When a reader first finds your book, they have only TWO crucial pieces of information that can hook them: your cover and your title. If it's spine out, narrow that down to just the title. Unfortunately, a good title is hard to find--how do you encapsulate 100,000 words or so in less than five? For all of my books, I either knew the best title instantly...or had to go through dozens of rounds of hard trial and error to find something that works. Fortunately, since working with so many of my book coaching clients this year on re-titling their books, I've started to recognize some patterns that show you why a title works...or doesn't.
Ready to hear what they are?
My #1 tip is: your title should relate to your book!
Did you just click out of this blog because of major Captain Obvious advice? Well, you shouldn't have. You wouldn't believe how often authors choose cool-sounding titles that tell us nothing about their book--or lead the audience to expect a completely different book! The litmus test for a great title is you can show it to someone who hasn't read your book and they immediately intuit the type of book you're writing. Like Don't Read the Comments. That's a title that lands you in the right arena immediately. But what about a book title like, Breathe? That could go...well a lot of different ways. None of them particularly hooky. Which is why *cringe* it was definitely the title of my very first (drawered) manuscript.
To keep you from making the same mistakes as Young Michelle, let's slide right into some quick do's and don'ts, then some examples of great titles, then tips from literary agents on new ideas for where to look for your title.
-Make it too long to fit on a book cover. I never thought about this until I had a book titled A Cruel Kind of Beautiful, and I was trying to CRAM all those words on a cover and still leave room for a picture.
-Have it be about something that sounds cool, but isn’t connected to your book. If a character is mentioned in the title (aka The Queen of the Canadian Cold-Wild) IS your main character the queen? If not, change your title. DOES your book take place in the Canadian Cold-Wild for more than one chapter? If not, change your title.
-Give a misleading impression about what your book is about. Don’t title it Immoral Intentions if it’s about an Amish pie stand.
-At a glance, it should give your reader an idea what the book is about.
-You want to capture the FEEL of your book, not just the plot.
-Keep it short.
-But avoid one word titles if you can, because it's harder to find one that's never been used.
-Keep it LIKE other titles in your genre. What's trending in titles this year? Are they using 1 word titles right now? Pun titles? X and Y titles? You don’t want to title your contemporary romance The Song of Blood and Bone, you know what I mean?
-Often the best titles are ones with intrinsic contrast in them. Two things that don’t go together. This is why I liked the title A Cruel Kind of Beautiful. Or Beautiful Disaster. Or Kink Cake—it’s two things that don’t go together, but it also instantly describes a sex toy shop + baker book, with a bit of a pun on the setting for people familiar with New Orleans style King Cakes.
-Familiar sayings, puns, and clichés can be great titles!
-Make sure it hasn’t been used before too many times, or by too famous of a book! Twilight IS a great title for a book, you know? But maybe just google it to make sure it’s not taken.
Title Case Studies
-Pain Like a River – see the contrast of two things that don’t go together? And the evocative, wistful feel of evoking pain as a winding, flowing thing. I read this book 100% for the title.
-Their Eyes Were Watching God (this is borderline too long but I’ve picked up this book in the bookstore 900 times just for the title, only to remember it’s too sad for me).
-One of Us is Lying – um, it’s a bestseller and has a TV show? It has that “thriller” feel and the conflict is intrinsic to the title. You know there’s a group, one of them is lying, and there’s a mystery to be solved.
-The Rom Con – it’s a play on Rom Com, so you know what you’re getting, and it’s “con” so you also know it’s gonna be a con man book, it’s short, it’s gonna look great on a cover, and it’s got that confident, roll-off-your-tongue feel that all the best con man books have.
-Wanted: One Serial Killer – this is one of mine, from a book where they put out a Craigslist ad for a serial killer. It’s got that contrast again, because serial killers aren’t usually something you WANT, plus it indicates the want ad style.
-#CelebrityCrush – Hashtags are great because they give you a contemporary feel, and this one immediately tells you we’ve got a story about a celebrity crush. Probably the girl meets him and falls in love with him for real (spoiler alert: she does).
-Heartbreak for Hire – Again, contrast. We’ve got two things that usually don’t go together, plus alliteration.
-Beach Read – I would argue this book would have had a much harder time becoming a bestseller without this title. Of course, if you follow it, it also had a fair amount of reader controversy about how much of a beach read it was NOT. Moral of the story? Be careful not to title your book something that leads readers to expect something your book won't deliver. Even if it's good, it won't matter if it's not the kind of experience they were expecting.
- The Love Hypothesis – you get the idea the book is sciency and romantic, which it is! Plus, hypothesis is a theory, so you get a bit of mystery added in.
-Gay the Pray Away – This flips a commonly used phrase, uses a bit of a pun, and you can immediately see that the topics include being gay and religion and tell what side of the line this book comes down on. Plus, it sounds a little funny so you can trust the book on an important topic not to be too dark.
Another tip comes to us courtesy of agent Carly Watters on Twitter, and RT'ed by Eric Smith, who is both an agent and an author.
Also, when you're brainstorming, shoot for quantity over quality at first. Try to think of as many titles as you possibly can, because the more you take the pressure off, the more you're likely to find a unique thread that leads you in a direction that ends up being the right one. When we were re-titling my eighth novel, my editor, agent, CP's and I were into the hundreds of possibilities before we followed a random brainstorming thread to the new title, Breathe the Sky. It's so much more evocative of the tone of a healing romance set under the endless sky of the desert, so much so that it inspired the sky-forward cover.
Now off you go, to find a title that leaves you feeling like THIS: