Sunday, May 24, 2015

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

  • Jane Austen’s First Impressions became Pride and Prejudice.
  • Philip Roth’s The Jewboy, or Wacking Off, became Portnoy’s Complaint
  • Jacqueline Susann's They Don't Build Statues to Businessmen became Valley of the Dolls
  • Rick Moody's F.F. became The Ice Storm. 
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald's Trimalchio in West Egg became The Great Gatsby
  • George Orwell's The Last Man in Europe became 1984
  • William Golding’s Strangers from Within became Lord of the Flies. 
  • Carson McCullers The Mute became The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.
  • Ernest Hemingway’s Fiesta became The Sun Also Rises.
  • Evelyn Waugh’s The House of the Faith became Brideshead Revisited.
  • Alex Haley’s Before This Anger became Roots: The Saga of an American Family.
  • Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s At this Point in Time became All the President’s Men. 
  • Stephen Crane’s Private Fleming, His Various Battles, became The Red Badge of Courage.

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: 
  • too short 
  • too long
  • too broad or generic
  • uninformative
  • wrong for the genre
  • appeal to the wrong audience
  • unintentionally comical

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.)

  • My Life as a Railroad Brakeman and Ladies' Underwear Salesman in America's Heartland in the 1950s before the Country was Overrun by Those People
  • Why my Son is Going to Hell along with his Whiny Wife and their Ungrateful, Ugly Children: You Call That a Mother's Day Gift?
  • 101 Crafts to Make from Dryer Lint When Your Slimeball Husband Leaves you Destitute When he Runs off with a Bimbo Named Tiffany. 
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.

  • Romance titles tend to use words "love" and "romance" and "heart" a lot. Regencies feature a lot of dukes and other aristocrats, and contemporaries have their modern equivalent, billionaires. Other common romance keywords are "kiss", "rake", "seduction", "duke", "bride", "wedding", "rogue", and "wild". Just browse the Romance books on Amazon for the most common.
  • Erotica titles have become more subtle in the wake of Fifty Shades, but if you want to make sure your readers know what to expect, words like "bondage", "chains", "submission" will reach the right audience.
  • Mystery titles vary depending on whether they're cozy, noir, or gritty. A whole lot of cozies have puns in the titles these days, often involving food, like Assault and Pepper or Flourless to Stop Him
  • Darker mysteries use words like "body", "shadows", "dead", "dark", "farewell", "murder", "kill" and "corpse."
  • Westerns and Western Romance identify themselves with words like "cowboy", "boots",  "rider", "sagebrush", "lonesome", and "trail".
  • Paranormals tend to do a lot with "blood", "demon", "night" and "dead," and "howl."
  • Space Operas often use "stars", "space" and "alien", and "empire". 
  • Fantasy is probably going to have "swords", "sorcery", "wizard", "mage", "dragon", king", or "magic" in there somewhere.

I'm not saying you must use keywords—I know the clichĂ© 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.

  • Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
  • The Way We Live Now (Do we live differently now? How?)
  • The DaVinci Code (I've heard of DaVinci, but not his code: what is it?)
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime (That one made me grab it before I even knew what it was about. That's an example of a longer title that works.)
  • And a lot of people have wanted to know what was so great about Gatsby.

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.

  • Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking
  • Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption
  • Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of Seal Team 10
  • The Residence: Inside the World of the White House

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?


THE BEST REVENGE: Only 99c this week

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Read how it all began, to prepare for Camilla #5

The Best Revenge is the prequel to the Camilla Randall Mysteries. We meet Camilla and Plantagenet  in the big-hair, pastel-suited 1980s. A spoiled 1980s debutante comes of age and discovers strengths nobody knew she had when she loses everything in this satirical romp. It takes her from the doors of Studio 54 to the coke-fueled parties of Southern California to a cell in the LA County Jail accused of murder. We know she didn't do it, but who did?  

THE BEST REVENGE: How it all began! When Camilla Randall, a 1980s New York debutante, is assaulted by her mother’s fiancĂ©, smeared in the newspapers by a sexy muckraking journalist, then loses all her money in the Savings and Loan Scandal, she seeks refuge with her gay best friend in California. But her friend has developed heterosexual tendencies and an inconvenient girlfriend, so Camilla has to move in with wild-partying friends. When a TV star ends up dead after one of their parties, Camilla is arrested for his murder. She must turn to a friendly sanitation worker, a dotty octogenarian neighbor and the muckraking journalist who ridiculed herwho also happens to be her boss. 

The Best Revenge is on sale at Amazon and Nook. Also at Smashwords, AppleKobo


Golden Quill Awards Writing Contest: Flash, Poetry, and Short fiction categories. Entry fee $20 for stories and poetry, $15 for flash fiction. The theme is TRANSFORMATION. Deadline July 15.

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

Saturday Evening Post Great American Fiction Contest. Entry fee $10. Your story should in some way touch upon the publication’s mission: Celebrating America — past, present, and future. Think Norman Rockwell. No profanity or graphic sex. Any genre. No previously published stories, but they can have appeared on your blog. Between 1,500 and 5,000 words. Deadline July 1, 2015

Big Beautiful Wellness Creative Writing Contest. NO FEE Poems up to 30 lines Fiction or Nonfic between 1000 and 2000 words. $100 first prize. Theme: Body-positive living. Looking for inspirational, positive stories. Deadline July 1.

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.

PULP LITERATURE'S The Hummingbird Prize for Flash Fiction $10-$15 ENTRY FEE. Winner published in Winter 2016. First Prize: $300 (Runner up: $75). For unpublished short fiction up to 1,000 words in length. Contest Opens May 1, 2015 and closes June 15, 2015.

Ink & Insights 2015 is a writing contest that comes with a detailed critique. Send the first 10,000-words of your book. The entry fee is $35: pricey for a contest, but a fantastic deal for a critique. Each submission is read by four judges who score 18 areas of your novel. This looks like a great opportunity! Over $5,000 cash and prizes. Deadline May 31.

WOW Spring Flash Fiction Contest: Fee $10, or $20 with critique. The critique is a fantastic deal. These quarterly contests are judged by an agent. 750 words.  First prize is $350 plus a $500 publishing package, publication and an interview. 20 prizes in all. Enter early. They only take the first 300 entries. Deadline May 31.

Page and Spinea literary magazine for emerging writers. Submit your stories and poems and get payment plus feedback! Stories get up to $20, quips and poems $5. Submissions considered between Oct. 1st and June 1st.


  1. Best article you've done! I should go change Not Low Maintenance to The Mating Maven

    1. Hostess/Barbara--Thanks! Don't rush off to change the title. See how it works with your audience. Changing titles is a hassle and you would probably lose reviews.

  2. Over the years I've found certain words I'm partial to in titles, for whatever reasons. I've used lots of song titles, that's my go-to. The Beatles, Gershwin, Count Basie. But I've also used the word 'blue' a lot, and the word 'jump.' No idea what that means! :-)

    1. Lise--"Jump" is a great word for a title. Action is always hooky. I love quotes too. And a song title brings lots of emotion with it. Good choice.

  3. Lot of food for thought here, Anne.

    1. Jaime--I hope it helps you title your next book! Thanks for stopping by.

  4. Wow, there were some awesome tips in there! I like everything you covered in number three with names and setting.
    I did use stars in two of my titles - score.
    I do that three titles with only one word, but they are unique. Google any of them and my books are the only thing that comes up.

    1. Alex--I did think of your books when I was doing the "space opera" category. Unique one-word titles can have a huge impact. I think yours work great.

  5. Anne, This is just plain brilliant and packed with lots of great information! One day, if you're good, I'll tell you the sure-fire bestselling genius title I never used. It includes sex, diet and God. ;-)

    1. Ruth---Oooooh, now you've got me hooked. How could you miss with all three of those topics?

  6. How can it be that this is the first article I've read on titles, and I've been in the biz for 25 years?? And it's a great one! I'll be pointing my class to this one, Anne. And also, I'll be quoting your excellent observation: 'Anything that says, "this book is all about me and my unresolved issues" is probably not going to sell all that well.'

    1. Melodie--I felt the same way when I saw Joanna Penn's article. But she was talking about changing titles after publication, which is a lot harder. I figured something basic to help choose the best one in the first place might be a good idea.

      As a creative writing professor, I'm sure you run into those "unresolved issues" people all the time. It's hard to get them to understand nobody wants to read their therapy sessions. It's why shrinks get the big bux. Sigh.

    2. Although, I have to admit I'd definitely pick up "Why my Son is Going to Hell along with his Whiny Wife and their Ungrateful, Ugly Children..." LOL! But you're right--I wouldn't likely read it.

    3. Allan--I actually tried to edit that book. It took me a while to realize that's what the author had written about. it pretended to be an immigrant memoir, but it kept veering off into crazy-ranty territory. Some people really aren't meant to write books.

  7. Thanks for this post! I passed it along to a friend whose manuscript has changed names a couple times. The way you broke things down here, Anne, is so helpful.

    So far, in titling my own work, I've been inspired by songs (not always song titles, but the songs themselves) and old rhymes. My working titles fall within the guidelines you've mentioned here as being good. Whew.

    One summer when I was in high school, I came up with the brilliant plan to buck what I'd been told my whole life and ONLY judge a book by its cover. I searched the library shelves for the oddest-named books I could find, books that, under normal circumstances, I would never have picked up. The one title I still remember 17 years post-experiment is a book called "Vox." I'd stumbled into a not-quite-age-appropriate novel of an, ahem, intimate phone conversation between strangers (that Amazon now calls "an erotic classic.") Alas. I read so many odd books that summer; I was relieved when my experiment ended.

    1. Natalie--Thanks for passing this along. I hope it helps your friend. Songs and poems are always inspiring for me. They can evoke lots of emotion.

      What an enterprising kid you were! Vox is one of those one word titles that really works, isn't it? A book like Vox probably didn't warp your young mind. I remember sneaking around to get a copy of Tropic of Cancer when I was in high school. I didn't find it shocking as much as WTF?.

  8. As reader, I ran across an awesome cover for a book called Ascension. When I tried to buy the book on B&N, it was on PAGE 2. A lot of books were named that (book is here: I met the model for the cover at a con)..

    I've ended up changing a couple of my titles as part of the self-publishing the short stories. One was called Six Bullets and was a fantasy (with guns), but the title suggested Western or Mystery, so I went with River Flight instead. Another fantasy that I'm about to get edited was originally called Private Penelope Prescott, but now I'm changing that to Boobytrap at Beaver River. I wanted something that better reflected the action nature of the story.

    BTW, not all fantasies have magic, dragons, kings, or sword in the title. That's for certain types of fantasies, but doesn't apply to all the subgenres. For example, Jay Lake's Green, or Kristian Britain's Green Rider.

    1. Linda--Great point! "Ascension" is one of those constantly recycled titles. It has power. But it' also is going to be sharing the search page with a ton of other writers. If they're better known or have been around longer, you get buried.

      Retitling to pinpoint genre is smart. Readers get angry when they expect one thing and get another.

      You're right about "Fantasy". It's a big umbrella. I should have said. "High or Epic Fantasy."

  9. Thanks for all the advice. I struggle with titles. The ones I do have were a stroke of luck or I asked around and got suggestions. Right now I have plenty of stories that need titles. Calling my zombie story MmmBrains is funny, but that's not what the plot is about.

    1. Patricia--MmmmmBrains is pretty funny. I think sometimes I err on the side of funny and forget that information is the most important point of a title.

  10. Great post, thanks! Gaah - it's easier to find a name for a newborn baby for a book! Not to mention that there are all these great 'how-to-name-your-baby' books... Maybe they should publish 'how-to-name-your-novel' book for authors as well? Or a new profession - not a cover designer, but a title designer?

    1. Katarina--Maybe some techie can come up with a book title generator! And a title designer would not be a bad idea. Somebody who has analyzed keywords and sales records of different types of titles. It would be very useful to have that data!

  11. I'm nearly finished with a first draft and still have no idea what to title it. Lots of great ideas here to start.

    1. James--I hope this post helps you find that perfect title!

  12. Wow, so much to think about. I had to LOL with your comment about asking a librarian for Death of the Vrypyttrx. So funny!

    1. Sue--I've actually had that happen when I worked in bookstores. People would come in with a title written down because they didn't have a clue how to pronounce it.

      This is not a good kind of title to get "word of mouth" buzz. :-)

  13. I struggle with titles. Part of me wishes I could submit short stories without a title and let whoever publishes them give them a title, but I'd probably end up with a title I hate!

    1. Hayley--I know a brilliant writer who's like that. Can't title his stories and sometimes sends them in untitled. Sometimes the editor will come up with something brilliant. Sometimes not. :-)

  14. Hi Anne!! My God, you've done it again!!! Imparted your wisdom on such a needy topic for me. Thank you for this! Titling has always been the hardest part to me and you've offered the best tips which will make it easier for me going forward. In fact, with my first book, I rushed the title and had hated it so much. I took a bold step and changed it - just a few days before Joanna Penn's post about it. With that, I knew I was okay. My second book begs for a new title too, I think, and your post here just inspired it along with a new cover. I now believe that I have more confidence to title my upcoming books better and I won't have to change them after publication. It's certainly been a learning curve... Thanks again!!!

    1. Tonya--I'm so glad this post is timely for you. Joanna's post opened my eyes too. I never thought of changing a title as well as cover art. But it sure has worked for her.

      And yes, it's a learning curve for all of us! Especially those of us who have been with trad publishing for a while, where the decisions about this stuff were made by other people.

  15. Thanks for the fun tips about analyzing a book title. It is tricky. According to the Lulu analyzer, my title, Thin Places, got a 69% chance of being a best-seller! If only it were that easy. I guess I'll find out pretty soon.

    1. Elie--Congrats! None of my titles has ever got a 69%! I like that title. Hey, there you go...on your way to bestsellerdom!

  16. I saved this to my OneNote file, thanks so much!! Titles are hard sometimes. The thing is, between that and the cover, it can make all the difference whether anyone will even look at your book or not. Very important decision!!
    Jacquie Biggar

    1. Jacquie--You're so right. No matter what's inside, it's the title and cover art that will make your book visible. They are probably the most important decisions we'll make as writers..

  17. I'm horrible at titles. The Duke's Divorce, The Lady's Masquerade, The Lady's Secret. Then we have heroes in the others-- Love Finds Lord Davingdale, A Wife for Winsbarren, Lady Cadoret's Longing etc. etc..

    I figure that at least the title tells a little bit about what's in the book. Along with the cover you might get an idea they're Regency romance. At least that's what I'm going for.

    My next series is also super simplified Ladies of Dunbury Volume One (with the characters name). I was thinking of researching the various virtues the characters are named after and fiddling around with those for titles, but I'm not that clever. Hence my super simple titles. I guess these days it's all about what can be used for a hashtag on Twitter, right?

    1. Anne--Hi there! *waves*

      All your titles are perfect Regency titles. When you work in a genre that has very structured rules, I think it's best to keep to tradition. The Ladies of Dunbury says Regency too. If you get too cute, you may lose the audience you depend on most. I think your titles and covers are great!

  18. Beth Havey of Boomer Highway sent this via email:

    "This is a great post. One of the title frames, so to speak, that got away from itself was the use of the word WIFE. The Pilot's Wife was probably first, but then there were tons later: The Paris Wife, etc etc. But many of them sold and did very well. Like everything in the publishing world, there are so many variables."

    1. Beth--You're so right about the "wife" fad. Almost as big as the "daughter" fad. When something works, people tend to copy it until it doesn't.

  19. I learned an incredibly hard, but exceptionally valuable lesson about how NOT to tile a book. My commercial debut had an obscure title that almost no one got, and to this day, I should've insisted that the title be changed as it was simply a placeholder, before I signed the contract.

    Alas, the title of the book, Line 21 was a title that no one, save for an accountant, got.

    Pop quiz for everyone, when you hear "Line 21", what is the first thing that pops into your head (and no using Google for an answer). Only one person got it, and that was due to the fact that he handles contracts & grants at my state agency.

    So when I got the rights back to it last year, one of the first things I did was to hold a contest for a new title. It's now called "The Inner Sibling" and it has a much better connect with the story than the previous title ever did.

    I'll give everyone a day to answer my question, then I'll pop back in on Monday evening to give everyone what it actually stands for.

    1. G.B. I'm afraid I'm one of the ones who doesn't get "Line 21".

      But I like "The Inner Sibling". How clever to hold a contest for the new title. That's just what the gurus say you should do--involve your audience.

  20. Wow - another incredibly exhaustive bit of thinking & research. Thanks once more, Anne.

    1. CS--I hope it helps you find just the right title for your next blockbuster! :-)

  21. This is a great post. I'm afraid I have lots of trouble with names. For novels and short stories. There is some terrific advice here that I will use for sure! Thanks!

    1. Christine--Titles aren't easy. That's for sure. We have to put ourselves in the shoes of the average customer and ask, "Does that make me want to jump up and grab this book?"

  22. Anne, have I told you lately how much I appreciate you handing out paddles to us newbies before we head up S. Creek? I ignored a book after downloading the sample but the title kept drawing me back. "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" was not only compelling but perfectly described the story. Had it been named something like "Greatness in Small Things" I would never have discovered one of my favorite books of all time. My critique circle pitches a hissie fit because I introduce too many characters and I am sure my reviews will eventually reflect that opinion too. So, may I take this one and only opportunity to say..."You were warned...the name of the book is "Horse Town"

    1. Joanne--Too funny! Yes, a lot of authors end up on that creek without a paddle. I'm glad Ruth and I can hand out a few oars.

      You're right that The Elegance of the Hedgehog is one of the great titles of all time!

      Too many characters is one of my big problems, too. it's why I have so much trouble with short fiction. I try to cram too many people into the phone booth of a tiny story.

      "Horse Town" could definitely work. Especially if it's a Western.

  23. I'd forgotten about the Lulu title scorer! I should have used it before I brilliantly decided to name my second self-pubbed short story "The Mission." Yes, it's about a mission. And there are 50 other books out there with the same title. I'll be more careful with future titles. This was a great post! I'd be leery about "So Much for Buckingham" because I immediately connect it with Buckingham palace, the royals, and celebrity gossip. However, if there was a cat dressed as Richard III, I'd get that it was funny and would take a second look. Good luck! :)

    1. Lexa--"The Mission" is one of those things that can sound so every writer around. I know the feeling.

      Thanks for mentioning my title. If it makes you think of the royals and celebrity gossip, that's great! They're in there. Poor Camilla suffers from having the same name as an unpopular royal. :-)

  24. Anne, I am absolutely going to call my next gay romantic comedy, "The Blueberry Muffin Murder." Love that. :) Titles are truly important. Usually I know mine before I begin and often they're hooked to the book's theme like "Weep Not for the Past," "Too Long Among the Dead," or "Boys Will Be Boys," etc. Theme is an element that's often overlooked, but for me, it's just about the most important element of a book. Oh, well... Great post as usual. Well worth bookmarking and sharing which is what I'll do now. Both.

    1. Paul--You have some of the most evocative titles around. I love all those. Maybe your years as the editor of a literary magazine gave you a feel for what works in a title.

      And you can use "The Blueberry Muffin Murder", as long as you put a little old lady with cats in the story. ;-)

  25. An excellent article- certainly the most in-depth I've read from you.

    I had no idea lulu had a title analyzer. I may be interested enough to give it a shot! Thanks as usual, Anne, you're a fantastic resource!

    1. Kell--We try to keep our readers informed on a variety of subjects. Some posts go longer than others. :-) The Lulu analyzer is fun, but do take the results with a grain or two of salt.

  26. Thanks, Anne. After reading through this (very well-written) post, I came to the conclusion that I have chosen a great title. I always look forward to your updates!

    1. Dion--I'm glad I helped you have solid confidence in your title!

  27. I love finding books that have cleaver titles--those that take a well know title or phrase and change it up a little like Mumbo Gumbo or Much Ado About Vampires. I have also come across books that the title was so intriguing I couldn't pass it up. One summer I found a book titled The Whistling Toilets and I had to read it. It is a YA book and I liked it a lot especially once I got to the part that explained the title. lol.

    I have a work in progress- the title is You and Me and Tequila Makes Three. (I tweaked a Marilyn Manson song title to fit my story.) I am curious to know what impression it gives readers.

    1. Amanda--Those cozy mystery titles can be pretty hilarious. You just don't want to put a pun in the title if it isn't a cozy. It's one of those "markers" of a genre these days.

      I think I'd pick up the Whistling Toilets! Sounds hilarious. The Tequila title is funny too. Something about Tequila suggests fun, breezy, vacation time. If you used "whisky" it might sound sad and substance-abusive. But Tequila works.

  28. I liked your original Avalon title. It was a great hook with a sense of humor (something publishers and editors seemed to have lost somewhere along the way!) Hemingway and Fitzgerald were always complaining that all the great book titles had already been done! Way back then!! :-)

    A title that looks good in thumbnail nowadays is a must I think. Short and intriguing is good too. Great post as always.

    1. Rolant--I'm glad somebody likes my Avalon title. :-). Unfortunately humor is subjective and lots of people didn't get it. Thanks!

      Actually, you and I have very similar tastes in titles. As I remember, you also have a book called Ghostwriters in the Sky!

      Thumbnails are important too, although usually the title appears somewhere else on a buy page, so you have a second chance to make the point.

    2. Roland--Sorry for the typo in your name. I'm doing too much multi-tasking today!

  29. For those of you who are/were curious about what the title Line 21 means, here is the answer.

    I was writing the story during tax season. I had my tax forms in my den, and in keeping with the overall theme of the story (woman has one week to raise money to pay off her uncle the loan shark), I chose something from my 1040. Line 21 on your 1040 is for miscellaneous income that you have to declare.

    Made perfect sense to me, but not to the people that really mattered: the public. Lesson to be had is to not make your title so obscure that no one will want to buy your book because they'll have no idea on what it's about.

    1. G. B. I've been waiting with bated breath! So it's "miscellaneous income"! Which could be very intriguing. I see exactly why it seemed like a brilliant title. And why it didn't work. :-) Thanks for educating us!

  30. I would definitely want to read it if there was a cat dressed like Richard III on the cover. I like the title but I'm not necessarily swayed by a title - I'm weird that way. Unless it's a really bad, cheesy title then yes it will sway me away from it.

    The LuLuMeter didn't give me high scores for my titles either but my readers did - so oh well.

    Personally I like ironic titles or catchy titles - ones that stick in your head. Although I've read so many books with crappy titles that I guess it really doesn't matter to me.

    Although on the other side of the coin, I will spend weeks, sometimes months coming up with a title I like and I think works. So I wonder if we authors are tormenting over things that worry us but don't worry readers as much?

    Could be - or it could be I shouldn't be commenting because I've been writing for the last ten hours and I'm a bit computer drunk.

    By the way, I hope you're feeling better. You mentioned a health issue in your last post and you've been in my thoughts.


    1. Annie--Thanks for the vote for the cat dressed as Richard III! :-) The Lulu meter gave Buckingham a 21% chance as a title. But I'm not giving it up.

      I think titles are more important to readers than they realize. They don't know what makes them stop and look at a book, but it could be the title.

      10 hours at the computer can make any of us crazy. And yet I do it, day after day. I guess maybe we're crazy already.

      My gouty knee is a little better, thanks. At least I finally have a diagnosis and some meds and the hope that I'll be able to walk again sometime. Tomorrow I go in for surgery on my jawbone. That's not going to be fun at all. But it's a step toward getting all this crap in my rearview mirror.

  31. Anne, great post full of good advice! I wished I'd read it before changing my title (after it was published, sigh!) But I want to turn to your book's title: even though I'm pretty well read (I tend to believe I am, ha ha!) , that title doesn't really mean anything to me. I realize it fits your book like a glove. But could you walk down some other, less Shakespearian lane? Not too many people are that conversant with Shakespeare and actually, it can be off-putting. Too high-brow. Alternatively, too historical (lots of people have no idea who Buckingham is). So this is a thriller/comedy or am I wrong? What were the previous titles in the series, can you link back to them? I know that if I've read a book in a series, I sort of look for the next hook to decide if I want to read that one too. So I guess a title with a hook would do (and yours certainly has it, off with his head!) Well, I don't know if my comments help in any way, but I really love your writing and I wish you every possible success. I'm only offering these suggestions in the hope you'll find some use for them!

    1. Claude--Thanks for your input. The full title will be So Much For Buckingham: The Camilla Randall Mysteries #5, so all that info will be there.

      And the cat is named Buckingham, so people who don't know any history but just like cat cozies won't be left out.

      But the title is supposed to do all those things you talk about: attract people who are educated and have some knowledge of Shakespeare, history and current events. It's all about the discovery of Richard III's body and his burial.

      Lots of mysteries are written for an educated audience--mine among them. This is my 21st century version of Josephine Tey's Daughter of Time--a famous 1930s mystery about Richard III...

      If people don't know anything about history or current events or mysteries, they aren't going to like my stuff, so this will weed out the people looking for less meaty fare.


  32. Anne, Once again you hit a lot of nails on the head with one hammer. :) Thank you so much. This was so helpful. After years of publishing I switched genres and happily decided to title my new Pride and Prejudice series MISTER DARCY'S SECRET, etc. Duh... no one spells out Mr. ~ Two books into the series I realized I'd made an error by trying to be clever. Once again, thank you for a framable collection of advice.

    1. Barbara--I never thought of Mister vs Mr. I guess we can out-clever ourselves. Thanks!

  33. Ay, Ann, titles are everything. Ian Fleming's novel The Undertaker's Wind became Live And Let Die. And the rest is history... Today, a title needs to be short and blunt, lest it vanish on a Kindle. I had to change the title of a novel from The Apothecary's Dream to Dream Of Darkness, because the term 'Apothecary' became illegible. Ehue... There went my sequel: The Apothecary's Passion!

    1. Dr. John--Oooh. The Undertaker's Wind belongs on my list! Terrible title. In fact, it might induce giggles like the ones at My UK publisher's.

      It's all about the visuals these days, that's for sure. I can see how "Apothecary" might be harder to see and have less impact. But now you can't write the third book either...The Apothecary's Daughter! :-)

    2. The Alchemist's Whore? Naaa... Ben Jonson already done that. How about Bloody London? (I could make it Brum, if you insist.)

  34. Oh crumbs, I thought I had the perfect title for my book, which is a sequel to a yet unpublished novel about Alexander the Great's first wife Rhoxane. I took it from an old movie with Merle Oberon. After reading your post, I thought I'd check Amazon, & rats! there are seven books with the title already. When I picked a pseudonym for a paranormal I wrote, I did check & luckily I did or I would've had the name of a porn star on my unpornish story :) Thanks for a timely post, Anne! Your blog is great!

    1. Cee--So sorry to hear your wonderful title has been used before. That doesn't mean you can't use it though. Sometimes a similar title can work in your favor. But having the same name as a porn star...not so much. Good you didn't get stuck with that! Thanks!

  35. Awesome tips! I have to remember to look up my titles to see if they've been used. It's usually easy for me to come up with the title that sticks, but a couple of times I have changed titles after I finished writing the story.

    1. Chrys--I do that too: start with a title that reflects what I think the book is going to be about, but the book has other plans. And yes, always Google it. Amazing how many minds think alike.

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  37. I cold have used this before my first book, Storm Chaser, came out. I still like the title, but it turned out to be way too common. I like the sequel's title: The Notorious Ian Grant.

    1. Mark--You're so right about Storm Chaser. I immediately thought of two books with that title. That means it's such a good title other people liked it too. LOL. But the Notorious Ian Grant is perfect. And classic: protagonist's name plus embellishment that's a hook. Great choice.

  38. Thanks for this, some very useful tips, I especially like the best seller title analyzer on lulu.

    1. Jason--The Lulu analyzer is fun, but don't take it as the definitive word. I put in some bestselling titles that failed miserably with Lulu.

  39. So I've been hearing this lately about titling a book to fit the market, and have considered re-titling my recent book. It went from "Sir Ivan's Train: Fate Changers" to "Sir Ivan's Train: Dragon King". (I'm stubborn like you, Anne. I can't let go of "Sir Ivan's Train". Besides, Lulu Title Test okay-ed it). However, "Sir Ivan's Train" got zero interesting results in the Amazon search, whereas "Dragon King" turned out pretty good. I'll work on it!

    This is confusing. Our technological world has become simply too complicated.

    Thanks for a great informational read! It definitely helped pacify my apprehension with titles.

    1. Fantc15--I'm 100% with you about how our world has become too complicated. The fundamental premise of the tech world is "make it more complicated and they will come". Every new Windows update changes your life for the worse, but everybody pretends to be pleased. Sigh.

      As far as your title. I love "Sir Ivan's Train". Lots of questions there: A Russian Knight? Who has a train? Great stuff.

      For your subtitle, I think Dragon King works much better than Fate Changers because 1) "fate changers" is one of those generic titles that could apply to anything 2) Kings are cool. 3) Dragons are cooler.

      Just my opinion. But I'd definitely look at a book with that title.


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