Fine Torture of Book Titles   Leave a comment

I’m going to admit that I HATE coming up with book titles. I also hated writing my own headlines when I was a reporter. Fortunately, I didn’t have to very often because the newspaper I worked for had a long-time printer who was great at headlines.

So, maybe, I could have benefited from the practice.

Driver WhisperWoodsFRNTRegardless, I still don’t like coming up with book titles. Why? Because it’s hard and SO VERY IMPORTANT.

The cover is your best advertisement and the title is an integral part of the cover. Which really makes me wonder why there is so little good guidance on the right way to think about titling your book. Most of it can be grouped in three categories — go with your gut, browse bookstores for ideas, and don’t waste a lot of time doing it.

Wrong, wrong, and WRONG!


Big professional companies like pharmaceutical firms and Procter & Gamble spend millions naming their new products. I can testify that changing the title of a blog post that you wrote sometime ago can vastly change the attention it gets. The cover is your best advertisement and the title is an integral part of the cover. Of course, you should spend time doing it, because it ensures your book has the best possible chance of success.


The title is the first piece of information someone gets about your book, and it informs the reader’s first impression about your book. You never get a second chance to form a first opinion. A good title isn’t a guarantee of book success, but a bad title will almost certainly be an obstacle to doing well.

Front Cover LAWKI no windowJust think about what you do when you search the Amazon lists for a book. What’s the first thing that gets your attention. Those annoying thumbnails makes the cover of less importance than the title. I know that I am attracted to well-chosen titles. That makes me click on the thumbnail. Then if the cover is good, I read the blurb. If that’s good, I read the sample text. And then, if the book sounds good, I buy it or put it on my “wants” list for when I have the money to buy it.

The title is the first thing the reader sees or hears about your book, usually before the cover, so getting your title right is possibly the most important single book marketing decision you’ll make. And, yes, it is marketing!

Let me give you an example. Quite by accident, I entitled my apocalyptic Life as We Knew It the same as a book by Susan Beth Pfeffer. I didn’t know about Pfeffer’s book when I published. Although both books are apocalyptics, they are very different books, with very different covers. Although not legally required to do so, I considered renaming my book initially because I respect Pfeffer’s work, but then I decided against it. Why? Because of the marketing value of people accidentally discovering my book while looking for hers. Is it possible that book is my personal bestseller because of that serendipitous title poaching? Could be. I am 99% positive that nobody is buying my book thinking they’re buying hers. They’re very different and our names have no similarities. While I will try not to name books after existing better known books, I decided to let my mistake stand for the marketing value.

Plus, remember what I said about hating coming up with book titles. I really don’t think I could come up with a better one for that particular book.



How did I hit upon it or any of my other five titles. I try for the following attributes in naming titles:

  1. Attention Grabbing
  2. Memorable
  3. Not embarrassing or problematic for someone to say aloud to their friends

Attention grabbing should be a no-brainer. There are a million things pulling on people’s attention, and you need a title that stands out. A bad title is one that’s boring, or seems boring. There are many ways to grab attention; you can be provocative, controversial, exciting, you can make a promise, etc. The point is your title should make people stop and pay attention to it.

Memorable is not the same thing as grabbing attention. It’s much easier to get a reaction out of someone, and then be forgotten, than it is to get a reaction that sticks with them. Remember, a book title is not only the first thing a reader hears about your book, it’s the one piece of information that a reader has that leads them back to the book itself. If your book is recommended to them by a friend, and they can’t remember the title, then they can’t go find it in a bookstore or on Amazon.

I am still looking for this really great book I read about 25 years ago that I cannot remember the title of. If I remember correctly, it was a very poetic title that exactly matched some obscure part of the story. Do you know the book I mean?



People do not like to feel stupid or socially inept. If a book title is hard to pronounce, they won’t talk it up. Lathe of Heaven took forever to catch on for that reason. Starship Troopers caught on almost immediately. If it contains words they don’t understand, it’s likely they won’t buy it and they definitely aren’t going to talk it up to other people. Try not to embarrass your readers.

One of the most important things to think about when picking your book title is how well it facilitates word of mouth. Really, what you’re doing is thinking about how people will feel about saying this book title out loud to their friends. Does it make them look smart or stupid?

Most of my books have working titles that will never see the light of day. I don’t really come up with titles until I’m almost done with the book and most of my titles are intimately connected to the book.

The Willow Branch refers to the walking stick Ryanna receives in the last scene of the book, but that harkens back into the history of the novel series. It also brings up an incredibly beautiful image of a diamond willow staff.

Mirklin Wood refers to the forest Padraig and Tamys traverse in that book. There’s a homage to JRR Tolkien (Murkwood) in it. Fantasy fans might be attracted just because of that.

Fount of Dreams, the as-yet unpublished third book in the series, refers to a magical item in the book.

Life As We Knew It is drawn from the idea that this is a transition from the civilization we knew to a survival situation — and the cover image drives this home because you have a a barn with a nuclear fallout shelter sign and a mushroom cloud in the background, suggesting that this community is wholly inadequately prepared for the looming disaster.

Objects in View, the soon-to-be published second book in that series, was inspired by the title of a television series I was watching, but it also refers to a philosophy of realism espoused by most of the Delaney men.

What If … Wasn’t, my latest work-in-progress, sets up the idea that someone in the novel didn’t get what they were hoping for.

So how can you test your book titles?

Imagine one of your readers at a barbecue talking about your book with other people. If you can see them confidently saying the book title aloud, and the people listening nodding and immediately either understanding what the book is about based on that (and perhaps a sentence or two of explanation), or asking for further explanation because it sounds interesting, then you’ve got a good title. If you imagine any other reaction, seriously consider whether you need to rethink the title.

Remember, so much of book marketing boils down to word of mouth.You want your book title to inspire and motivate the readers to talk about it with their friends.

What do I suggest you do to find a book title, especially if you’re like me and you hate naming books?

It should start with brainstorming. Write down every title you can think of. Use clever or noteworthy phrases from your book. Use both short and long phrases. It’s okay to start out with a long phrase, but the ultimate goal should be to limit the main title to no more than five words. More than that and you crowd the cover and make the title difficult to remember.

Using statements that provide unusual contrasts or paradoxes that will make the reader curious about the book’s story. Who Moved My Cheese? is  great example of this.

Use metaphors associated with the themes in the book. Humans think symbolically, so using metaphor is powerful device to help you create a title that resonates. A great example of this is the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” series. The title signals the warm, nurturing feeling that is associated in our culture with chicken soup. It suggests that the book will contain stories that nurture your soul.

Use alliteration: Alliteration is using the same letter at the beginning of all or most of the words in your title. People remember that better. What If … Wasn’t makes use of that technique. George RR Martin makes use of it all throughout the Song of Ice and Fire — Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, Dance of Dragons, etc.

Alter a popular phrase or use slang. My homage to Tolkien might mean something to fantasy fans and since I’m selling a fantasy ….  Start with that popular cliche and play with it.

Alternatively, coin your own phrase. I haven’t tried this yet myself, but the world is made up of books that benefited from that. The Great Gatsby (which also has alliteration), Common Sense, Breathing Underwater are just a few I can think of.

Use Amazon and other resources for when you’re really stuck. I’m not saying to rip off another book’s title, but to gain inspiration from the titles that already exist. Wattpad, by the way, is a great resource for this because they’re trying to attract any sort of attention to their stories and sometimes they come up with brilliant titles in the process.

I had a friend recommend a random title generator. I tried it and I wasn’t impressed, but if you were stuck, it might jar you loose. Some sites to check out:


So, now you’ve got some possibilities — maybe 5-20 possible titles. Now you need to test your titles, so you can narrow the field. You can certainly ask your writer’s group and beta readers, your husband and auto mechanic. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this sort of testing. But, on the other hand, you might want to open it up to a larger audience. You probably can’t afford a focus group like the big publishers use, but there are affordable options for the independent author. If you already have a reader base (or even a list of a list of authors I’ve interviewed), you can use Survey Monkey or Google Survey. Facebook and Twitter now allow you to put up surveys too.

Titles cannot be copyrighted, so technically every title is fair game. There is a very popular modern book out called Mein Kamf that is really different from Hilter’s book. It’s a good way to get attention, but scrubbing off the stink might be hard. Lots of people told the writer not to do it. He ignored them. It worked out. It was a HUGE gamble.

Ordinarily, you should pay attention to the results you get. Seriously! Don’t bother to run the test if you’re not going to consider the advice it generates. But, truth be told, sometimes you just have to go with your own instincts.

Who would have thought that To Kill A Mockbird would be a popular title.

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