This may startle you, but your book’s title is the most important marketing strategy you have. It doesn’t matter if you self-publish or go with a traditional publisher, whether you have an enticing cover design, or whether you’ve nailed the first line of your novel. It doesn’t even matter if you’ve written a good story… at least, not at first.
What matters– at first– is that you’ve nailed the title of your novel.
Your novel’s title is your siren call, luring readers to your story despite any obstacle in their way. Despite the price tag and despite the fact that you’re an unknown author, readers will flock to your book because you’ve taken the time to craft the perfect title.
Most readers decide whether or not to pick up a book by title alone. I’m certainly guilty of it. Are you?
How can you not be drawn to a title like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (Philip K. Dick) or Pretend You Don’t See Her (Mary Higgins Clark)? These are titles that immediately grab you.
Even if it’s not in the genre that you typically enjoy, the right title will make you wonder, What is this story about? And the right title will also cause you to pick up the book, open to the first page, and give the story a chance to bloom.
I can’t overemphasize how important it is to get the title right.
So, if you’ve struggled in this area and you need some guidance, keep reading (and take some notes). Here’s how to come up a title that draws a crowd.
How Important is the Right Title?
I get the feeling that some of you aren’t truly convinced that the title of your novel matters. I’m going to make you a believer.
Let’s do a quick exercise. Here’s a list of original titles from well-known books before they were revamped. Which one would you pick up? Do you think it was the right call to retitle?
First Impressions → Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)
Something That Happened → Of Mice and Men (John Steinbeck)
Atticus → To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
Fiesta → The Sun Also Rises (Ernest Hemingway)
Tomorrow is Another Day → Gone with the Wind (Margaret Mitchell)
Stranger From Within → Lord of the Flies (William Golding)
Twilight → The Sound and the Fury (William Faulkner)
All’s Well that Ends Well → War and Peace (Leo Tolstoy)
They Don’t Build Statues to Businessmen → Valley of the Dolls (Jacqueline Susann)
The Mute → The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (Carson McCullers)
I’m not sure if these novels would have gone on to be as successful and well-known had they kept their original titles. That’s not a knock against the story but instead an argument for a strong title– one that gives your readers an incentive to open your book in the first place.
Every Good Book Title Should Do the Following
So, let’s talk about the three elements that every book title should have. The title you choose should:
It’s getting increasingly more difficult to come up with a title that hasn’t been done before, but you must. This is the best way to stand out from the crowd.
It’s true that you can’t copyright titles. You could name your book The Grapes of Wrath if you’d like, but should you? I think you know the answer to that.
Make every attempt to avoid popular titles and choose a title that’s personal and unique to your story.
Picture this: Your reader loves your book and tells his friend, I just read this amazing book. His friend asks for the title, but your dear reader cannot remember the title of your book. He promises to text the friend the title when he gets home, but he forgets. And just like that, the opportunity to gain a new reader is lost.
Choose a title that your readers will instantly and forever remember. People need to be able to remember the title of your novel when they’re searching for it on Amazon or at their local bookstore.
Give a glimpse of what the reader can expect from your novel. An insightful title is almost like a philosophical question. You can chew on it for weeks, or even years after reading.
Take for example Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance. The title is not particularly poetic or substantial aside from reading the story. However, as the reader sits with the characters, the title becomes more important and necessary (for the reader’s sanity).
Speaking from personal experience, I came away with a new appreciation for the title. It took a while. I was stung because the story was so exquisitely sad, but after reflection, I understood why and what the author was suggesting with the title of his story. It made the story more bearable and provided a much-needed lens for the reader to see the story more clearly.
That’s the type of insight that you should try to give your readers.
How to Come Up with a Great Title
Now, let’s get into the nuts and bolts of coming up with a great title for your story.
First of all, relax. I promise you that you’ll come away with a great title to go along with your great story. Don’t stress out about it. Stressing out will lock your creativity and make you crazy in the process.
You don’t need to have a title before you begin writing your story, anyway.
Focus on telling the story first. Who knows– maybe the right title will pop up out of nowhere. But, if it doesn’t, you can always…
After you’ve written your first draft, it’s time to brainstorm your title. That’s even if you already have a title in mind.
Start with at least five titles, but don’t limit yourself. Choose 20 or even 30 titles, if you have the creative juice.
Need help? Try this:
Answer the Reader’s Questions
In your novel’s title, answer a question for your reader, such as:
Who is the novel about?
- Forrest Gump (Winston Groom)
- The Lord of the Rings (J. R. R. Tolkien)
- Oliver Twist (Charles Dickens)
What is the novel about?
- The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins)
- The Hunt for Red October (Tom Clancy)
- To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
When does your novel take place?
- Nineteen Eighty-Four (George Orwell)
- One Thousand and One Nights (folklore)
- Love in the Time of Cholera (Gabriel García Márquez)
Where does your novel take place?
- Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (Paul Torday)
- Cold Mountain (Charles Frazier)
- A Passage to India (E.M. Forster)
Why should someone read your story?
- John Dies at the End (David Wong) – Does John really die at the end?
- The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (Carson McCullers) – In what way is the heart a hunter?
- As I Lay Dying (William Faulkner) – Why is she dying?
Use Poetic Phrases
Consider using a poetic phrase for your novel’s title. But challenge your concept of poetry. It doesn’t need to be flowery and it definitely doesn’t have to rhyme.
It can be alliterative. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (John le Carré)
It can be action paced. Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn)
It can be ominous. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Hunter S. Thompson)
It can be descriptive. Snow Falling on Cedars (David Guterson)
Think of your title as a very short poem, a tiny-sized haiku. How could you convey the sentiment of your story in just a few syllables?
Don’t Forget to Edit
Titles, just like drafts, need to be edited and polished. Commit yourself to editing your title just as you do to editing your manuscript.
And here is one of the benefits of working with a professional editor: you can ask the editor for help with your novel’s title, too.
Have a list of titles prepared, and then bounce these titles around with your editor. After reading your manuscript, your editor will have a better sense of what title will make perfect sense with your story.
Some authors don’t have to come up with extraordinary titles. They can coast off of the popularity of their name or create a series of titles based on beloved (and popular) characters. But most of us aren’t that lucky. We have to lure readers in by the power of the title alone.
The above tips will help you find the perfect title for your story. Start with these tips but don’t stop until you find the title that sings.
Remember to treat your title as a priority. Your title is the reader’s first impression of your writing. It should never be an afterthought.