10 Tips for Choosing the Right Book Title in the E-Age

by Anne R. Allen

I'm not going to pretend that picking a title for your book is easy. In fact, it gets tougher all the time. We have to consider a lot more than how grabby a title looks on a bookstore shelf these days.

In choosing a title now, we have to think about SEO, keywords, categories, and also-boughts as we fight for visibility in the ever-expanding digital marketplace.

I've struggled with a lot of my own book titles, and I realize could have made better choices for my early books if I'd been a little more tech-savvy at the time.

I can be stubborn. My editor for The Lady of the Lakewood Diner hate-hate-hated my working title, which was The Ashtrays of Avalon. But I didn't want to change it. I thought it was hilarious. He thought it was gross. And yeah, Mark, you were right. Sigh.

Traditionally authors have always been warned by agents and editors not to be "married" to their titles because publishers regularly change them based on marketing strategies and other factors that seem to have little to do with the story.

Even though publishers usually know what they're doing in terms of targeting the right demographic, the changes can be infuriating. Especially if a title goes through many versions between acceptance and publication.

Self-publishing guru Joanna Penn details the journey her book titles have gone through in her blogpost, "On Changing Book Titles and Covers". She shows that even marketing experts can't predict how a title will perform until authors are really certain of their audience.

What Joanna says is: "It takes time to get to know your own voice as a writer. It takes a few books to really get to grips with what you're writing, who you want to be as a writer, how you want your brand to look and also what your books even mean."

With self-publishing, it's possible to change titles even after publication, and Joanna has had good luck with her changes.

But don't make the decision to change titles of published books lightly. You'll create confusion for your established readers and you may lose your reader reviews.  Also, older things always come up first in a Google search, so your old title will be with you forever on a SERP.

Title dilemmas are not a new problem, although it has been compounded with the fragmentation of the market in the electronic age.

But it's amazing how many classics had to go through a title make-over before they achieved success.

Here are some examples of books whose titles were changed before publication

From which we can see that authors don't always make the best choices in titling our own work. (I do know that some authors have had heartbreakingly bad titles inflicted on them as well. I'm not saying the publisher is always right.)

But in the age of self-publishing, authors should make sure they get lots of editorial and reader feedback before settling on a title.

Here are some tips for choosing that perfect title:

1) Always Do a Thorough Search for Your Title

You can't copyright a book title, and there's nothing intrinsically wrong with choosing a title that's already in use. Publishers have been recycling titles for centuries. Sometimes oldies but goodies work better than originals. In fact, some mass market lines regularly reuse titles they know work well.

But a recycled title can work against you, big time, so make sure you Google your title idea before you decide to go with itand go through several pages of search results.

You definitely don't want to share your title with a mega-seller. Calling your book To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, or Gone with the Wind is perfectly legal, but it's going to disappoint a lot of readers and set you up for some unpleasant comparisons.

And you really don't want to use a title if it's been previously used for porn or something you don't want your name connected with.

Unfortunately, there's not much you can do if somebody chooses your title after your book comes out. When my comedy, The Best Revenge, debuted in 2005, there were only two books with similar titles. Now there are about twenty. I have thought of changing it, but it's so perfect for a book about a woman who writes a newspaper column called "Living Well" that I can't give it up.

2) Look at Titles That Don't Work for You as a Reader

Have you heard about a book from a friend and thought, "meh, that doesn't sound like it's worth my time"? Often that feeling comes from an uninspiring title.

Failed titles can be: 

As an example of the latter, I remember an American's thriller manuscript that came into the UK publishing house where I worked. It had the title A Passing Wind. The whole staff went into giggling fits. (North Americans, "passing wind" is what the Brits politely call farting.)

A broad, generic title like Love and Hope, Love is Forever, Living my Life, or Making Choices tends to sound amateurish because it doesn't tell the reader anything about the story and doesn't indicate genre. Broad topics can also sound grandiose. If you take on a huge subject like War and Peace, you'd better have the writing chops to go nose-to-nose with Leo Tolstoy.

One word titles are problematic. They do make an impact and can look great on a cover, but they can fall flat unless they are the name of a fascinating character or you choose a really hooky, precise word like Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere or Louis Sachar's Holes.

Bill Morris wrote a great post at The Millions about the appeals and perils of one-word book titles.

Big, all-encompassing words like "Hope", "Loneliness" ,"Lovers", or "Dreams" are usually too unfocused to work in a title. They tell the reader nothing except that either you think you're famous enough that your name alone sells a book, or you're an amateur biting off more than you can chew.

But don't get too specific, or nobody will know what the title means.

I think one of the worst one-word titles ever is the name of one of the best TV series of the last decade. It's called Treme. Yeah. What does that mean? How do you pronounce it? Does it rhyme with "creme" as in a faux dairy product?

Nope. You only know what it means if you've been to New Orleans. It's the name of a historic neighborhood in The Big Easy and it's pronounced Tre-may.

But that title means nothing to most people. And you can't ask for something you can't pronounce. At least it could have been made more dynamic with a few more words, like "Down in the Treme". Or they could also have used a title from any jazz song ever recordedsince the soundtrack is pretty much a journey through jazz and Cajun music history.

(And seriously, get it from Netflix. It's about New Orleans after Katrina, but it's not a depressing wallow. It's got some of the best acting and writing and musical performances you'll ever see. I felt bereft after I watched the last episode. I felt as if I'd lost a whole bunch of good friends.)

Titles that are too long can sound amateurish too, unless they are used for comic effect, like Ally Carter's I'd Tell You I Love You but Then I'd Have to Kill You. They also pose problems with marketing because they often get truncated.

And your cover designer will curse you.

You usually have to be a pro to get away with a long title. Bad long titles red-flag a newbie. I don't think a lot of people would buy the following (seriously, I met potential editing clients with book titles almost this bad.)

Anything that says, "this book is all about me and my unresolved issues" is probably not going to sell all that well.

So what's the right length? According to studies, two to four word titles work best.

3) Study Titles that Work 

Here are some title categories that are "tried and true."

The hero's name

This is the oldest type of title in the book, literally. A title simply stating the name of the protagonist has been around since the birth of the novel. Names made up the most common titles in early fiction. From Don Quixote, Tom Jones, Robinson Crusoe, David Copperfield, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Madam Bovary, Mrs. Dalloway, and Auntie Mame, to Olive Kitteridge and Coraline, the protagonist's name can be a pretty safe choice for a title.

Then there are protagonist's names with embellishments like The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, Charlotte's Web, and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Bridget Jones' Diary, and The Talented Mr. Ripley

The antagonist's name

Sometimes the villain gets top billing, as with Moby Dick, Hannibal, and Jaws.

Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca is one of the most clever villain titles, because even though Rebecca DeWinter is dead, she casts a shadow over the entire story. The fact the main character has no name but "the second Mrs. DeWinter" makes this title all the more compelling.

The main character's occupation or title:

The Master Builder, The Vagabond, The Sot Weed Factor, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Master and Commander, The Continental Op, The Good Soldier, Gladiator.

A family member's occupation or title:

The Mermaid's Sister, The Duke's Children, The Time Traveler's Wife, Father of the Bride, The Memory Keeper's Daughter, The Baker's Daughter, The Unicorn's Daughter, The Bonesetter's Daughter.

You've probably noticed that daughters have been in vogue recently. Here's a piece with an infographic showing how titles involving daughters have expanded in recent years.)

Setting is good:

Mansfield Park, The Country of the Pointed Firs, Brokeback Mountain, Wuthering Heights, Cold Mountain, Mystic River, Echo Park, Dune, Tinseltown,  Telegraph Avenue.

These let readers know where the story happens—which helps them decide if they want to go there. Remember you want your title and cover to give as much information as possible to your potential reader without confusing or overwhelming them.

Or use the setting with embellishments:

The Amityville Horror, Murders on the Rue Morgue, The Last Time I Saw Paris, The Incident at Owl Creek Bridge, The Bridges of Madison County

The main character's place of origin

The Virginian, Bastard Out of Carolina, The Man from Snowy River

The main event or inciting incident:

The Hunger Games, The Great Train Robbery, Escape from Alcatraz, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, The Death of Ivan Ilyich....(or practically anybody). "Main event" titles are informative and contain the hook, so they're great choices.


These advertise the book's big picture: Pride and Prejudice, Of Mice and Men, War and Peace, The Beautiful and the Damned. These are especially good for literary fiction.

Quotes from the Bible, nursery rhymes or the classics:

A Time to Kill, The Sun Also Rises, After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, Blithe Spirit, Along Came a Spider, The Golden Apples of the Sun, Tender is the Night, Infinite Jest, His Dark Materials

In fact there are so many from classic literature they have their own Wikipedia page.

Quotes from songs or song titles:

Catcher in the Rye, Go Down Moses, Norwegian Wood, Sometimes a Great Notion, and most of Mary Higgins Clark's oeuvre from While My Pretty One Sleeps (1990) to I've Got You Under My Skin (2014)

NOTE: If you take a line from a song rather than the title, make sure it's in the public domain. Song titles can't be copyrighted, but quoting even one line from a copyrighted song can cost you big bux.

Lines from the work itself:

The Silence of the Lambs is a reference to Clarice being traumatized in childhood by screaming lambs.) 

To Kill a Mockingbird also comes from the book's dialogue, as do Gone with the Wind and Waiting to Exhale.

I did this with my title, The Gatsby Game. The anti-hero Alistair refers to his social climbing as "playing the Gatsby game."

4) Use Keywords to Match your Title to your Genre

Authors can run into real trouble if a title sets up the wrong expectations in a reader, so it's wise to keep keywords in mind, especially for genre fiction.

You'll really confuse people if you title your literary novel Her Secret Billionaire Lover, call a cozy mystery Blood of the Demon, or name a gritty thriller The Blueberry Muffin Mystery

Browse bookstore sections or Amazon bestseller lists to find common keywords.

I'm not saying you must use keywords—I know the cliché aspect can be off-putting—but you need be especially wary of using the wrong keyword for your genre.

There is no one rule for titling a particular genre, but the most successful titles are the ones that are clever enough they let your book stand out from the crowd while signaling to the reader what they can expect.

What you're looking for is something that's hooky and pinpoints your genre while offering something unique. (I did say it isn't easy.)

5) Put a Hook in the Title

Hooky titles are more important than ever in these days when so many more titles are competing for a reader's attention. A hook is something that presents a question or piques curiosity.

6) Use Specifics Rather than Broad, Poetic Strokes.

The kind of title that worked for a big novel a century ago may leave today's reader cold. People want instant information about the book's content. 

Tom Corson-Knowles of TCK Publishing gives an example of a book called Pen, Pencil and Poison that didn't sell well until its title was changed to The Story of a Notorious Criminal.

I know—the first one is much more clever and represents better writing, but "notorious criminal" is going to sell better than pretty words.

Norah Ephron's memoir about aging, I Feel Bad About My Neck was a megaseller. But a book titled "A Woman of a Certain Age" probably wouldn't sell so well (especially without Ms. Ephron's name attached) even though it's more poetic.

7) Use Simple Words

You also do better with simple words rather than ones people have to look up—or ones you've made up yourself.

I have to admit I resisted the novel Quincunx for years even though lots of friends recommended it. I didn't know what a quincunx was and I wasn't sure I wanted to. If it had been called Dark, Twisted Victorian Families, I might have been more eager to pick it up.

Lots of Fantasy writers make up stuff with their world building, but make sure people can pronounce the words you put in the title. It's hard to go to the bookstore and ask for The Sword of Mzplyxan or the Death of the Vrypyttrx.

8) Analyze Your Title

Lulu has a title analyzer that purports to tell you the likelihood a title will become a bestseller. I'm not sure how accurate it is, but it may help you decide among several possibilities.

I did a little test putting in I Feel Bad About My Neck compared with the generic His Sweet Kisses, and "Neck" scored only a 21% chance and "Sweet Kisses" scored 61%. So use it with several grains of salt.

9) Don't Treat Nonfiction Titles like Narrative Titles

A lot of advice on book titles lumps together fiction and nonfiction, but nonfiction titles serve a different purpose. They don't have to stimulate the imagination like a novel or memoir title—instead, they need to grab attention and promise to fulfill a need.

This makes keywords essential for nonfiction book titles. And old-fashioned title like "What Color is your Parachute"  does not work in today's search-engine driven world. Titles require subtitles that contain keywords now. So the 2015 version of What Color is Your Parachute has the subtitle "2015: a Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career Changes."

If you blog, you probably know something about what blog titles get you the most clicks. The same goes for nonfiction book titles. Numbers and lists work well. So do how-tos, questions and answers to questions. Shocking statements do too,  like "Why you Should Never…" and "What you Don't Know About..."

What works best for nonfiction is a short, standout title that grabs the reader's attention, and a longer subtitle that explains what makes this book different.

10) Use Social Media to get Feedback from your Readers 

This week Frances Caballo wrote a great post on marketing (in which she quotes me, so obviously it's brilliant!) She suggested "It’s always a good idea to involve your readership every step of the way. How? Ask your readers for their ideas for names of your characters or ask them to help you select a book cover."

So why not titles? My current WIP has the working title of So Much for Buckingham (The Camilla Randall Mysteries #5.)

It's a title I've always wanted to use, because "Off with his head! So much for Buckingham!" is the most famous line from Shakespeare that Shakespeare never wrote. (It was added to the play Richard III by an 18th century London actor-manager named Colley Sibber.)

This is a novel about how people's lives can be destroyed by things that never happenedbut get reported and repeated until they're accepted as fact. Like the story about Richard III murdering the princes in the tower. 

And, well, there's a cat named Buckingham. And dead reenactor playing the part of the Duke of Buckingham, and the ghost of Richard III, who says the whole nasty rumor about the princes was started by...the Duke of Buckingham.

So Scriveners, would you read a mystery-comedy called "So Much For Buckingham?" What if it had a picture of a cat on the cover? Or Richard III? Or a cat dressed like Richard III? Let me know in the comments! 

How do you title your own books? What's your favorite title of a story or book you've written? What's a brilliant title that made you want to buy a book? Can you think of a title like "Treme" that worked against itself?


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MARK TWAIN HUMOR CONTEST  Entry fees: $12 Young Author or $22 Adult. 7,000 words (or fewer) of any original work of humor writing. Submissions must be in English. Submissions are not required to be in the style of Mark Twain or about Mark Twain. 1st Prize: $1,000 (Adult), $600 (Young Author). Other cash prizes! Deadline July 10, 2015

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Writer's Village International Short Fiction Contest Prizes totalling $3200! And every entrant gets a critique. (which makes this a great deal.) Any genre of fiction up to 3000 words. Entry fee $24. Deadline June 30th.

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