The Indie Authors' Guide to Book Titles
Self-publishers should consider these six tried-and-true tips for creating successful book titles.Why are strong, attention-getting titles so important for indie authors? Because there’s a lot of competition out there—and next to an arresting, professional-looking cover design, it’s the title of your book that’s most likely to grab a reader’s attention and convince her pick it up and buy it.
The questions become: what is a “good” title, and how do you come up with one? Author Walker Percy once said, ”A good title should be like a good metaphor; it should intrigue without being too obvious.” True to his conviction, some of his best known titles are The Moviegoer, The Last Gentleman, Love in the Ruins, The Second Coming, and Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book. Intriguing but not too obvious, are they not?
Perhaps you’ve had a title for your book in mind right from the start, but if you haven’t you might want to consider these six tried-and-true tips for creating successful book titles.
1. Identify Your Target Market: Who is your ideal reader? Where is he or she likely to live? Why is he or she interested in this subject? What would you like the reader to feel after reading your book—entertained, enlightened, informed, moved? How is your book different from all the others in its category? Asking these questions will help you better understand your ideal reader and what he or she is apt to want from your book. And that will make it easier for you to come up with a title that hits the spot for your target audience.
2. Check the Competition: Stop by to your local bookstore and do an online search of books in your category. Let’s say you’ve written a novel about a not-so-sweet young woman from Atlanta who sweeps into New York and scratches her way to the top of Park Avenue society in the ‘90s, only to discover that she’ll never be as happy as she was with the boy she left behind. Cover all the bases in your search. Look at fiction, romance, New York society, Park Avenue, Atlanta. Or maybe your book is a guide to the best wines in Southern California. Check out wine, wine guides, wine making, wine memoirs, California wine, and Southern California. Jot down the titles you like, and see if you can come up with a title that appeals to you for the same reasons.
3. Keep It Short: Of course there are exceptions to this rule, but often the best titles are the short ones. Think of Gone Girl, for example, or The Goldfinch, Divergent, The Book Thief, The Target, The Liar, The Stranger, Beautiful Secret, Hot Pursuit, Leaving Berlin, Deep, Still Alice -- even The Great Gatsby. Did you know that the two of the original titles Fitzgerald was considering for The Great Gatsby were Under the Red, White, and Blue and Trimalchio in West Egg (he’s a freed slave in Roman fiction)? Good thing Fitzgerald had the brilliant Maxwell Perkins as his editor. Clearly Perkins knew this rule.
4. Make It Visual: If your title lights up an image in the reader’s mind, this is a big plus. How many times have you had a friend say, "I’ve written a book called Something-Or-Other" and five minutes later you have no idea what the title of the book is. If it were The Red Shoes or The Circus Tent or The last Train to Paris you’d have a better chance of remembering. Of course, this is not always possible or appropriate, but if you can make your title visual you’ll have a much better chance of making it memorable.
5. Make It Original: Book titles are not protected by copyright—though some authors have managed to trademark their titles—but it’s never a good idea to use the same title as that of another book that’s still in print. Sometimes accidents happen. In fact, I remember one year in the ‘90s when three novels called Accident were all available at the same time. Was that an accident? Probably. Try making a list of all the titles you feel might work for your book. Perhaps pull out a phrase from the text, the name of a character, a place, or a popular expression that has to do with your story or subject matter.
6. Make It Clear: Make it Clear, but not too obvious, as Walker Percy suggests. In other words, your title should relate to your story but neither hit the reader over the head with its significance nor be so obscure that the potential reader has no idea what the novel is about. If you are writing non-fiction, it’s usually a good idea to have your title make a promise, followed by a clear statement about the benefits of reading the book for the reader. Often this requires a subtitle. Some examples: This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, Younger Next Year, or Get Out of Your Own Way: Overcoming Self-Defeating Behavior.
Betty Kelly Sargent is the founder and CEO of BookWorks.