How To Choose a Winning Book Title
Titles seem to get short shrift in marketing discussions, and small wonder. They’re complex. They’re compressed. And they are sometimes completely out of an author’s control.
A title is often the first thing readers see. Faced with any entertainment title, the potential audience thinks, “What do I get for my money and my time?” As long as the elements are familiar and expectations met, audiences will keep right on one-clicking those kinds of fun forever. No pain equals big gains. Hence the mass market’s love of tried-n-true properties.
The truth is that as part of the entertainment landscape, books must compete with a lot of swifter media which require way less effort and offer a much lower bar to entry. Film, TV, and games are often designed to be understood at first glance, even by complete neophytes. The pleasures of these forms may not run as deep or as rich, but they don’t require a pickaxe to get at the gold.
Books are different: they require a lot of their audience: literacy, time, quiet, attention, leisure. Unless you’re a die-hard bibliophile, reading may simply be too difficult or annoying to wedge into your daily grind. That’s a giant topic for another day. BUT…I think we would all agree that the pleasures of a great book far outweigh the costs.
Faced with a book, every reader asks, “Why is this pile of pages worth a chunk of my life?” Marketing copy aims to bypass their doubt and defenses to close the sale, and that starts with a title which opens the door.
6 Advantages of a Winning Book Title
I’m gonna confess: because I come from a showbiz background, I’m ruthless and obsessive about my titles. That’s because I know they can be make-or-break. Besides your pen name, titles are the one thing appearing everywhere you sell your work.
I look for titles that can accomplish several goals simultaneously… A title must bait, intrigue, target, enrich, expand, remind, brand if I want it to fire on all cylinders?
Bait: Does this title hook the right readers?
Advertisers know that certain chunks of your associational cortex are prewired with patterns connected to different codes, conventions, and archetypes. If I say “kilt” or “amnesia,” millions and millions of people already have complex emotional history with those ideas; literal areas of their brains retain prewired feelings, thoughts, expectations which I can leverage if I’m clever. I’m borrowing that “mental real estate to get into their head faster…aka High Concept.
The right title will elicit an automatic reaction
Hit that Id! As psychologist Jennifer Lynn Barnes points out, every title works best if it plugs into existing appetites in the reader. This is the source of “High Concept” projects and marketing. Screenwriter/
A great title baits ingrained reader cravings so they’ll have a harder time fighting the urge to grab a copy.
Intrigue: Does this title hold their interest?
Once you’ve baited their attention, you have to keep it.
Books take time to enjoy…way more time than a film or a TV show. To appeal to the average reader, a book has to make them curious enough to invest all that time getting to the bottom of things. What will this book explore and reveal to their satisfaction?
The right title plants a seed, suggesting the promise of something more and the possibility for something unexpected and delightful. No, you don’t want to give the whole game away, but in romance they already know the ending; in many cases, your job is to traffic in doubt and dangers. Hint at possibility. Give them a glimpse of the emotional ride.
A terrific title points in a fun direction
If an audience knows that everything works out, they read to find out what went wrong along the way and how these folks managed to find happiness despite the opponents and obstacles. It’s the friction that rubs them the right way. The title spins the first sticky strand of the story’s web. Guess who’s the spider? Lead them right into the emotional labyrinth you’ve concocted to ensnare them so you can extract all those juicy feelings.
Target: Does your title aim at your specific audience?
Brevity requires that every word in your title needs to accomplish five to ten jobs. Every syllable should be doing heavy lifting. Every niche in our genre has expectations about heat, tone, humor, pace, and complexity…your title should help the ideal audience lock onto your work and bring their likeminded cohorts along for the delicious ride.
Always situate the book as a bright star in the constellation of its subgenre
There’s no shame in knowing your audience. The markets for His Little Amish Christmas Miracle and Amish Vampire Sluts from Uranus don’t overlap much. Titles should always target the ideal reader and warn the wrong reader to steer clear. That’s a win-win on both sides, because happy readers means a healthier market for every author in every corner of our industry.
Don’t believe me? Even Chuck Tingle’s gonzo titles follow this rule. Their very nuttiness makes them indubitably appealing to his target audience…a killer combo of sly smarties in on the joke and gobsmacked punters who just have to find out how far the book will go. Spoiler alert: by tapping both extremes of the potential reader pool, Tingle taps a vast audience.
And not to get venal, but because of the standard dimension of the final product, you only have so much space to play with. Shorter will always be better, because you only have so much space to play with and they only have so much attention to spare.
Enrich: Does your title express your mastery?
A great title takes you beyond mere belonging to something more. You aren’t just part of the genre, you are an active force in its evolution! How does this book develop or expand the niche of which it is a part? How will this book offer its readers something more, something better, something beyond every other book in that stretch of the shelf?
More to the point, why should anyone care about your book, as opposed to the other two hundred titles in this niche? What unique takeaway or emotional zing will readers find inside? What can you do for them that no other author can?
Point readers in the direction you’re going as an artist
Communicate how you will meet and exceed their genre expectations. Showcase the elements that make your voice and your work remarkable and people will make remarks, far and wide. Telegraph why your book is a must-read, can’t-miss experience, then help readers spread the word by articulating what makes you extraordinary so they can too.
Lots of people can spin a yarn, but some writers change lives. If you have mad skills, serious insight, crazy vision, try to let this title give them a peek inside the glorious Fabergé Egg of your creative moxie.
Expand: Does your title encourage sharing?
Word-of-mouth has and always will be the most powerful promo, and that means you need your title in people’s mouths early, often, and enthusiastically.
A great title will always be something readers want to share the moment they hear it. Other than you pen name, your book title is the one thing that will appear everywhere your book is promoted, so those words had better be something people need to share, pronto.
Look for wit, beauty, power, insight… all the aspirational qualities which attract us to our closest friends to make a title more shareable. Saying the title to random strangers should make them feel (and seem) cooler, smarter, kinder, sexier than they may actually be. They want to be in the know and show it. Increase the odds of sharing and punters will fall over themselves to say that title every time they have an opportunity.
Likewise, a title should never embarrass the group of people who should be sharing it passionately. You need people excited to discuss your work with groups and recommending it to random strangers.
Titles must appeal directly to the ideal strata of the reading public. It expands the relevant fandom and encourages the wrong readers to steer clear. Like a flag or a banner, that title must be (figuratively, emotionally) visible from a great distance so that likely buyers can find the path that gets them there.
Remind: Does your title make an impression?
Make certain your title sticks in the mind, by hook or crook. Readers may only see your book cover for a half-second as they flick through Amazon looking for a wrench or glance at a bookmark at their library. You’re a writer! If your title is unmemorable, they’re going to assume your book is no better. If they can’t remember it, they can’t buy it and they certainly cannot recommend it to anyone.
Forgettability, regurgitation, and clichés are death
Be careful about generic recycled language or any title that could apply to thousands of other unmemorable books. Your books should be authentically yours and speak to a specific audience. Generalities and platitudes don’t serve any master but laziness.
At times, you may have no choice. If you write for a big house you may get saddled with a stinker. That’s part of the corporate gig. Nevertheless, you can find ways to flavor that blandness via artwork, promo, or other promo copy so your book doesn’t sink into a beige ocean of forgettable gruel.
Even if you know your brilliant title(s) won’t get used, develop that muscle for the moment you can solve the problem in advance. Get in the habit of concocting fresh, fascinating titles, and you will gradually teach your rep, editorial, and publicity teams that they can always count on you for the perfect monicker to move copies out the door.
Brand: Does your title amplify your voice in the genre?
Possibly the greatest powers and peril in self-pub is absolute control over your titles. One of the toughest challenges in traditional publishing is having to cede control over titles. Titles form the bedrock of every career.
Every project you create over the course of your life builds the experience readers associate with your pen name. Over time those expectations grow to the point that your name alone will sell a book, more than any other piece of the marketing package. We call these authors name-brands, because their name has become high concept, “Mental real estate” which millions of readers instantly grok and purchase without hesitation.
As I always say, your brand is your voice made visible.
How does this title annex new emotional terrain onto your entire body of work? Every title you publish needs to communicate the emotional experiences and extraordinary value you deliver in every title. Even if you write across several genres, even if your tone and heat level varies, your voice is what readers buy. Make certain that every title you publish anchors that bran promise so that your loyal readership never stops growing and never stops reaching out to new readers on your behalf.
Making Your Title Pull Its Weight
So how does all this apply to you in practical terms when you need your next title?
With a finished manuscript, read the entire document with a canny eye, scanning for zing, making a note of phrases, names, images, and symbols with serious resonance and impact outside of their immediate context. You’re looking for anything provocative, evocative, contrarian, or paradoxical.
With an unwritten project, compile a dreamy, schemey, themey list of characters, tropes, events, settings, and images which you can’t get out of your head. This kind of fan candy is a great starting point to identify a killer title AND a killer project, because it taps what appeals to any fan of your writing in particular.
Next, with your list in hand, put on a different hat. You can’t title your book thinking like an author because NO phrase will ever summarize the full, rich, trope-y sweep of your story. So pick a savvy stranger to impersonate and think like a…
- Poet: how can you verbalize the book’s emotional ride in an inviting, compelling, unexpected way? How can the sound of the words, the rhythm of the phrase, the compressed imagery, the verbal tension pierce their imagination? What image, allusion, or symbolic overlay subtly haunts the entire story? What sings on the page?
- Advertiser: how can you appeal to their self-interest, appetites, or impulses? What instantly recognizable benefit or solution can your story offer? Can you start with a buzzword or a number to catch their eye? Can you sharpen the edges and smooth out the crunch? Can you twist an existing cliché or truism into something quippy and delightful? Can you punch up or tighten the language?
- Suit: if you were someone who’d never read ANY book, what few words would set the hook and tug you into the story? Where does your book fit alongside other bestselling titles? What popular tropes got used and elevated in the telling? How can you position this book on the shelf for ease of discovery by motivated customers? What perennial keywords would guarantee this book turns up in the right searches?
Use all your literary firepower: alliteration, irony, rhyme, rhythm, consonance, assonance, symbol, metonymy, synecdoche, allusion, euphonics. YES, REALLY. Unpack your artillery and let ‘er rip. You’re a professional writer! If ever there was a time for you to sweat and obsess over a single, critical turn of phrase, this is it. Flex those big sexy words like a champion. Get hardcore, yo.
Which of those possible titles will bait, intrigue, target, enrich, expand, remind, brand effectively? You may spot the winner from the jump, but you may not.
Take It to the Streets
So market test: build a list of credible options and then test those critters out like you’re trying to get puppies adopted from a shelter. Which title has fleas and which is a sparky lovebug? Pull those titles out and let them crawl around. And yes you can start with family and friends, but that’s low-hanging fruit and they may not be blunt enough for your purposes. Ask coworkers and colleagues. Ask booksellers. Ask librarians. Ask complete strangers.
Full disclosure: market testing is notoriously complex and unsatisfying. You may not get a definitive answer. You may get contradictory feedback. You may hate what everyone else loves. Them’s the brakes, kiddo. So you have to make a choice. And for the record, that right there is the heart of your whole career: word choice.
Please remember that it isn’t anyone else’s job to sell your book, not even your publisher or your publicist.Anyone else on your team should be helping you do your job, but helping is not doing. Your profit, your responsibility. (#SorryNotSorry) It would be nice if everyone else wanted you to succeed as much as you do, but life outside of genre fiction is rarely as fair as it should be. So no one else will (or can or should) work as hard on this book’s title as you will.
If you are self-published or work with a small press, you may have a lot of control over titles. If you work with a Big-5 imprint, you may have zero input, but wherever you work and however your books come to market, a spectacular title sells itself. That is the whole point. By working to pinpoint the right title, you maximize the opportunities for a lightning-strike, blockbuster, breakout success every time your next project launches.
With the right title, your book will start to sell itself and attract fans before it even hits the shelves.