Book titles are tough. Even the greats don’t always get them right.
by Anne R. Allen
Book titles are so important. Would the novels Trimalchio in West Egg, First Impressions, or Private Flemming, His Various Battles have succeeded if their publishers hadn’t changed the titles to The Great Gatsby, Pride and Prejudice, and The Red Badge of Courage before publication?” We’ll never know. But I think most of us will agree the publishers improved on the originals.
Recently Alex Limberg at the blog “Ride the Pen” asked a bunch of author-bloggers how we come up with our titles. Unfortunately, I had no magic formula to give him. Here’s what I said.
“I have a journal full of lines of poetry and quotes I think might make possible titles. Often one is my inspiration to start a new piece. But the quote almost never ends up as the final title.
That’s because once a story is finished, I usually realize it’s about something else entirely. So I write a new title, sometimes a phrase from the work. Then I Google it and discover 27 other authors have beat me to it. So I change a few words. Agonize. Change a few more. Sometimes I go back to the journal and find the perfect title has been there all along.”
Getting book titles right is even tougher in the digital age.
These days, we have to consider a lot more than how grabby a title looks on a bookstore shelf. We have to think in terms of SEO, keywords, categories, and also-boughts as we fight for visibility in the ever-expanding digital marketplace.
Traditionally authors have been warned by agents and editors not to be “married” to their titles because publishers regularly change titles based on marketing strategies and other factors that seem to have little to do with the story.
In the digital age, we can change titles after publication, especially if a book is self-published, but don’t make changes lightly.
Jami Gold has a great post this week on changing a major aspect of a published book.
She mentions the fact you’ll create confusion for your established readers if you change a title.
Another problem to think about is that you may lose all your reader reviews, because retailers may see it as a new book. Also, older entries come up first in a Google search, so your old title will be with you forever on a SERP.
But as I said, title dilemmas are not a new problem. It’s amazing how many classics had to go through a title make-over before they achieved success.
Here are some examples of book titles that were changed before publication
- Jacqueline Susann’s They Don’t Build Statues to Businessmen became Valley of the Dolls
- Rick Moody’s F.F. became The Ice Storm.
- George Orwell’s The Last Man in Europe became 1984
- William Golding’s Strangers from Within became Lord of the Flies.
- Carson McCullers The Mute became The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.
- Ernest Hemingway’s Fiesta became The Sun Also Rises.
- Evelyn Waugh’s The House of the Faith became Brideshead Revisited.
- Alex Haley’s Before This Anger became Roots: The Saga of an American Family.
- Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s At this Point in Time became All the President’s Men.
Obviously authors don’t always make the best choices in titling our own work.
But I do know some authors have had heartbreakingly bad titles inflicted on them as well. I’m not saying the publisher is always right.
If you’re planning to self publish, do get lots of editorial and reader feedback before settling on a title.
Here are some tips for choosing that perfect title:
1) Google Your Possible Book Titles
You can’t copyright a book title, and there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with choosing a title that’s already in use. Publishers have been recycling titles for centuries. Sometimes oldies but goodies work better than originals. In fact, some mass market lines regularly reuse titles they know work well.
But a recycled title can work against you, so make sure you do a search on your title idea before you decide to go with it—and go through several pages of results.
Calling your book To Kill a Mockingbird or Gone with the Wind is perfectly legal, but it’s going to disappoint a lot of readers and set you up for some unpleasant comparisons.
And you really don’t want to use a title if it’s been previously used for a very different genre or something you don’t want your name connected with.
Behind the Green Door might sound like a lovely title for a children’s book about a garden with a door covered with moss, but a quick Google search will tell you that’s the title of an infamous porn film from the 1970s.
It’s not illegal to use it, but very unwise for a children’s book.
Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do if somebody chooses your title after your book comes out. When my comedy, The Best Revenge, debuted in 2005, there were only two books with similar titles. Now there are dozens. I have thought of changing it, but it’s so perfect for a book about a woman who writes a newspaper column called “Living Well” that I can’t give it up.
2) Book Titles That Don’t Work
Have you heard about a book from a friend and thought, “meh, that doesn’t sound like it’s worth my time”? Often that feeling comes from an uninspiring title.
Less than exciting book titles can be:
- too short
- too long
- wrong for the genre
- an appeal to the wrong audience
- unintentionally comical
As an example of the latter, I remember an American’s thriller manuscript that came into the UK publishing house where I worked. It had the title A Passing Wind. The whole staff went into giggling fits.
North Americans, “passing wind” is what the Brits politely call farting. 🙂
Generic book titles can work against you
All-encompassing phrases like Love and Hope, Love is Forever, Living my Life, or Making Choices tend to sound amateurish because they don’t tell the reader anything about the story and don’t indicate genre. Broad topics can also sound grandiose.
And if you take on a huge subject like War and Peace, you’d better have the writing chops to go nose-to-nose with Leo Tolstoy.
One-word book titles can have impact, but…
One-word titles can look great on a cover, but they can fall flat unless they are the name of a unique, fascinating character or you choose a really hooky, precise word like Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere or Louis Sachar’s Holes.
Bill Morris wrote a great post at The Millions a few years ago about the appeals and perils of one-word titles.
Big, all-encompassing words like “Hope,” “Loneliness,” “Lovers,” or “Dreams” are usually too unfocused to work in a title. They tell the reader nothing except that either you think you’re famous enough that your name alone sells a book, or you’re an amateur biting off more than you can chew.
Long book titles make your cover designer cry.
Long titles can present issues unless they’re used for comic effect, like Ally Carter’s I’d Tell You I Love You but Then I’d Have to Kill You. They also pose problems with marketing because they often get truncated.
And your cover designer will be muttering rude words and curses. There’s no room left for anything fun. And a thumbnail of your cover may look like a jumble of chicken scratches–a disaster in the digital age.
Long titles often red-flag a newbie. I don’t think a lot of people would buy the following (seriously, I had editing clients with book titles almost this bad.)
- My Life as a Railroad Brakeman and Ladies’ Underwear Salesman in America’s Heartland in the 1950s before the Country was Overrun by Those People
- Why my Son is Going to Hell along with his Whiny Wife and their Ungrateful, Ugly Children: You Call That a Mother’s Day Gift?
- 101 Crafts to Make from Dryer Lint When Your Slimeball Husband Leaves you Destitute and Runs off with a Bimbo Named Tiffany.
Anything that says, “this book is all about me and my unresolved issues” is probably not going to sell all that well.
3) Study Titles that Work
According to studies, two to four word titles work best for books.
Titles for online pieces for web journals and blogs can be longer. The sweet spot for blogpost titles is six to eight words.
Here are some title categories that are “tried and true.”
The hero’s name
This is the oldest type of title in the book, literally. A title simply stating the name of the protagonist has been around since the birth of the novel. Names made up the most common titles in early fiction. From Don Quixote, Tom Jones, Robinson Crusoe, David Copperfield, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Madam Bovary, Mrs. Dalloway, and Auntie Mame, to Olive Kitteridge and Coraline, the protagonist’s name can be a pretty safe choice for a title.
Then there are protagonist’s names with embellishments like The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Bridget Jones’ Diary, and The Talented Mr. Ripley
The antagonist’s name
Sometimes the villain gets top billing, as with Moby Dick, Hannibal, Jaws, Maleficent and Lady Susan.
Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca is one of the most clever villain titles, because even though Rebecca DeWinter is dead, she casts a shadow over the entire story. The fact the main character has no name but “the second Mrs. DeWinter” makes this title all the more compelling.
The main character’s occupation
The Master Builder, The Sot Weed Factor, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Master and Commander, The Continental Op, Gladiator.
An important character’s gender
The Girl on the Train, Gone Girl, the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Girls are very popular right now. And 538 thinks “Girl” titles may have peaked) The Third Man, The Thin Man, The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, The Boys from Syracuse, The Woman in White.
A family member’s occupation or title
The Mermaid’s Sister, The Duke’s Children, The Time Traveler’s Wife, Father of the Bride, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, The Baker’s Daughter, The Unicorn’s Daughter, The Bonesetter’s Daughter. (Daughters are very big, too.)
Edit: This caveat just in from a reader: watch out for the word “Daddy.” That can set off the porn filters and suggest your book is incest erotica and get you banned. “Stepbrother” and even “boy” are apparently dangerous too.
Setting is good
Mansfield Park, The Country of the Pointed Firs, Brokeback Mountain, Wuthering Heights, Cold Mountain, Mystic River, Echo Park, Dune, Tinseltown, Telegraph Avenue.
These let readers know where the story happens—which helps them decide if they want to go there. Remember you want your title and cover to give as much information as possible to your potential reader without confusing or overwhelming them.
Or use the setting with embellishments
The Amityville Horror, Murders on the Rue Morgue, The Last Time I Saw Paris, The Incident at Owl Creek Bridge, The Bridges of Madison County.
The main character’s place of origin
The Virginian, Bastard Out of Carolina, The Man from Snowy River.
The main event or inciting incident
The Hunger Games, The Great Train Robbery, Escape from Alcatraz, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, The Death of Ivan Ilyich….(or practically anybody).
“Main event” titles are informative and contain the hook, so they’re great choices.
These advertise the book’s big picture: Pride and Prejudice, Of Mice and Men, War and Peace, The Beautiful and the Damned. These are especially good for literary fiction.
Quotes from the Bible, nursery rhymes or the classics
A Time to Kill, The Sun Also Rises, Blithe Spirit, Along Came a Spider, Tender is the Night, Infinite Jest, His Dark Materials
In fact there are so many from classic literature they have their own Wikipedia page.
Quotes from songs or song titles
Catcher in the Rye, Go Down Moses, Sometimes a Great Notion, and most of Mary Higgins Clark’s oeuvre from While My Pretty One Sleeps (1990) to I’ve Got You Under My Skin (2014)
NOTE: If you take a line from a song rather than the title, make sure it’s in the public domain. Song titles can’t be copyrighted, but quoting even one line from a copyrighted song can cost you big bux.
Lines from the work itself
The Silence of the Lambs is a reference to Clarice being traumatized in childhood by screaming lambs. To Kill a Mockingbird also comes from the book’s dialogue, as do Gone with the Wind and Waiting to Exhale. I did this with my title, The Gatsby Game. The anti-hero Alistair refers to his social climbing as “playing the Gatsby game.”
4) Use Keywords to Match your Title to your Genre
Authors can run into real trouble if a title sets up the wrong expectations in a reader, so it’s wise to keep keywords in mind, especially for genre fiction.
You’ll really confuse people if you title your literary novel Her Secret Billionaire Lover, call a cozy mystery Blood of the Demon, or name a gritty thriller The Blueberry Muffin Mystery.
Browse bookstore sections or Amazon bestseller lists to find common keywords.
- Romance titles tend to use words “love” and “romance” and “heart” a lot. Regencies feature a lot of dukes and other aristocrats, and contemporaries have their modern equivalent, billionaires. Other common romance keywords are “kiss”, “rake”, “seduction”, “duke”, “bride”, “wedding”, “rogue”, and “wild”. Just browse the Romance books on Amazon for the most common.
- Mystery titles vary depending on whether they’re cozy, noir, or gritty. A whole lot of cozies have puns in the titles these days, often involving food, like Assault and Pepper or Flourless to Stop Him.
- Darker mysteries use words like “body”, “shadows”, “dead”, “dark”, “farewell”, “murder”, “kill” and “corpse.”
- Westerns and Western Romance identify themselves with words like “cowboy”, “boots”, “rider”, “sagebrush”, “lonesome”, and “trail”.
- Paranormals tend to do a lot with “blood”, “demon”, “night” and “dead,” and “howl.”
- Space Operas often use “stars”, “space” and “alien”, and “empire”.
- Fantasy is probably going to have “swords”, “sorcery”, “wizard”, “mage”, “dragon”, king”, or “magic” in there somewhere.
I’m not saying you must use keywords—I know the cliché aspect can be off-putting—but you need be especially wary of using the wrong keyword for your genre.
What you’re looking for is something that’s hooky and pinpoints your genre while offering something unique. (I did say it isn’t easy.)
5) Put a Hook in the Title
Hooky titles are more important than ever in these days when so many more titles are competing for a reader’s attention. A hook is something that presents a question or piques curiosity.
- Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
- The Way We Live Now (Do we live differently now? How?)
- The DaVinci Code (I’ve heard of DaVinci, but not his code: what is it?)
- The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime (That one made me grab it before I even knew what it was about. That’s an example of a longer title that works.)
- And a lot of people have wanted to know what was so great about Gatsby.
6) Use Specifics Rather than Broad, Poetic Strokes
The kind of title that worked for a big novel a century ago may leave today’s reader cold. People want instant information about the book’s content.
Tom Corson-Knowles of TCK Publishing gives an example of a book called Pen, Pencil and Poison that didn’t sell well until its title was changed to The Story of a Notorious Criminal.
I know—the first one is clever and represents better writing, but apparently “notorious criminal” sells better than pretty words.
Norah Ephron’s memoir about aging, I Feel Bad About My Neck was a megaseller. But a book titled “A Woman of a Certain Age” probably wouldn’t sell so well (especially without Ms. Ephron’s name attached) even though it’s more poetic.
7) Use Simple Words
You also do better with simple words rather than ones people have to look up—or ones you’ve made up yourself.
I have to admit I resisted the novel Quincunx for years even though lots of friends recommended it. I didn’t know what a quincunx was and I wasn’t sure I wanted to. If it had been called Dark, Twisted Victorian Families, I might have been more eager to pick it up.
Lots of Fantasy writers make up stuff with their world building, but make sure people can pronounce the words you put in the title. It’s hard to go to the bookstore and ask for The Sword of Mzplyxan or the Death of the Vrypyttrx.
8) Analyze Possible Book Titles
Lulu has a title analyzer that purports to tell you the likelihood a title will become a bestseller. I’m not sure how accurate it is, but it may help you decide among several possibilities.
I did a little test putting in I Feel Bad About My Neck compared with the generic His Sweet Kisses, and “Neck” scored only a 21% chance and “Sweet Kisses” scored 61%. So use it with several grains of salt.
9) Don’t Treat Nonfiction Book Titles like Narrative Titles
A lot of advice on book titles lumps together fiction and nonfiction, but nonfiction titles serve a different purpose. They don’t have to stimulate the imagination like a novel or memoir title—instead, they need to grab attention and promise to fulfill a need.
This makes keywords essential for nonfiction book titles. And old-fashioned title like “What Color is your Parachute” does not work in today’s search-engine driven world. Titles require subtitles that contain keywords now. So the 2015 version of What Color is Your Parachute has the subtitle “2015: a Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career Changes.”
If you blog, you probably know something about what blog titles get you the most clicks. The same goes for nonfiction book titles. Numbers and lists work well. So do how-tos, questions and answers to questions. Shocking statements do too, like “Why you Should Never…” and “What you Don’t Know About…”
What works best for nonfiction is a short, standout title that grabs the reader’s attention, and a longer subtitle that explains what makes this book different.
- Nikola Tesla: Imagination and The Man Who Invented the 20th Century
- Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking
- Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption
- Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead
- The Residence: Inside the World of the White House
- The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom
- A**holes: A Theory
10) Use Social Media to get Feedback on a Choice of Book Titles
If you’re trying to decide amongst several possible titles, use the power of social media. Use your blog or Facebook page to ask your readers which one they prefer. This works great for covers, so why not titles.
Not only will you get useful feedback, but your readers will feel more connected to the process and be more likely to buy the book.
For more advice from other author-bloggers like Kristen Lamb, Elizabeth S. Craig, and Suzannah Windsor check out the full post on Good Story Titles at Ride the Pen. (Warning, there is some crude language elsewhere on the blog.)
by Anne R. Allen (@annerallen) October 23, 2016
What about you, scriveners? How do you come up with your titles? Have you ever changed a book’s title? What’s the worst title you’ve ever come up with?
Many thanks to the Edition Guard blog, which named us one of 17 Great Indie Author Websites to follow.
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