Posted On July 24, 2015 by Print This Post

How to Choose the Right Book Title by Anne R. Allen

Author and über-blogger Anne R. Allen joins us today to discuss the sometimes agonizing task of selecting a title for your book.

As always, it’s great to have you here, Anne! 

Choosing the right title for your book gets harder all the time.

These days, we have to think about SEO, keywords, categories, and also-boughts as we fight for visibility in the ever-expanding digital marketplace.

Traditionally, authors have been warned by agents and editors not to be “married” to titles because publishers regularly changeAnne R. Allen 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, changes can be infuriating for the author. Especially if a title goes through many versions between acceptance and publication.

With self-publishing, it’s possible to change titles even after publication, but don’t do it on a whim. You’ll create confusion for your established readers who have already purchased the book, and you’ll probably lose your reader reviews. Also, older information always come up first in a Google search, so your old title will be with you forever on a SERP (Search Engine Results Page.)

Tough title choices are not a new problem: 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.
  • Jacqueline Susann’s They Don’t Build Statues to Businessmen became Valley of the Dolls
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Trimalchio in West Egg became The Great Gatsby
  • William Golding’s Strangers from Within became Lord of the Flies.
  • Carson McCullers The Mute became The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.
  • 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.
  • Stephen Crane’s Private Fleming, His Various Battles, became The Red Badge of Courage.

Obviously authors don’t always make the best choices in titling our own work.

Here are some tips for choosing that perfect title:

 

1) Google Your Title

Nobody can copyright a book title, and 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 it.

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

And you 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.

 

2) Study at Titles That Don’t Work

Have you heard about a book 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 the wrong length, uninformative, or wrong for the audience or genre:

A broad, generic title like Loving and Living, or Choices doesn’t tell the reader anything about the story and doesn’t indicate genre.

One word titles can be great, but they’re problematic. They make an impact and can look great on a cover, but they can fall flat unless it’s the name of a fascinating character or you choose a really hooky, precise word like Titanic or Bridesmaids.

Big, all-encompassing words like “Hope”, “Loneliness” or “Dreams” are usually too unfocused to work in a title and sound amateurish.

Titles that are too long can work against you too, unless they’re 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.

So what’s the right length? According to industry experts, two to four word titles work best.

 

3) Study Titles that Work 

Here are some that are “tried and true.”

The hero’s name

This is the oldest source of titles in the book, literally. A title simply stating the name of the protagonist has been around since the birth of the novel. From Don Quixote, Tom Jones and Tristram Shandy, to Olive Kitteridge and Coraline, the protagonist’s name is a pretty safe choice.

Then there are protagonist’s names with embellishments like The Song of Roland, The Picture of Dorian Grey, and Bridget Jones’ Diary. 

The antagonist’s name

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

The main character’s occupation or title

The Mayor of Casterbridge, The Happy Hooker, The Good Soldier, or Gladiator.

A family member’s occupation or title

The Mermaid’s Sister, The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, The Baker’s Daughter, The Bonesetter’s Daughter.

Daughters have been popular recently. Here’s a piece with an infographic showing how titles involving daughters have expanded recently.

Setting is good

Mansfield Park, Wuthering Heights, Cold Mountain, Echo Park, Telegraph Avenue.

Or the setting with embellishments

The Amityville Horror, Murders on the Rue Morgue, 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 , The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. “Main event” titles are informative and contain the hook, so they’re great choices.

Theme

These advertise the book’s big picture: Pride and Prejudice, Of Mice and Men, War and Peace, The Beautiful and the Damned.

Quotes from the Bible, nursery rhymes or the classics

A Time to Kill, The Sun Also Rises, Blithe Spirit, Tender is the Night, Along Came a Spider. 

I used a classic quote for my new comedy-mystery So Much for Buckingham. It’s a quote from Richard III, except it wasn’t written by Shakespeare. It was added by an 18th century actor. It’s the most famous line of Shakespeare that Shakespeare never wrote—and the book’s theme is how “common knowledge” can be false.

There are so many titles from classic literature they have their own Wikipedia page.

Quotes from songs or song titles

Catcher in the Rye, 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.

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.

 

4) Match Keywords to Your Genre

Authors can run into trouble if a title sets up the wrong expectations with mismatched keywords

You don’t want to 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 for your genre. Here are some examples:

  • Contemporary Romance: “love”, “wedding”, “romance”, “heart”, “kiss”, “seduction”.
  • Regencies: “Duke”, “Count” (or any other aristocrat) “rake”, “rogue”.
  • Erotica titles have become more subtle in the wake of Fifty Shades, but you’ll be sure your readers get the message with words like “bondage”, “chains”, and “submission”.
  • Cozies often feature puns: Assault and Pepper or Flourless to Stop Him.
  • Noir: “body”, “shadows”, “dead”, “dark”, “murder”, and “corpse.”
  • Westerns and Western Romance: “boots”, “rider”, “sagebrush”, “lonesome”, and “trail”.
  • Paranormal: “blood”, “demon”, “night”, “dead.”
  • Space Opera: “stars”, “space”, “alien”, “empire”.
  • Fantasy: “swords”, “sorcery”, “wizard”, “mage”, “dragon”, or “magic.”

I’m not saying you must use keywords—they can be clichéd—but you need be wary of using the wrong keyword for your genre.

 

5) Put a Hook in the Title

A hook is something that presents a question or piques curiosity, like Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, The Postman Always Rings Twice, or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. Hooky titles are golden if you think of the right one.


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.  A memoir called Pen, Pencil and Poison didn’t sell until its title was changed to The Story of a Notorious Criminal. I know—the first one is better writing, but the keywords “notorious criminal” sell better.

 

7) Use Simple Words

Using simple words rather than ones people have to look up or can’t pronounce will help sales too. 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.

 

9) Get Feedback from your Readers 

Marketing guru Frances Caballo suggests “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.”


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? One that made you not want to buy?

***

So Much For Buckingham med.

Anne’s latest rom-com mystery, So Much for Buckinghamis now available in ebook. It’s a comedy/mystery about character assassination, online review bullies, and Richard III. Also a cat named Buckingham.

***

Bio: Anne R. Allen is an award-winning blogger and the author of eight comic novels including the bestselling Camilla Randall Mysteries, plus a collection of short fiction and poetry. She’s also co-author of How to be a Writer in the E-Age: a Self-Help Guide, with NYT bestseller Catherine Ryan Hyde. She blogs at “Anne R. Allen’s Blog…with Ruth Harris,” named by Writer’s Digest to their Best 101 Websites for Writers.

 

 

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Discussion

17 Responses to “How to Choose the Right Book Title by Anne R. Allen”

  1. Great advice that I’ve tweeted and FB’d! My 25 books have gotten their titles in different ways. The Edith Wharton Murders, my breakout mystery, was obvious because it was set at a Wharton conference. Others got changed, sometimes by an editor, or my smart spouse. Some just came out of the blue before I wrote the book, like my latest about stalking and police militarization: Assault With a Deadly Lie. It was a gift from my subconscious. 🙂

    Posted by Lev Raphael | July 24, 2015, 11:38 am
    • Lev–Those sound like great titles! You can’t go wrong with a mystery that has “mystery” or “deadly” in the title. When somebody suggests a new title for my WIP, I usually react negatively at first. But then it can start to grow on me. Often it’s better than my own working title.

      Posted by Anne R. Allen | July 24, 2015, 3:45 pm
      • I’m that way with dialogue. Nobody can suggest to me how my people talk. But I’m an easy edit with titles and everything else. Putting Edith Wharton in that title actually got me cross-shelved in Literature some places right next to Wharton herself. I picked Hot Rocks for one mystery because a corpse was found in a sauna and because it might come up when people searched for The Hot Rock.

        Posted by Lev Raphael | July 25, 2015, 8:05 am
  2. If you try LULU – read the help descriptions – no kidding.
    Hot SWAT ranked 10.2% !!!! I changed the settings after reading – scored 41.4%!
    Pretty interesting. It liked Sink Hole and hated Meyer Park and Collateral Damage. (All titles in a Hot Cop Series) Hilarious. I didn’t go back and reset those to try again. Cute.

    Posted by Donnamaie White | July 24, 2015, 2:07 pm
    • Donnamaie–I didn’t know you could change the settings on the LULU title tester. That might make a big difference. I’ll have to try it. The ones I tried didn’t seem very accurate. The bestsellers rated low and the dumb ones I thought up on the spur of the moment rated high. Thanks for the tip!

      Posted by Anne R. Allen | July 24, 2015, 3:48 pm
  3. Thanks for the wonderful suggestions! I love the title of your book, and it’s fascinating to see the before and after titles of so many best sellers. I’ve bookmarked this!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | July 24, 2015, 9:46 pm
  4. Okay, commenters, I’m a techno-dunce. Please tell me more about LuLu. Is it an app or a link? *bangs head on desk*

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | July 24, 2015, 9:50 pm
    • Lulu is a self publishing platform, like CreateSpace and BookBaby. But that link will take you to a fun place on their site where you can type in a title and get an analysis of its likelihood of becoming a bestseller. Put your cursor on the highlighted text “Lulu has a title analyser” and click your mouse.

      Posted by Anne R. Allen | July 24, 2015, 10:17 pm
  5. Evening Anne…

    sorry so late! =)

    Fun post, love what the authors chose vs what the title really was.

    I’m horrid at picking out titles…mine always sound like 1970 bodice rippers. lol..I’ll definitely have to run a few of them through the lulu link.

    I admit to having bought a few books simply because the title caught my eye….Parrots of the Caribbean? Who can resist that?

    =)

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | July 24, 2015, 11:30 pm
  6. This is a really helpful piece.

    One trend that has been angering a number of people recently is the “So-and-So’s Daughter” and “So-and-So’s Wife” thing. Many women aren’t liking the way so many book titles imply the woman is just some second-rate extension of the male character. She’s never the one with the interesting profession – she’s his attachment!

    Posted by Sonya Heaney | July 27, 2015, 12:09 pm
    • Sonya–I’ve read those pieces too. And that infographic I linked to shows how many “So-and-So’s Daughter” books there are. There’s been an explosion. I wonder if “The Dressmaker’s Son” or “The Doctor’s Husband” would have as much appeal?

      Posted by Anne R. Allen | July 27, 2015, 12:27 pm
  7. When I am naming a poem, short story, etc., I go for the obscure. A title that doesn’t actually reveal itself until a reader is well into the story…or at the very end. And, it must make sense. I have often wondered about some titles…thinking, “Wha?” I do not like to search, without result, for the meaning of a title.

    Posted by Karen R. Sanderson | July 27, 2015, 4:19 pm
    • Karen–That kind of obscurity and word play can be really fun for a class or a piece for a poetry reading, but when you’re writing professionally, you have to think about how to hook the reader in the first place.

      That’s why enigmatic titles don’t work in the era of SEO and keywords. If you don’t reach your audience in the first place, they’ll never find your book and read it to find that “easter egg” that explains the title.

      Posted by Anne R. Allen | July 27, 2015, 6:10 pm

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] How to choose the right book title Writing Contest – This fall, CRIME PAYS. A good crime story can capture a reader’s attention like no other genre. Submit your entry between July 1 and July 31 for a chance to win. […]

  2. […] How to Choose the Right Book Title by Anne R. Allen Anne R Allen guests on the Romance University blog, with some guidance on the tricky issue of titling a book. […]

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