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
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].
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.
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
- Stranger Magic by Marina Warner
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?)
- Stupid White Men by Michael Moore
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 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.
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
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
- 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
- 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
- How Fiction Works by James Wood
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 …”
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
- 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
- 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
Snowclones as Title
- 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
- 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
2. A list of books which changed titles between manuscript and publication
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
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:
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