Which do you think is more difficult – naming your child or naming your book? Truthfully, either can hold immense influence over the future. Your book title is the first stage of your marketing plan. It will either intrigue readers and urge them to find out more, or it will turn them away in disinterest. With that in mind, here is a quick guide to writing book titles.
While your title is important to your book marketing, that doesn’t mean you should go overboard either. Your title is not the place for your impeccable SEO skills where you throw keywords at the wall and see if they stick like spaghetti. You should not consider it an opportunity to optimize for a search engine but rather a people-engine. It is your first opportunity to create the desire to buy.
Research Titles Before You Begin
Researching what other authors have done before you is a wonderful practice. Not only does it inform you of current industry trends, but it gives you a chance to test out what you do or do not like. Visit your local bookstore and pull some titles that interest you. Ask yourself questions about them.
How long is this title?
Is it interesting?
Do I want to know more?
Can I tell what this book is about without reading the blurb?
Take note of your favorite titles and think about what attracts you to them and why.
Titles Should Be Unique
Did you know that in terms of plagiarism and copyright, titles are exempt (trademarks aside)? It is entirely possible and acceptable to have more than one book on the market called How to Make Cheese. You cannot claim common phrases or individual words in the English language as your own intellectual property. For the most part you could just as easily call your cheese book Great Expectations as How to Make Cheese. Regardless, this is strongly ill advised.
If your title is too similar to an already well-known title, you run the risk of putting your book in front of the wrong audience. The amount of people looking for Great Expectations who are also crafty cheese enthusiasts is probably rather small (although I’m sure they know how to party). You don’t want any doubt that your book is listed first among the appropriate search results. When your book does appear, you want the buyer to be confident that this is the correct selection.
Titles Should Be Short and Easy To Spell
This might seem like common sense but be careful not to get too unique with your title. Say, for example, you met someone at a cheese convention and you casually discuss your book. The person you are speaking with seems interested in reading it, but they don’t have a pen and paper or a phone with them to jot down the title. You were just telling them that you learned the secret to your cheesy ways on vacation in Wales, so naturally you put the name of the town in your title: How I Learned the Art of Making Cheese in Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch and How it Changed My Outlook On Life (that is a real town name by the way).
Don’t do that. You will make people cry.
This is obviously an extreme example but try to make your title easy to memorize. It will make your book easier to find and easier to talk about.
If there is more information that you need to convey about your book, feel free to use a subtitle depending on the genre. Subtitles are a great way to give more information about the content of your book without expanding your actual title to unreasonable limits. They are more commonly used in non-fiction and are rarely seen in fiction, so you may want to take that into consideration.
Your Book Title Should Give An Indication Of What It’s All About
Your title is the first piece of marketing your buyers see, so it should set the expectation of what the buyer will get from reading your book. This part it a little easier for non-fiction than it is for fiction. For the example that I am using, the title just needs have something related to cheese in it for you to recognize the purpose of the book.
Fiction books can be a little trickier. This is where that trip to the bookstore can come in handy. One of my favorite titles is A Mango Shaped Space by Wendy Mass. A Mango Shaped Space is a YA novel about a girl who has synesthesia – a neurological condition where your senses (sight, touch, taste, etc) are swapped in your brain. Certain sounds have a specific color, a picture can taste like ice cream, and so on. When reading the book, you discover that Mango is a cat. However, the title already gives you a sense of unusual perception.
For non-fiction, you can describe the type of service the reader can expect from you book, but don’t be afraid to get a little creative and specific too. A famous example would be David Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. The book is about building successful interpersonal relationships, but more importantly, you are winning friends.
Use Your Title For A Hook
Why should someone read your book and not someone else’s? There are so many voices on the market nowadays. How can you make yourself heard? Your title gives you your first opportunity to create a mystery that the buyer can only solve by reading your book. Unlike the last section, this is where things might be a little easier for fiction than nonfiction. Here are some of my favorites:
If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler by Italo Calvino (What does the traveler do?)
Mrs. Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs (Why are they peculiar?)
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (What did the mockingbird ever do to you?)
Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (Why was it strange?)
This is possible for nonfiction as well. First you must acknowledge what your book is about and then ask yourself how your book is different. Then see if there is a way to create a question with your title. Here are some more examples from my bookcase:
Eat Yourself Calm by Gill Paul (What am I eating?)
The Devil’s Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea (Why does it belong to the devil?)
What We Knew by Eric A. Johnson and Karl-Heinz Reubank (Who knew what?)
It is important to note that two of these three books (Eat Yourself Calm and What We Knew) also used subtitles to specify exactly what their book was about and used the title for the hook instead.
Title Barfs and Focus Groups
How are you feeling? Are you ready to barf? That’s good.
Practice free-writing or “barfing” out a list of possible titles. Write down as many titles as you can and compare them with the criteria above. Pick ten favorites. Then pick five favorites. Then three. Narrow it down as much as you can and if you still feel stuck then remember one of the most important tools a marketer has: a focus group.
Once you have about three to five titles left, you have the option of creating a poll on your social media networks. Use you friends and family as a pseudo-focus group and see what attracts people more. You might be surprised by what they pick.
Kerry Roepke is a genre fiction writer and a publishing consultant at My Word Publishing. She has a bachelor’s degree in English Literature from Metropolitan State University of Denver and has a background in editorial journalism.