Book title guide
Picking a title for your book is one of the biggest and most important decisions you'll have to make in regards to your book. It may seem like a fairly insignificant choice, your title is only a handful of words long while your story itself contains thousands. However, it is this handful of words that will determine whether or not a potential reader will even be interested in those other thousands.
For all intents and purposes picking a book title is a marketing decision, just as picking a company name or brand name is a market decision. The better your title the better the chances of finding readers and, in many cases, the better the chance of selling your book. There have been plenty of books in the past that have proven this with a change in their title. Under the first title these books sold very little, but after changing the title and nothing but the title the books suddenly sold more copies.
The importance of a good book title can be a little overwhelming when you're at the stage of picking one, but there are many aspects that may help you pick the right title for your book and I'll go over them in this guide.
Essence of your story
A book title has to convey what your book is about, but it has to do so in a way that grabs the attention of anybody glancing over a long list of other books that may or may not be similar to your own. In order to do this you obviously first need to know what the essence of your story is, which you hopefully already do assuming you wrote (part of) the story before picking a title. Some people prefer to pick a title before writing a story, which is fine as well.
The essence of your book can range widely from a menacing antagonist or a protagonist's special attribute to a specific event or a type of world. Whichever it is this is the main element around which your book title should revolve. In my story starting guide I often mentioned how the beginning of a story is like a promise to the reader. The beginning of your story sets up certain expectations you'll have to deliver upon and a book title is much the same.
In some cases the essence of a book will provide the perfect title. "The Hunger Games" is a good example of this, but not all stories will have such a clear title and even the ones that do may not always be the best titles. But what makes a good title?
First and foremost a title should grab a potential reader's attention. This may seem like an obvious point and it should be an obvious point. There are hundreds and thousands of books out there and you'll have to compete with a huge chunk of them. The only 2 things somebody will see at first glance are the title and the cover art, both of which are important to draw in a (new) reader.
Grabbing someone's attention with just a title can be done in various ways. The title could be controversial, mysterious, funny, pose a question to the reader or something different entirely. It doesn't matter too much which way you do it (as long as it fits the essence of your book), what matters is that your title stands out and piques the interest of potential readers. For example: "Sleeping with monsters" and "Sleeping with the monsters under my bed" make for better titles than "Bed monsters" and "Monster sleep".
A title that's able to grab the attention of a potential reader is only half of what a title needs to be, the other half is being memorable. Plenty of titles can grab the attention only to be forgotten right after, but only a good title can grab the attention and be remembered hours or days later when somebody might try and look it up and give the book a chance.
So what makes a book title memorable? Well, keeping it both unique and simple tends to do the trick. Unique in the sense that if you look for this title you're not faced with dozens of similar titles and stories. While this is often (near) impossible to avoid to some degree it's still a good idea to avoid the more generic titles or spice them up a little to make them more unique. For example: A city name could make for a decent book title, but it'd be far too generic. If you add an adjective, short phrase or other element it immediately becomes more unique and more descriptive of the story (capture the essence). "Delicious New York" and "Atlantis Rises" make for bitter titles than just "New York" and "Atlantis".
Keeping a title simple often means nothing more than not using uncommon or otherwise not often used words, but in some cases the simpler words can also be the more attention grabbing ones. For example: "The ignominy of mankind" doesn't work as well as "The disgrace of mankind". Not only is the second one simpler, it's more memorable and more attention grabbing as well.
Keeping it simple also means keeping it easy to share and recommend your book with others. If your title is hard to pronounce, awkward or embarrassing to say out loud people will usually avoid it or avoid talking about it.
Surely a memorable title means a short title, right? Nope. But surely a good title is a shorter one, right? Again, nope. Title length has little to do with title quality. It's all about what the title conveys to potential readers and what it might say about your book. Some great short titles are "Catch-22", "Hannibal" and "The Great Gatsby". Some examples of great long(er) titles are "The Lord of the Rings" and "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?".
With the above points in mind you should be well on your way to creating that perfect title, but you may still struggle with it and that's okay. There are many different kinds of titles after all, some are from a perspective of a character, some are simply a character's name or a name of a place or even a question. There isn't a perfect style though, it all depends on the story behind it. But here's a list of some title styles you could try:
- Using a character's name.
- Using an alternative name for a character (nickname, title, etc., like The Lord of the Rings for example).
- Using imagery.
- Evoking an emotion.
- Using a character's emotions (perspective).
- Using dialogue from your story.
- Creating mystery and/or intrigue.
- Using wordplay.
- Using humor.
- Using a metaphor.
- A character's unique characteristic.
- Much more.
As you can see there are a lot of different styles and those above are not the only ones. Each of those above can also be divided further into more sub-styles, so to speak. I could delve deeper into each of them, describing each in some detail and add an example, but all that'd accomplish is giving you a whole lot of choices and a whole lot of mostly irrelevant information, neither of which helpful.
Instead I hope this list'll make you think more about different kinds of titles that could work for your story. Only keep the first points about grabbing attention, being memorable and conveying the essence of your story in mind. If this can be done through a character's name that's great, if it can't that's fine too. Write down all the titles you can think of, diversity's a good thing here.
Of course this process can take days, weeks or months. You might think of a new title while in the shower, while buying groceries or while studying. Simply write them down and keep track of them, once you have enough you can pitch them against each other to find the best title of all, assuming you haven't found it already.
Input from others
You'll likely have people who proof read your story, provide feedback and otherwise read your story for one reason or another. These same people might have some great ideas for titles, so why not ask them? If nothing else they could at least provide you with ideas. If their titles are terrible you at least know what kind of themes they're thinking about, which could help you with thinking of more titles yourself.
Picking the best
Once you have a few (or lots of) titles it's time to pick the best, but the best can be too much of a subjective choice when you're the one doing the judging. So the best way of doing it is by removing the subjective aspect and make it more objective, which is done by simply asking outsiders which title they find more inviting in terms of what they'd pick to read. Of course this is still somewhat subjective, but the more emotional side of it is removed.
It's also best to do this with people who aren't involved in the other stages of your novel, especially the before mentioned (proof) readers. By using people who have no clue about your story you're basically testing your titles for the points we went through at the start (grab attention, memorability and capturing the essence).
Make sure you don't give them too many titles to pick from though, which means only using the titles you think are the best. Yes, this means the subjective part is back, but you will know what titles fit the 'capturing the essence' element of the title's purpose best. Try to keep this element in mind the most, the people you will test the chosen titles on will help test how memorable and how attention grabbing the titles really are.
If you really want to check if the titles are memorable check if those people still know the titles a day or two later. This isn't an ideal test as they were merely asked for their opinion on a book rather than coming across it or it being recommended to them, but it still helps.
Title vs. title
Sometimes you may have too many titles to pick from or too many titles that work well and the people you've asked for feedback haven't been able to declare a clear winner. If this problem arises you could simply pitch title against title and see which comes out on top.
If you're at all familiar with group stages (brackets) in any form of sports you'll know how teams are pitched against each other and only the winner moves on to the next round. That winner is then pitched against another winner of a different group and in turn only one of these will continue as the winner to potentially battle another round. This is the same system you could use for titles.
Pitch title A and B against each other, which is better? B? Alright, B continues to the next round. Pitch title C and D against each other, which is better? D? Alright, now pitch title B and D against each other, which is better? D? Well, then D is clearly the best title of the bunch.
The amount of titles doesn't matter for this to work and it doesn't matter which title you pitch against which. Only the best will come out on top.
Don't expect to find the perfect title within hours, sometimes you simply need to let go of this process and take a step back only to return at another time with fresh(er) eyes. Some titles may seem amazing at one point only to seem half-decent at best at another time. Just as your story tends to go through several drafts so too will your title go through several changes. But you could end up being one of the luckier writers who find their perfect title right at the start, it's all a matter of exploring title options, listening to feedback and keeping in mind what a title is supposed to do.