A well-crafted book title, like an appealing book jacket, is another effective marketing tool for your book. Not only will a great title help your book to stand out from the crowd, but it will be more likely to stick in the minds of prospective readers.
If your book is being published by a traditional publishing house, there are many people—from editors to sales representatives, marketing managers, publicists, nd book buyers—who will weigh in on the consumer appeal and effectiveness of the title. If you’re self-publishing, the title is totally up to you, so it's important for you to understand the general attributes of a good title and how to create one.
It’s Short but not Too Short
A short title that’s easy to remember and easy to find via a Google search is a plus. To accomplish both, aim for a title that’s somewhere between two and five or six words long, for example, The Other Boleyn Girl, a novel by Philippa Gregory.
One-word titles, such as Becoming and Elevation, are fine for celebrity writers, like Michelle Obama and Stephen King, respectively. But if your name isn’t worth its weight in gold (yet), shoot for at least two words. Otherwise, your title may be buried in a mountain of search engine results.
Very long titles stand a better chance of turning up nearer the top of search engine results pages, but they’re harder for readers to remember.
It’s Memorable but not Cute or Punny
Effective titles are compelling, memorable, and easy to say, like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, which is clever without being irritating. Also consider The Reckoning, by John Grisham, which rolls off the tongue and uses only 12 characters to evoke a sense of foreboding or impending doom.
A title that relies on a pun, such as The Missionary Position by Christopher Hitchens, may be misleading, offensive to some people, and difficult for would-be readers to decipher accurately in the absence of supporting book jacket art or a subtitle, which often accompanies a nonfiction title to clarify what the book is about (in this example, Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice).
It Doesn’t Mimic Other Titles
Google your chosen title to see which keywords it has in common with those of previously published works and change it if it’s not unique. A case in point is The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins (published by Riverhead Books in January 2015), which ended up as a New York Times bestseller, and Girl on a Train, by A. J. Waines (self-published in February 2015). In fairness to Waines, she may not have been aware of Hawkins’ similar title when she published her book, and it did garner some sales as a direct result of the confusion. As a general rule, though, you want your title to be one of a kind and fully discoverable via a search engine.
Similarly, don’t use the title of a past blockbuster, say, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, for your nonfiction book about the 1930s Dust Bowl. Although most book titles can’t be copyrighted, such a title is likely to annoy readers at best.
It Describes or Suggests What the Book Is About
For a nonfiction book, writing a good title means telling readers what to expect without pulling any punches. For example, if your book provides detailed plans and instructions for building period-correct furniture for vintage Barbie dolls, a good title might be Building Period-Correct Furniture for Vintage Barbie Dolls. Although it uses more than six words, it tells readers exactly what they're getting and eliminates the need for a subtitle. Additional examples of effective nonfiction titles include:
How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, by Mark Bittman
John Adams, by David McCullough
The 9 Steps to Financial Freedom, by Suze Orman
What to Expect When You're Expecting, by Heidi Murkoff and Sharon Mazel
Why We Sleep, by Matthew Walker
Your fiction title has done its job when it makes a prospective reader want to pick up your book or click on the title to take a peek inside. To encourage the reader to interact with your book, your title should try to hint at the book’s genre, give readers a whiff of the story that follows, and provoke curiosity. For example:
Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky (psychological mystery)
The God of Animals, by Aryn Kyle (coming of age)
Hazards of Time Travel, by Joyce Carol Oates (science fiction / fantasy / dystopian)
Nine Perfect Strangers, by Liane Moriarty (thriller / suspense)
Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang (science fiction / fantasy)
Prime Your Inner Title Generator
If you find yourself hitting the wall where your title is concerned, juice up your creativity by trying one or more exercises, tips, or tricks to get the titles flowing. Keep a list of all the possibilities so you can pare it down to the top few titles when you've finished brainstorming.
- Search old poems and folk songs that are in the public domain (i.e., not protected by copyright) for title-worthy lines or phrases (e.g., Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck).
- Consider using one of the locations that's featured prominently in the book (e.g., Howards End, by E. M. Forster).
- Combine your main character's name with another word or phrase that captures the essence of the story (e.g., Logan's Run, by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson) or just use the name (e.g., Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte).
- Skim your manuscript for a sentence or phrase that could serve as a title (e.g., A Room With a View, by E. M. Forster).
- Use a brief description one of the central characters as the title (e.g., The Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum).
- Look at the titles of the best sellers in your genre or style category, noting the ones that grab your attention and why. Then work on re-creating a similar ambience with your title.
- Play with an online title generator and make a note of any that sound promising.
Once you've homed in on the best five or so titles from your list, test them out with friends and social media to find out which title rises to the top of the pile. Or use the Lulu Title Scorer to see whether any have best seller potential.