gerritsen, in this jolting new novel of suspense.

Christmas Eve in Boston is no longer a holy night for medical examiner Dr. Maura Isles when Detective Jane Rizzoli summons her from midnight mass to the scene of a chilling homicide. A young woman has been butchered in an act of carnage that has left even veteran cops in shock. Scrawled in blood are mysterious ancient symbols and the phrase, in Latin: I HAVE SINNED. But the one clue that truly astonishes Isles and Rizzoli is the identity of the last person called from the dead girl’s phone: Dr. Joyce O’Donnell, a controversial celebrity psychiatrist who’s made her her name defending serial murderers. Who placed the final call? The victim? Or her killer?

True to form, Dr. O’Donnell isn’t inclined to cooperate with police. She’d rather push Rizzoli’s buttons with taunting reminders of their past clashes, reawakening Rizzoli’s nightmarish memories of another killer who nearly made the detective one of his grisly trophies.

Then a second victim is butchered on the Beacon Hill doorstep of The Mephisto Club, of which Dr. O’Donnell is a member. This eccentric society is led by the enigmatic historian Anthony Sansone, who is obsessed with tracking down evil. He hopes to confirm his startling belief: that Satan Himself actually exists — and walks among us.

Now Sansone’s theory may be about to be proved. For evil itself stalks the city of Boston, in the guise of a killer who taunts Isles and Rizzoli with ever more eerie clues.

A killer whose work has only just begun.”

Whew. So that’s the story. And COPYCAT suddenly seemed completely wrong for the title.

So I came up with my own title, and my number one choice was THE MEPHISTO CLUB.

But it presented problems, because Ballantine felt that the vast majority of the public wouldn’t have any idea that “Mephisto” was short for “Mephistopheles.” They thought it would whiz right over the heads of the majority of the reading public. (And they may be right.) The title that they suggested was EVIL.

I thought that one was okay. I wasn’t wild about it, because it felt too diffuse, too nonspecific. But we went with it… for awhile.

Until my UK publisher said, “Absolutely not. We hate it.”

Back to the drawing board. We came up with some alternatives: FALLEN ANGEL. THE DARK. THE FALLEN. None of them made me stand up and cheer.

And I never stopped thinking about my old favorite, THE MEPHISTO CLUB. It was my first love. It still called to me.

I began polling independent booksellers. I showed them a list of all the possible titles. Every single one said, “THE MEPHISTO CLUB hooks me right in. I want to read that book.” EVIL left them with the blahs. FALLEN ANGEL caused some “Huh?” looks. My literary friends (and yes, my friends do tend to like literary fiction) all went for THE MEPHISTO CLUB, too. None of them liked EVIL or FALLEN ANGEL.

By now, it’s already January, and I still don’t have a title. And the book’s almost finished. It has to go into the publisher’s catalogue. What are we gonna call it — THE UNDECIDED?

I’m getting more and more cranky because this story I’ve been working on for almost a year now, the book I’ve struggled to give birth to, is going to go out in the world with a name that’s a newborn baby’s equivalent of “Elmer.” (No offense to the Elmers of the world.)

But then — a miracle. My editor calls to tell me they’ve decided the title will be THE MEPHISTO CLUB. I’m stunned. “What changed everyone’s mind?” I ask.

The answer? Barnes and Noble.

Yep. The buyer of Barnes and Noble was consulted about the title, and she (or he, I don’t know) said THE MEPHISTO CLUB was the title they were excited about.

So in a roundabout way, I ended up getting my way. I’m delighted about it. I realize that many readers will not understand the significance of the name “Mephisto.” They won’t connect it to Mephistopheles, the servant of Satan.

But I have a high regard for my readers. I think they’re like me — curious about the obscure, the unexplained. They’ll look at that title and wonder who — or what — “Mephisto” is. They don’t need a punch-in-the-face title like KILL KILL KILL or BLOOD AND GUTS. They’ll go for something that appeals to their intellect and their curiosity.

At least, I hope so.

(And an update, for all of you who wanted to know — yes, today, I finally washed that flannel shirt!)

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