The Wide Sargasso Sea and Cloud Atlas are both book titles I wish I’d come up with and books I wish I’d written, but alas. And then there are titles like Goodbye to Berlin or Crime and Punishment – titles both put me off reading these wonderful books, which I now love, but only read, once I’d found out more about them, years after discovering them. They’re not bad book titles, but they didn’t talk to me, which goes to prove that you’ll never get it right for everyone, but you have to appeal to your target reader. The point is, your book title matters. It’s not something to hurry, it’s something to consider. And if your book isn’t selling, that could be the reason why.
I’ve put together a quick guide to book titles – some trends and how to find what works for your story.
The Eponymous Title: Once upon a time, book titles were simple. If you’d written a story about a woman called Jane Eyre, then you called the book, simply, Jane Eyre or Tess of the D’Urbevilles. You just took a person from the book, Robinson Crusoe, and slapped it on the cover – done. The only contemporary book I can think of with an eponymous character is Bridget Jones. Detective novels tend to use this, but often have a title and then, something like ‘A Wallander Crime’ or ‘from the Sherlock Holmes Case Files’. Maybe it’s time to revive the eponymous book title – just make sure you’ve got an interesting name for your character.
Long Titles: In the noughties, there was a trend for long, convoluted book titles and this trend hasn’t gone away, especially in children’s and Y.A. A long title can be catchy and memorable. For instance, A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket. This title is genius for a number of reasons. First, the main character appears to have written the book – hook alert. The long title makes it stand out. Plus it’s a descriptive title, so we know it’s going to be an adventure, as we learn about all these unfortunate events. However, the long title can be a blessing and a curse. I first noticed the trend, when everyone on the London tube was reading this book about tractors in the Ukraine. I couldn’t and still can’t remember the title, but I remember it, if you know what I mean. Plus everyone knows the book I mean, when I say ‘the one about tractors in Ukraine’*. And one of my favourite books is ‘something something in Calamity Physics’. That’s how it goes in my head. It’s actually called Special Topics in Calamity Physics (I had to Google it). I can never remember that title, so make sure your long title contains something unique that hooks in the memory and leads to your book in a Google search.
The Single Noun or Adjective: In contrast to the long title, a short, punchy, one-word title can stick easily and will look good on the cover. Think single nouns like ‘chalice’ or Dust. Alive is a book that goes with an adjective, instead. Note that the adjective has more urgency and energy than the nouns, so choose something that reflects your story. Of course, you can combine a noun and adjective to give Dark Chalice or Iron Town for good, sturdy titles that are easy to remember and conjour an image and tone – see also The Hunger Games. If you’re writing a whimsical tale, I’d err on the side of a long or rhythmic title to reflect your story. You could choose lighter words, such as Silver Water, but they don’t suggest whimsy or magic as much as Song of Silver Water (rhythmic title) or The Unfounded Melancholia of Emmeline Silver Water **(long title).
Girl Titles: there is, currently, a fashion for titles with ‘girl’. Girl on a Train, Gone Girl, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Beware jumping on the girl train. This trend may be over, already, making agents and readers roll their eyes, thinking – not another ‘girl who…’ book. And note, there aren’t many ‘boy’ titles, outside children’s and YA. Men get to be named and they get to be men.
Alliteration and Rhythm: Your title needs to be memorable and alliteration, Gone Girl or Sputnik Sweetheart is a great way to do it. John Green is a master at rhythmical titles, such as The Fault in Our Stars, Looking for Alaska. They are both quirky and roll-off-the-tongue, making them perfect for his YA audience. These are books for clever kids, you can tell because the titles hint at an intellectual curiosity and there are the literary allusions (TFIOS is a Shakespeare quote), which draw you in to find out what it’s all about and make you share the sensitive intelligence that John Green is known for. All that in just a title? Titles are important, ‘kay.
Literary Titles: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings or The Catcher in the Rye are both great titles, for great literary works. Spoiler, there are no caged birds in Maya Angelou’s book, not literal ones, anyway. The titles of both of these books come from one crucial line in the novels, highlighting the central theme of the story. Finding that crucial line, as a reader, is like finding the key to a puzzle. It doesn’t give you the answer, but it’s a bit clue and it’s up to you to figure it out. More ‘mainstream’ books tend to just tell you what or who it’s about, whereas a literary title will allude to the overall theme. That’s not to say that mainstream novels can’t have literary titles and vice versa, but if you’re writing a pulp thriller perhaps an allusion to Milton’s Paradise Lost is unwise or unnecessary, as it may misfire with your audience, unless it’s crucial to your plot.The Silence of the Lambs uses a literary style title for a thriller, as it’s taken from a pivotal line of dialogue.
Google Test: When you’ve decided on a title, Google it to check that your readers won’t be lead to another author’s website or even a Ukranian tractor manufacturer – that would be bad and confusing for all concerned.
Visual Test: Remember, your title is primarily a visual marketing tool when it’s sitting on your book cover. Think about how your title looks. Are the words the same length or is one long and one short. Dust is a really good title because it’s a good looking word. Long titles can be visually engaging too, but you always need a good designer. Check out my post on the importance of a good cover.
Titles take time and need a lot of thought, rather than just afterthought. The title is the first step to selling your book, as it’s the first thing anyone will see or hear. Brainstorm titles and ask for opinions. Ask people what sort of story they expect from the title you’ve chosen and if it’s way off the mark, think again.
*Oh, that book is actually called A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian
**Can somebody please write the book The Unfounded Melancholia of Emmeline Silver Water – I want to read that book.