It sounds ridiculous, but I often find coming up with a book’s title to be more challenging than writing the book itself. Maybe it’s the pressure. The title is so important, after all. Maybe it’s the forced brevity. Writing a picture book is more challenging for me than writing a novel. Or maybe finding the perfect title is just plain hard. When I had trouble deciding what to call The Length of a String, my agent said, “Send me a list of titles you’re considering, and I’ll tell you which ones stink.” I sent her a list. She replied, “Yeah, they all stink.”
If a book is lucky enough to get published, the author and agent aren’t the only ones who weigh in on the title. The editor does too, of course, along with professionals from publicity, sales, and marketing. Even retailers occasionally have a say. The deliciously long subtitle of my anthology (Our Story Begins: Your Favorite Authors and Illustrators Share Fun, Inspiring, and Occasionally Ridiculous Things They Wrote and Drew as Kids) owes a few of its eighteen words to a request from Barnes & Noble.
But my newest book, about a group of sixth-grade investigative journalists, went through more title changes than even I would have thought possible. Here’s a brief history of the many, many “final” titles this book had before finally hitting shelves as The Renegade Reporters.
Working title: Morning Announcements
When drafting, I give my manuscript a boring filename that relates to the main idea. I got the idea for this book from doing author visits and discovering how many schools deliver the morning announcements in the form of a live TV show. Seeing elementary schoolers create their own news broadcasts in well-appointed studios made me want to write about a group of kids who work on their school news show, so I called my draft Morning Announcements.
Then I wrote Chapter 1 and found the main characters getting kicked off The News at Nine due to an unfortunate incident involving a dancing gym teacher and viral video. Ash, who thought she was a shoo-in for lead anchor, finds it torturous to watch the smug Harry E. Levin deliver the news instead. It’s equally unfair that her best friend Maya can’t operate the camera.
With the girls no longer a part of the morning announcements, my working title didn’t make much sense. But even if I’d stuck with my original idea and the book stayed focused on school news antics, I knew Morning Announcements wouldn’t be a very engaging title. It’d have to change.
First “final” title: Ash Underground
I loved the sound of this one, and I still do. Who needs The News at Nine and the fancy studio and equipment sponsored by educational software company Van Ness Media? Ash, Maya, and their friend Brielle decide to start their own news broadcast and put it on YouTube. The footage won’t be polished; it’ll be edgy and raw.
“It’ll be kind of like we’re underground,” Maya says.
“Literally,” Brielle points out, since they’ll be filming in Ash’s basement.
“That’s it!” Ash says. They’ll call the show Ash Underground.
That’s it! I thought. I’ll call the book that too!
Title 2: The Underground News
After acquiring the book for publication, my editor, Dana Chidiac, made a very good point: Ash Underground sounds cool, but it doesn’t tell you anything about the story. She suggested changing the name of the girls’ YouTube show AND the title of the book to The Underground News. I agreed, and I made the necessary changes throughout the manuscript as part of my first round of revisions. The story would change a lot more during the editorial process, but title-wise, it seemed like we were good to go.
Title 3: The Rowhouse Reporters
My editor and I were happy with The Underground News, but the marketing team at Dial Books for Young Readers wasn’t. They said that when it comes to titles, it’s best to reserve the word “underground” for books about spies or the Underground Railroad. Fair enough. Back to the drawing board.
The book takes place in South Baltimore, and the characters all live in rowhouses, a defining feature of Baltimore City streetscapes. Lots of rowhouses have rooftop decks, especially in Ash’s neighborhood, Federal Hill. I suggested relocating the girls’ TV studio from Ash’s basement to her roof deck and calling the book The Rooftop Reporters. But Dana preferred them filming in the basement and wanted to keep The Underground News as the title of their broadcast, no matter the title of the book. After lots of brainstorming and back-and-forth (The Rival Reporters? Ash on Air? Morning Announcements?!), we decided to go with The Rowhouse Reporters.
Title 4: The Rebel Reporters
Until the sales department weighed in. They didn’t think The Rowhouse Reporters sounded kid-friendly. Sigh.
Dana and I both liked the alliteration in The Rowhouse Reporters, so I proposed The Rebel Reporters. This one made sense, since Ash and her friends are rebels to start their own news show. Their show becomes even more rebellious once they uncover a scandalous story involving the company that makes their school’s educational software—and sponsors their school news show. Are the Rebel Reporters brave enough to expose the truth about the powerful Van Ness Media?
The editorial and sales departments agreed that we’d found the winning title. As an added bonus, books about “rebel girls” are popular at the moment. I went back through the text to make some explicit references to the girls being rebel reporters. Done and done.
Title 5: The Renegade Reporters
Using her editor-smarts, Dana Googled “The Rebel Reporters”—and got pages of results leading to The Rebel News, a far-right YouTube channel out of Canada with more than a million subscribers. Yikes! We definitely didn’t want my book getting lost among those results or mistakenly associated with that channel. Time for another title change—and quick, because the window for making changes was getting smaller.
Dana and I agreed on the tweak from Rebel to Renegade, but given this book’s track record with titles, I didn’t expect it to last. Like something out of Groundhog Day, I went through and changed the text yet again. If The Renegade Reporters wasn’t viable, we were looking at going back to title number two, The Underground News. But everyone at Dial was on board, and thankfully, so was Google—the only other “renegade” our searches turned up was Jalaiah Harmon, who choreographed the Renegade dance that went viral on TikTok. We had a final, final title, just in time.
Titling is tricky, but at least it’s a group sport. In fact, the story of finding the right title for this book ended up having a lot in common with the book itself: mystery, research, plot twists, and teamwork. The group behind “The Renegade Reporters” should be called the…Tenancious Titlers! Or the Notorious Namers? Just give us a year or two. I’m sure we’ll come up with something that doesn’t stink.
Elissa Brent Weissman is an award-winning author of novels for young readers. Best known for the popular Nerd Camp series, she and her books have been featured in Entertainment Weekly, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Huffington Post, NPR’s “Here and Now,” and more. Originally from Long Island, New York, Elissa spent many years in Baltimore City, where she taught creative writing to children, college students, and adults. She currently lives in Christchurch, New Zealand, with her husband and their two super cool nerds-in-training.