How to Come Up with a Book Title

The New York Daily News has some of the greatest headline writers in the business. Who could forget the classic headline the Daily News ran after President Ford rejected New York City’s request for federal aid to stave off bankruptcy: “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” A great headline is like a great book title: memorable, dramatic, and punchy. Book titles, though, have to do more than newspaper headlines.

Creating a great book title won’t ensure success, but without one, a writer’s chances of failure increase. This is especially true for self-published authors. Traditionally published authors generally don’t get to choose the title or cover art for their books. For self-published authors, there’s a lot riding on both the cover and the title. We discussed book covers in two previous posts.

What makes a good book title? Literary Agent Rachelle Gardner wrote an excellent post on the process for creating a book cover. Here’s the post.

A book title must:

  • Grab the reader
  • Appeal to the reader on an emotional level
  • Create an expectation about the story.
  • Match the tone of the book.
  • Be brief and punchy.
  • Be memorable.

Your book title is your sales pitch. It’s your business card. It’s what readers see first.

So how do you come up with a great book title? Rachelle Gardner’s method is sound. Here are a few more tips:

  • Brainstorm. Let your imagination run wild. Write down key words or phrases that pop into your mind.
  • Focus on a key element of the story and write down words or phrases associated with it.
  • Think about your main character. What is it about her that strikes you? Think of her defining characteristic. Compare her to a symbol.

I cannot start writing my first draft until I at least have a working title for my work-in-progress. Once I come up with a working title, I revisit it after I have completed my first draft. At this point, the theme is more apparent and the title should relate to the theme.

For my first novel, Small Change was the working title, based on a remark that the main character’s mother made, which was nearly cut from the final draft. It was one of three titles I considered. I also weighed The Secret Keepers, but a quick Google search indicated there was a recent novel by that name and I didn’t want to do that to another writer. Plus, the term was used in the Harry Potter series and I didn’t want to create a false expectation about my book. The third option, which I seriously considered, was calling it, Reason to Believe, after the Tim Hardin song popularized by Rod Stewart. The song plays a key role in the story as the main character, John, and his first love, Jennifer, adopt it as their own.

I was stuck so I “test marketed” the various titles and Small Change came up the winner, hands down.

Let’s look at a popular example of a title that works in several ways: Gone With the Wind. What is it that was “gone with the wind” in Margaret Mitchell’s 1939 classic? There are the obvious things: slavery, the Old South, a nation divided, the genteel upper class. What else was gone with the wind? Tara as Scarlett O’Hara knew it, Rhett Butler, Bonnie (their little girl), her one true friend, Melanie Wilkes, a romantic view of the world, and Scarlett’s world. One can see on how many levels the book title works.

Your book title is crucial to your success. Spend as much time on it as is necessary.

How do you approach the task of coming up with a book title?

 

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17 Comments

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17 responses to “How to Come Up with a Book Title

  1. My approach to titles is, I suppose, intuitive; but often backed up by testing later. As a longtime poet and performing songwriter, I’ve been dealing with titles in a different way for thirty-some years. Only in the last four years have novel titles been important, and they do share some of the same needs as a short story or song, whereas poem titles seem to want another type of treatment; perhaps because of poetry’s lesser commercial profile?

    A song needs to be titled in a catchy, notable way, but it doesn’t have to have quite the grab of a novel– sometimes you can get away with using a line from the chorus, and the laziest pop music writers do this constantly.

    My first novel’s title came to me in a natural way– as I described, in a slight preface, the path of the MC– “fell in love in 19–, fell out of love in…” the idea just sort of surfaced, giving me “The Fall, and Further Fall, of Miriam Bronski.” I call it a coming-past-age novel. Since it is not yet published, the title may change, but if I have a say, it won’t. It gives you the name of the MC, it gives you an idea of the type of material you’ll be reading, (obviously not a thriller, horror story or detective novel, right?) and gives an indication, to my mind, that there is a downturn for the MC, which hopefully will be leavened by some redemption. And I think all of that really does lie beneath the surface.

    Another titile I’m fond of, is the title for my third novel– a series of short horrorotica stories based on the older, nastier versions of common European fairy-tales, but bound by a thru-line into a sort of hanging-together whole– it’s called “A Forest of Muttering Nights.”

    At some point in each of the stories, some deep and disturbing action happens in the traditional fairy-tale forest– very Mirkwoodian– so the title gives that away, but otherwise operates on a more poetic basis of catching a feeling, rather than being literally descriptive. I think it conveys just the right touch of misty, trailing-vines suspense, don’t you?

    • Mary,
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on book titles. I like both of yours. Of course if you are traditionally published the publisher will want to choose the title and cover art for your book. I attended a recent presentation by an author who said her publisher gave a title to her book that had nothing to do with the story. An editor just thought it would be a clever title. I’ve noticed a trend toward using song titles as boom titles. It can work but can also appear somewhat hackneyed if overused,

      Thanks again for sharing your insights.

      Regards,
      Chris

  2. omg – okay, CG – not only where we going to write on the same topic for our blogs soon – but guess what? I was going to suggest to my editor to use “The Secret Keeper” for what would become Tender Graces! But I did a google search, as you did, and saw it was already taken and would be out right before my book – 😀 –

    You are correct – I don’t get to pick my titles, but my publishers do take into consideration my suggestions, even if they go “nope”… laugh.

  3. I’ve always liked the advice that titles should allude to specifics in a story. That helps set up why your story is different and hopefully pulls the reader in. Thus rather than a general title like “Love and Loss,” a more specific phrase like “Desire Under the Elms” is meaningful and interesting. I’ve tried to do that with my short stories, using “Incident on Mt. Snow” and “Countdown to Mars.”

    • Doug,
      That is a great point. It is not always easy to do because the title must be phrased in such a way that it is intriguing and yet uses recognizable phrasing. I especially like titles that work on several levels, which really takes a lot of creativity and thought. Thanks for your comment.

      Regards,
      Chris

  4. That’s interesting to me that you have to have a title before you can really get into your draft. I just let the title come to me. If it doesn’t, I have to force it alittle bit 🙂

    • Katie,
      Thanks for your comment. Not everybody works that way, but for me, I need to at least have a working title. Book titles are difficult to come up with and each author has to have a system that works. Thanks for stopping by.

  5. Good advice 🙂 I’m currently having trouble with this and your pointers have been fantastic.

  6. Pingback: Creating great book titles - Candace writes

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