When expecting parents imagine life once their little bundle of joy arrives, one of the biggest things they tend to consider is the baby’s name. Do we want a family name? Something to honor Grandma? What’s trending right now? These are all questions you might hear if you were a fly on the wall of the freshly-painted nursery. Names matter. A lot. They will follow this child throughout his/her entire life.
When my husband and I were expecting our first child and we learned she was a girl, we toyed around with lots of potential names. Our last name, Micciche, didn’t mesh well with our top two contenders (Emma and Madison: both totally trending in 2011 when were having these convos). Emma Micciche would have too many syllables beginning with the /m/ sound, and Maddie Micciche was cute, but I wasn’t sold on it. We ended up choosing Haley, a name that went well with the previously chosen middle name, Louise (after – you guessed it! – my grandmother). But my sister-in-law, who is ironically now pregnant with her first, had claimed that name as hers if she ever gave birth to a girl. (She was nineteen years old at the time, and she liked the name because of the character “Haley James” on One Tree Hill.) So we had to ask for her permission to use it. Luckily, she said yes.
When characters are born on the page, writers give them names. I don’t think it’s quite as heavy a lift to name a character – in fact, I’ve heard some authors say that choosing names is a very intuitive process – but there is still some weight to the decision. That name will live with that character for three-hundred-something pages, so as a writer, you have to be fully on board with the choice and hope that the name of the character fully envelops the essence of who they are. In my debut novel, the character’s name is Gracie, and there’s a scene devoted to explaining how she got her name. She is funny and quirky and needs all the grace she can get as a smart girl who sometimes does dumb or silly things. The name fits her perfectly, and I can’t imagine her being named anything else.
It’s one thing to name a character, though, and quite another thing to name a book. When I was writing THE YEARBOOK (my debut rom-com, which comes out a year from today!), I wanted to choose a title that I felt encapsulated the plot. I pictured, in my mind, the sweetly drawn cartoon-ish characters on the cover of the trade paperback with a cute little pair of scissors and some cut-up thong underwear and an empty bottle of wine and pages ripped out of a high-school yearbook floating down from the sky like confetti.
I realize now that this sounds a touch cray to the unsuspecting reader of this blog post, but I’m here to tell you, it made sense.
The purpose of this blog is to share with you the insider stuff about publishing that you might not learn in an MFA program, right? So, get this. I got an e-mail from my editor last night informing me that they changed the title of my book.
They. Renamed. My. Baby.
Full disclosure: my editor was kind enough to give me the heads up that this would probably happen, and that it was the job of the marketing and publicity team to come up with a name that would pique readers’ interest and ultimately, sell more books. It’s the same thing they do with cover art: it’s carefully designed with whatever cover-art-algorithms are necessary to create more sales. I also heard about this from a friend of mine – incredible women’s fiction author, Shauna Robinson – so I braced myself for the inevitable renaming. (Although I would be lying if I told you I wasn’t secretly hoping they would keep my book’s original name.)
So here is what I learned. Apparently, there is something called “consumer testing” that happens behind the scenes in publishing houses – or at least at Sourcebooks, which is my publisher. I don’t know who the “consumers” are, but they’re given a list of possible names and, I’m guessing, some sort of synopsis or back cover copy and then are asked to vote on which title they think would work best for the book.
Bad news, you guys. They didn’t choose THE YEARBOOK.
So, back to my e-mail. Deb Werksman wrote: “Hi KJ! So excited to share that we have a winner from the consumer testing! THE BOOK PROPOSAL is what everyone really likes. Please let me know if you’re on board, and we’ll go ahead and make it official. I just LOVE it – it fits Gracie’s story so well!”
Real talk – when I saw the subject line of the e-mail (“New Title for THE YEARBOOK”), I braced myself. I wanted to hate it.
But I don’t. Turns out I actually like it. Like, a lot. It’s clever and smart and I could see myself picking up a book in Barnes and Noble called THE BOOK PROPOSAL and checking out the back cover. It makes sense for the story. So, I’m excited.
When I was born, my parents couldn’t agree on a name for me. My mom wanted Katherine and my dad wanted Karen. (Spoiler alert: They’ve since divorced, lol.) Anyway, they flipped a coin. My dad won. So my given name at birth was Karen Michelle Johnson. Over the course of my childhood, occasionally, my friends would call me KJ, a nickname I detested.
Fast forward to 2022. I don’t know if you know this (of course you do, because the Internet is a thing), but Karen is, like, the worst name a woman could have. It’s got white privilege written all over it, and is often used as an adjective in everyday vernacular. (Stop being such a Karen!) And, let’s be honest: it isn’t going to sell any books for me. People won’t be lined up outside of bookstores nationwide so that “Karen” can sign their new book.
My point is, names change. But the inside is what counts. The story between the covers didn’t change at all, even though the title did.
So, cheers to my debut novel, THE BOOK PROPOSAL, due out on May 17, 2023. It, too, is about what can happen when you hate your name enough to change it!