My most popular blog post ever is this one on the subject of how to name a book. I don’t think I offered much in the way of useful advice though, and I was highly restrained in my opinions of the titles I’ve ended up with in the name of marketability (Okay, I was a total Pollyanna. Baby Under the Mistletoe? Hated it as a title, because it doesn’t match the story’s tone, for one thing. Endless list of titles we had to come up with for a three book series? Lots of great titles were disregarded much to my extreme frustration.). Today I’d like to revisit the topic of how to name a book, or more specifically–how to name a novel.
It’s a hard truth that if you hope to publish your novel traditionally, marketability will be your publisher’s chief concern with title selection. You may be very emotionally attached to a title, but if it isn’t perceived as marketable, it’ll be out the window. The working title of the first novel I ever sold was Catching Lucy. I still think of the book as Catching Lucy. But after it sold, my editor asked me for a list of titles. I gave her maybe 10 or 15, and she selected Some Like It Sizzling from the list. Honestly, I threw that title on the list as a bit of a joke, tongue in cheek, but since the entire novel is written with a tongue in cheek tone, I suppose such a title works for it.
I can see how the title is more marketable to a romance audience. It suggests a sexy tone, and as mentioned above it somewhat matches the tone of the book.
Prior to publication, you can make your title whatever the heck you want it to be. However, your title’s chief goal is to grab a browsing reader’s eye and give her an immediate impression of what your book is about. Your first readers will be the agents and editors whose attention you need to grab, and these particular readers have seen every title under the sun. What can you do to stand out? There are plenty of bad titles I don’t need to name, but what makes a good title? How do you come up with one for your own book?
1. A good title is often clever. Al Capone Does My Shirts and its sequel Al Capone Shines My Shoes, both by Gennifer Choldenko, have cleverness on their side. They provide interesting contrasts, have a nice rhythm, and make the reader wonder what the stories could possibly be about. It’s hard to define clever, but we know it when we see it.
2. A good title is often intriguing. One of my favorite novels is Margaret Atwood’s The Poisonwood Bible. The title works in part because it deals in contrasts–something as prickly sounding as “poisonwood” next to a holy word, “bible.” I don’t know what poisonwood is, but I am curious to know more, and I wonder what the title’s meaning is. It also immediately draws the reader into the story itself, suggesting some sort of religious content, possibly profane, and possibly in an exotic locale. The moment I saw the title I was intrigued and wanted to know more.
3. A good title suggests the tone and content of the book. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon does a good job of suggesting the novel’s tone. The protagonist’s voice is captured in the title, and his tone throughout the story, thanks to his Asperger’s Syndrome, has a quirky, detached, sometimes overly analytical quality that the reader first meets on the novel’s cover.
4. A good title grabs the reader’s attention. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins works well in this regard. My attention is grabbed, and I want to know more. Notice it also deals in contrasts, a quality frequently found in attention-grabbing titles.
5. A good title is memorable. All of the above-mentioned titles are memorable, and they all use contrasts to create intrigue to some extent. What makes a title memorable though? I think it’s easiest to discuss this quality by using an example of the opposite. I love Sue Grafton’s Alphabet mysteries, but I cannot for the life of me match any of the stories with their respective titles. This is often true of franchise authors, whose stories are so hugely popular they sell on author name alone. The publisher creates a brand with the titles, and it doesn’t matter if any individual title is memorable, because readers are simply going to buy every title in the series. I don’t advise using this method as a new author. You need your title to be as clever, memorable, and intriguing as possible, while working to communicate tone and content to your readers.
What are some of your favorite titles? Why do you think they work well?