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?