"What's In A Name": Did I Screw Up the Title of My Book?

Josh and I met yesterday for a beer.  Josh is, without exaggeration, one of my favorite people ever.  He has wild black hair and today has an animated beard that is quickly turning “salt and pepper.”  He is wicked smart.  Too smart, really.   You know how they say that Einstein would forget to change his socks?  Well Josh is that level of smart.

Anyway, we met for a beer and got to talking about books.  Josh knows a ton of authors (and has a gift for writing himself) and he knows the challenge of finding a title that strikes the perfect balance between constructive identification and scintillating provocation.  Not an easy task, to say the least.

At one point in our conversation, Josh turned the question on me.  We were sitting at one of the square tables on the south end of the Hair of the Dog tasting room in Portland inner-eastside industrial district.  He leaned across the table and said to me, “I love your book, Tony, but I think you made a big mistake.”

I just stared at him, wondering if his “big mistake” coincided with the half a dozen “big mistakes” that I had already tried and convicted myself over since the book’s release last Fall.

“Your one big mistakes is your book’s title.  It does not get at the heart of your message.  I mean, once you explain it to me, I understand why you chose it, but the average reader does not get a chance to sit down and talk to you the way that I do.  I think it takes the average reader several chapters to really get the mind-bending message you are communicating.  Your book is about hearing God through non-Christians and that is a significant concept, but ‘Neighbors and Wise Men’ just does not deliver that important idea.”

I have often wondered the exact same thing… and now to hear these words from my savant friend.  Could he be right?

. . .

Naming a book is a complicated process.  And we struggled with it with my recent book.  We ended up landing on ‘Neighbors and Wise Men: Sacred Encounters in a Portland Pub and Other Unexpected Places’ and that title came under duress since Thomas Nelson’s Fall Catalogue of new books was going to the printer and they wanted to feature my book.

(If you want to hear an explanation of the book’s title, please watch the video at the bottom of this post.)

So, here are two titles that I pushed to the publisher that ended up on the trash heap.  To tell the truth they hardly made it to committee they were dismissed so quickly.  I am curious what you think:

Title One:  Disciple of the Damned

This was the title that I pitched with the initial book proposal.  It was good enough to get me the contract but I was later assured that the publishers would have nothing to do with it.  Maybe it was the word “damn” in the title (can’t have any cursing you know… and by the way, when you read the book you will notice that all  the naughty-words have been removed from its pages as well.)  I think the concern is that this title would turn off the ‘voting base’ of religious publishing.  Yes, it may appeal to the religiously-progressive and spiritually-dramatic but not to the average church-goer.

Title Two:  Aliens Saved My Religion: How Religious Foreigners (Muslims, Atheists and Drunkards) Taught me the True Gospel of Jesus.

This title was more playful (with an undeniably clear subtitle.)  I imagined a book cover that looked like a dime-store science fiction novel.  In fact my new friend Jonathan Case even mocked up a version for me (you need to check out Jonathan’s work… fantastic.)

I thought this book title had some real potential.  The sub-title pulls no punches, but the title itself is fun.  Maybe the concern with this one is that the main title was too esoteric or fanciful so it wouldn’t appeal to the average reader and relegate the book to the Martian Chronicles/Dungeons and Dragons crowd.  I don’t know.


Titling a book is a tricky thing, especially when it is connected to a fairly unknown guy like me (‘Tony the Beat Poet’ aside.)  In the first months of the release the title/look/marketing/placement of the book must hook a large enough group of early adapters to build momentum, and eventually lead to a Tipping Point in the broader reading populace (and in this case the publisher sees that reading populace as church-going Christians, though I hope it can have a much broader appeal.)  In the latter stages (after those first months), many believe the book’s title/look must then appeal broadly enough so as not to get pigeon-holed in a sub-group and therefore have the possibility to go viral (Blue Like Jazz and The Shack for instance, while not particularly dramatic names, once the books took off, the titles/looks of the books would turn no one away.)

So, here are my questions for you, dear friend blog reader:

  • Did I blow it on my title choice?
  • Do you prefer “Disciple of the Damned”?
  • Do you prefer “Aliens Saved My Religion”?
  • What do you think generally about the gauntlet of marketing a book?

Be @ Peace


Watch this to learn more about the title “Neighbors and Wise Men”, an allusion to the power of the religious foreigner.

15 Responses to “"What's In A Name": Did I Screw Up the Title of My Book?”

  1. Hah. Naming has been hard, important work from the day Adam got a job doing it. I spend significant portions of time naming (and re-naming) things in my work (software development), because it matters even what i call things for the sake of my own understanding, all the more if someone else will have to work on my code. It’s hard to find that balance between meaningfully descriptive and user-friendly. Both are important, and sometimes you just have to sacrifice on one of them. It will inevitably be clear to those paying attention that the name is not a perfect balance. Critique is always easier than creation, after all. But i’m not convinced a perfect balance is always possible, and in the end, a name must be chosen, future claims of “mistake” be damned.

    That said, i like “Neighbors & Wise Men” better than the other two. Did Josh have any name ideas? I can’t think of any better than what you’ve got.

  2. Tony, I think Josh is right technically. But I think your title “Neighbors and Wise Men” hit musical notes that offers to the reader that *across the fence* perspective that just never seems to pop up in conversations. We get close to it often . . . but you land a 747 on a strip of gravel on the Oregon Coast. You could have picked hundreds of titles because 100s of titles have yet to be used . . . because few books have yet to transcend into such a reality of beauty.

    You know already how I feel about this book. Josh is everything you describe, but Josh could also say that about 95% of the books out there too! (Josh could — others could not).

    You just happened to meet up with the one guy who could nail it. Everybody else is still on their way to discovering this excellent book because of its title. If i were to take a super quick jab at naming the book I would call it: **Evangelical Difficulties Over Beer, Muslims & Woman and More Beer** Sub Title: But Not Necessarily In That Order.

    The point is, your book would sell with 200 different possible titles.

  3. Tony – interesting question. I definitely like the current title better than the other two. My recommendation would be that if/when you ever did a rerelease – 8th printing! – that you tweak the subtitle a bit. I would remove the “Sacred Encounters” line and be more specific with the reality that you learned and were changed by your friends outside of the Christian faith. Maybe go with “Neighbors and Wise Men: How my Muslim and Atheist friends enriched my journey with Christ” – or something like that.

  4. You originally told me you wanted to title it: “Things I learned about Jesus from my non-chrisitan friends.”

  5. Having gone through the same process I understand your concern, but I don’t think you mis-titled your book. I like the idea of the title and I “got it” ESPECIALLY with the subtitle when I saw it at Wild Goose.

    I think the real thing lacking in your case is good PR and I am not impressed with how little Thomas Nelson as done to spread the word about your book. It is an important book that has greatly encouraged me over the past week as I’ve read it. I am praying Thomas Nelson gives a good push in terms of PR so that your book gets it’s much earned shot.

    Much love to you brother!

  6. Man, the Christian market particularly is tricky on this topic. If you offend people they won’t pick up the book (or if they think you might offend them). The quirkier book titles might hit a certain portion of an audience, but not the people who are walking through the Christian bookstore.

    And in the “regular” bookstore the Christian books are off hidden away somewhere unless they become giant sellers. My publisher wasn’t so sure about my first two titles, either. There’s no way to know if they would have sold better with different titles… I’m guessing maybe not (?).

    Anyway… I like your current title. Although I will say I like the cover your friend did a LOT.

  7. Wait. I just looked at that again. You know Jonathan Case? How do you know everyone? I thought “Green River Killer” was amazing and I just ordered “Dear Creature” the other day. That’s awesome.

  8. I understood your title as soon as I read the description of the book. I don’t think it’s a stretch. “Aliens Saved My Religion” is fun.

    The working title of my first book “A Train Called Forgiveness,” was “Cult Boy,” as it’s in part about my childhood experience in a cult. Some people think I should have stuck with “Cult Boy.” I chose “Train,” because the book is really more about my journey dealing with the effects of the cult than it is about the cult itself. Sometimes we take chances in titles. I mean look at Donald Miller’s “Blue Like Jazz.” How ambiguous is that?

  9. Elizabeth Moore March 1, 2013 at 13:39 Reply

    Sacred Encounters in a Portland Pub would have communicated the message to me. But then I am a Mature woman who has been around the block a few times 🙂 Probably the crowd you want to have reading the book are the 20-30 somethings who have drifted away from organized anything and have a high value of authenticity, are skeptics for all kinds of valid reasons and I can not pretend to know what will grab them.
    Bolt is reading your book now, Tony, and really enjoying it. We can put ourselves right in there with you. Wish we could sit with you in one of Portland’s tasting rooms and talk about the book! On our next visit to Portland to see our son, let’s connect and do just that. Meanwhile, press on and may you have Anne Lamotte scope soon 🙂

  10. Hi Tony. When the reader is ready, the book will appear – and so, for me, it has. And your title is spot on. May God bless, keep and prosper you – and may your book go viral – as well it should. 🙂

  11. Tammy Drayer-Martin March 1, 2013 at 20:07 Reply

    I did get a kick out of the title James Small wanted you to name it 🙂 I think your subtitle is helpful in understanding what the book is about and cannot imagine how hard it must have been to really decide on something marketable that would explain your book in a line. I have a friend whom I feel should read this book, but he would never be found wandering through a Christian book store since he feels that Christians in general are hypocrits and has wandered far from his roots and proclaims he is agnostic. I like that your title tells you what you need to know but does not make it too churchy – though adding the women and more beer part probably would have helped 🙂 your book is amazing.

  12. Hey Tony,

    I actually loved the title you went with. Thanks to my wife who works at a local Christian book store and is constantly perusing the shelves for good reads- (i have to admit) it was your provocative cover and title which drew me in first, and then your name and how I had already been introduced to you as a reader. Your heart’s honesty is what caught me up in up in your story- from the cover to the last page. When I was hosting a live radio show on taboo issues in the church today when living in Albuquerque- we would all go out to the local bars down town and talk about the shows- often with friends who weren’t Christians and didnt listen to the show. I got some of the best feedback on outsider’s perceptions of Christians ever, and your cover and wording helped conjure those memories back like h’orderves before the main course.
    You did a wonderful job as far as im concerned!

  13. I chose the book mostly because of the title and cover art and the fact that it was set in Portland. While those may not have been the deepest reasons to be drawn to a book, the fact is that the words inside have been hugely significant to me, and to be honest I probably would have missed out had it not been the right thing to catch my eye and mind at the right time. Right title for me, and I assume right title for many others.

  14. I thought the title was perfect. I get several books across my desk every day and discard most of them, especially ones that scream for my attention by being too cute or dramatic. Neighbors and Wise Men grabbed me because it struck something in me that has been stirring for awhile: the need to break out of the closed-mindset of the evangelical subculture and hear the perspectives of ‘ordinary’ people. So, for me, you nailed it.
    (PS — Not that I agree everything in there: Lost people are lost whether they know it or not: and that was Jesus’s word for them.)

  15. Oh yes – Neighbors and Wise Men is a great title! Absolutely gripping and having read the book now – you couldn’t have chosen a better one. It had to have been inspired by something greater than one’s self.

Leave a Reply