What makes a good book title?

Here’s a secret: many, many, many titles are changed once a publisher gets hold of them. In fact, every single one of my book titles has changed, if you can believe it.

- from Alison Winn Scotch, writer

So if you’re working with editors and publishing experts, choosing titles isn’t going to be a major issue for you. And here’s an editor’s view:

Well, I will admit to thinking that if Marketing truly had their way, the title for every book would be an artless string of words broadcasting its selling appeal. The Hunger Games would be called ACTION PACKED DYSTOPIAN LOVE TRIANGLE .

- from Boxcars, Books and a Blog

Those of us without publishers and editors get to choose our own titles: a great privilege as well as a heavy burden, at times.

Here’s what Robert McKee has to say on the subject of film titles:

To anticipate the anticipations of the audience you must master your genre and its conventions. If a film has been properly promoted, the audience arrives filled with expectancy. In the jargon of marketing pros, it’s been “positioned”. “Positioning the audience” means this: We don’t want people coming to our work cold and vague, not knowing what to expect, forcing us to spend the first twenty minutes of screentime clueing them toward the necessary story attitude. We want them to settle into their seats, warm and focused with an appetite we intend to satisfy.

Positioning of the audience is nothing new. Shakespeare didn’t call his play Hamlet; he called it The Tragedy of Hamlet. Prince of Denmark. He gave comedies titles such as Much Ado About Nothing and All’s Well That Ends Well, so that each afternoon at the Globe Theater his Elizabethan audience was psychologically set to laugh or cry

- Story

McKee then writes about the 1980s film Mikes Murder as an example of bad positioning, because the audience expected a crime plot when what they got was a coming-of-age story with Debra Winger. Although this was a good coming-of-age story, word spread that it wasn’t very good. It attracted the wrong audience.

How We Chose Our app Title

I’m not good at choosing titles for my own stories. I try not to worry about them too much until I’ve finished writing – but filenames need something in order to be saved, and in the case of app development, the project needs a title before the first byte of code is entered, and according to the developer, changing it is a right pain in the butt.

We came up with The Artifacts as a the title for our storybook app after brainstorming as many possibilities as we could. It wasn’t a long list. The Artifacts is a title that did not come easily at all.

The Apple app store is set up in such a way that no two apps can have the same title, and with all the apps out there, it’s actually amazing that there are any original titles left. I wonder how much harder it will be to title apps in fifty or a hundred years’ time! We originally had ‘Strongbox’, but this had already been taken by someone who wrote a password management app. I have to admit, it does sound like a password manager, so I couldn’t bemoan the fact that we didn’t get in quickly enough!

I regret that The Artifacts can also be spelt ‘The Artefacts’. This is a minor nuisance, though I did consider this before we chose it, and concluded that most people would spell it with an ‘i’. I came to this conclusion after doing Google searches for both spellings, and ‘artifacts’ had far more returns than ‘artefacts’. I would recommend doing the same if you’re considering a title which contains a word with an alternate spelling.

Our app is slightly harder to find than it might be due to an entire series of very popular apps with ‘Mahjong Artifacts’ in the title.

So, as you can see, in these days of the Internet we require some extra jobs from our titles. Not only should they be appropriate to the story’s themes, audience, atmosphere and genre, but we should be wearing our SEO hats as well.

We have yet to see whether The Artifacts is a good name for a children’s book, and the truth is, we’ll never really know if we’d have been better off choosing a different one. There’s no control group for these things!

Although The Artifacts is the best we could come up with at the time, I do wonder what a publishing expert would have to say about it. Maybe the reason nobody had bagsied it first is because it’s just not a very attractive title! We might have called it ‘Asaf’s Artifacts’, which would place it more firmly as a children’s book, but I have a personal aversion towards alliterative titles. (I’m not the only one.) This may be completely unjustified. Perhaps when choosing titles we should cast aside personal preferences and peeves?

HOW DO YOU CHOOSE YOUR TITLES?

We’re all choosing titles all the time. Whether it’s a blog post or a short story, for an app or an essay, or a folder for your family photos, a label for a drop file, or for making a playlist on iTunes, choosing titles is, most of the time, a non-event.

When I’m writing a short story, I usually have an outstandingly crappy title until I’ve finished. Then I put the ‘writing part’ of my brain to rest and think really, really hard only about the title. I try to see the story from a global point of view – its themes and message. For me, titles usually don’t happen ‘organically’. I really need to focus my mind and I agree with Miss Snark when she says:

It seems to me that titling is a separate skill [from writing itself].

- Miss Snark

Of course, it’s easier to start with what not to do!

Writers: If you want to give your MC a certain name just so your title can be a pun using that name, don’t do it.

- @sarahlapolla

Relatedthe discomfiting trend of publishers relying on puns or clichés in book titles. And I’m sure there are plenty more oddly specific tips to be had if you’re an editor and you’ve seen them all.

Taking a random sample of books which I ‘saw’ people buy on Book Depository (no, that’s not so creepy – it’s a widget on their site), here are a few titles which must have jumped out at me at some stage. Others come from my own bookshelf and Best Of lists from last year.

TITLES WHICH INCLUDE WORDS YOU MIGHT FIND ON THE COVER OF A WOMEN’S MAGAZINE

This kind of title promises some sort of mystery to follow, a secret shared, or implies some sort of pact between author and reader.

  • Notes On A Scandal by Zoe Heller
  • The Outcast by Sadie Jones
  • The True Story of Butterfish by Nick Hornby
Although none of those books is the slightest bit reminiscent of a women’s mag, I would imagine the words ‘scandal’, ‘outcast’ and ‘true story’ have a similar psychological effect on a consumer: salaciousness and schadenfreude.

AMBIGUOUS

  • Stranger Magic by Marina Warner
By ‘ambiguous’ I mean: contains homophones. ‘Stranger’ has two meanings here, and I haven’t read that book, but ideally I suppose the book is about both senses of the word. This title jumped out at me because the title of one of my own short stories is ‘How To Leave A Stranger’. In that case, ‘leave’ has a double meaning: ‘How to get away from someone you don’t know very well’ and ‘How to meet with a stranger for a limited period of time and yet fail to get to know them at all’.
There are also titles with metaphorical double meanings, like most episodes of Mad Men, for instance, which are inclined to refer both to something literal in the episode and to something figurative in the characters’ arcs. I like titles that can achieve more than one task at once like that; the title then becomes a sort of easter egg, in that you don’t fully understand it until you’ve read the story or seen the episode, thus creating a ‘them’ and ‘us’ division between those who know the story and those who don’t. Those who don’t know are forever locked out… Okay, now I’m probably turning this whole title thing into a conspiracy theory.

TARGETED AT A SPECIFIC AUDIENCE

  • Adverbs (I’m sure I wouldn’t have picked up Daniel Handler’s short story collection if I weren’t interested in language. I’d say short story writers have more leeway for creativity and ambiguity and all sorts in titles, because it seems to be so that only the most avid of readers pick up short stories in the first place.)
  • Lipstick Jungle (How many blokes picked this one up?)

PROVOCATIVE

  • Stupid White Men by Michael Moore
As a white man himself, Michael Moore gets away with this title (insofar as he gets away with anything), but I can see how it would be easy to put your foot in it.

THE LANGUAGE OF ADVERTISING

  • 10 Short Stories You Must Read This Year
  • Get Ahead! Medicine 
  • Praise! Our Songs And Hymns
  • Think And Grow Rich
  • Change Your Thinking

Actually I’ve heard a number of people moan about the title of this series, which comes out annually in Australia as part of National Reading Month (or whatever it’s called). There’s this rebel in all of us which makes us avoid doing what we’re told to do, or what we know we’re meant to do, so when I’m told I ‘must’ read these stories, I feel like I’m back at school, preparing for an English exam.

Here’s another similar but worse example: Stop What You’re Doing And Read This! with a response from author Sally Zigmond (who sings its praises but bemoans its bossy title).

WACKY

Wacky titles make me want to pick up the book to see what on earth it’s about. Sometimes I’m thinking, ‘How could someone write a whole book about that?’

  • The Never-Ending Days Of Being Dead by Marcus Chown
  • Visible Panty Line by Gretel Killeen

Remember when Prince changed his name & no one knew what to call him because no one could say it out loud? Don’t do that to your book.

- @sarahlapolla

I suppose it might be a useful exercise — when completely stuck — to brainstorm a title which fits into each of these categories (which I have completely made up) and see if any seem appropriate.

21 Ridiculous Books That Will Have You Shaking Your Head from Buzzfeed

THE PREDICTABLE

Sometimes it’s best if titles aren’t fancy at all, especially when the author name alone can sell a book.

  • The Collected Stories (Grace Paley)
  • The Best of John Wyndham
  • New Australian Stories 2

THE MATTER-OF-FACT TITLE

I notice that a title consisting of two words tends to sound matter-of-fact, whereas a longer one can sound wacky/pretentious/intriguing (depending, of course on what those words are!)

  • Larry’s Party by Carol Shields
  • Mad Meg by Sally Morrison
  • The Beach by Alex Garland
  • The Birds by Daphne du Maurier
  • The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

MATTER-OF-FACT BUT SLIGHTLY RIDICULOUS

  • Hippopotamus by Stephen Fry

THE JUXTAPOSED TITLE, or doesn’t quite make sense GRAMMATICALLY

  • A Good Scent From A Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler
  • The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock
  • Ordinary Dogs by Eileen Battersby
  • People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry
  • The Wine of Solitude by Irène Némirovsky
  • The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson
  • The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje
  • The Beautiful Indifference by Sarah Hall
  • The Quality of Mercy by Barry Unsworth
  • The Disenchantments
This sort of title seems particularly prevalent right now, or perhaps is more indicative of the sorts of books to end up on ‘Best Of’ lists. Some of these titles remind me of Stephen Pinker’s famous: ‘Colorless green ideas sleep furiously’.

FAUX-INSTRUCTIONAL

  • How To Be Good by Nick Hornby
  • How to Disappear by Duncan Fallowell

MIGHT BE NON-FICTION BUT ISN’T

These titles often require: ‘a novel’ somewhere on the cover

  • The Marriage Plot: a novel, by Jeffrey Eugenides
  • The Outlaw Album is a collection of stories by Daniel Woodrell
  • Salmon Fishing In The Yemen by Paul Today
  • A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman by Margaret Drabble
  • The Perks Of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

OMINOUS

  • Call For The Dead by John Le Carre
  • The Church Of Dead Girls by Stephen Dobyn
  • After the Apocalypse by Maureen McHugh
  • A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

GRANDIOSE

  • How Fiction Works by James Wood
While Woods’ is a brilliant book, in my opinion, the title is grandiose because it’s hardly an encompassing look at How Fiction Works. That would require a tome indeed. Rather, it’s a list of interesting observations, tied together in no discernible comprehensive way.

WHAT ON EARTH IS THIS ABOUT?

  • State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
  • There But For The: a novel by Ali Smith
  • Little Altars Everywhere by Rebecca Wells
There but for the is a brilliant title for a brilliant novel. Ali Smith invents new forms of fiction in the interstices between parts of a sentence – commenting “but the thing I particularly like about the word but … is that it always takes you off to the side …” 
Which is proof that your title doesn’t actually have to make sense… as long as your book is brilliant, otherwise it probably just looks stupid.

MAIN CHARACTER(s) AS TITLE

  • Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones
  • Girl With The Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
  • Fluff and Billy by Nicola Killen
  • The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht
  • Gold Boy, Emerald Girl by Yiyun Li

SETTING AS TITLE

  • Morgan’s Run by Colleen McCullough
  • Dublin by Edward Rutherford
  • Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner

ENTIRE SENTENCES

  • One Day I Will Write About This Place by Binyavanga Wainaina
  •  I Don’t Want to be a Pea! by Ann Bonwill
  • I’m A Big Brother

SINGLE WORDS

  • Next by James Hynes
  • Blink by Malcolm Gladwell
  • Pure by Andrew Miller
  • Wish by Peter Goldsworthy
  • Prey by Michael Crichton
  • Smut by Alan Bennett
  • Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
One possible problem with single word titles is that there is no context whatsoever. I recently recommended Michael Crichton’s Prey to a friend who also enjoys thrillers. She responded with, “It’s um… it’s not a religious novel, is it?” So if you have a one word title, you may benefit from an explanatory subtitle.

Snowclones as Title

For a definition of a snowclone, see here.
  • Colour Me English by Caryl Phillips
  • Cookie Craft
  • We Need To Talk About Kelvin by Marcus Chown
  • Gay Men Don’t Get Fat by Simon Doonan
Of course, those last three snowclones both came from other hugely successful books of similar titles: Child Craft, We Need To Talk About Kevin and French Women Don’t Get Fat. So now we even have French Children Don’t Throw Food: Parenting Secrets From Paris, by Pamela Druckerman.

MODIFIED CLICHES

  • A Match Made In High School by Kristin Walker

MADE UP WORDS

  • Atrocitology by Matthew White
  • Affluenza by Oliver James
  • Retromania by Simon Reynolds
  • Mindfulness by Ellen J. Langer
  • Robopocalypse by
  • The Etymologicon by
Some titles are so successful that the neologisms become part of the common language. The good thing about these is that they’re easy for potential customers can find via a search. The bad thing about some of these is that they’re not that easy to spell.

Related Links:

1. Four Writers Tell About Their Titles

2. A list of books which changed titles between manuscript and publication

3. Criteria for a Killer Title

4. Book Titles In The Form Of Questions from The Guardian

5. Picking Your Perfect Title from Daily Writing Tips

6. Book Title Formulas from BookEnds, LLC

7. Finding (and losing) Book Titles from Beyond The Margins

8. Oddest Book Title Of The Year from Marginal Revolution, and here at Beatties Book Blog

9. Why I Came Up With My Title First, and The Story Later, from Beyond The Margins

10. 12 Book Titles That Came From Poems, From Huffington Post

11. The One With All The Episode-Title Formulas from Vulture

12. The 40 Worst Book Covers And Titles Of All Time, collected by Smashing Hub

13. How to find the right title: a brainstorming exercise, from Roz Morris

14. 17 Overly Optimistic Book Titles from Mental Floss

15. You can judge a book by its title, from Salon

Sort of Related Links:

1. How 50 Big Companies Got Their Titles

2. The 8 Principles Of Product Naming

3. 7 Words That Only Bad Movies Have In Their Titles.

4. The Best Recent TV Show Titles from Toronto Sun

5. How 13 Classic Video Games Got Their Names from Mental Floss

6. The Grammar Of Clickbait Titles from The American Reader

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