I am pretty terrible with titles, in the professional, hello-I’d-like-to-sell-you-a-book sense (also, to be fair, in the aristocratic sense, as I have so far utterly failed to convince anyone to refer to me as The Comte Somers). When I got an agent many years ago, she wrote to tell me that while she loved the novel, I would have to change the title immediately because a) the original title was also the title of a Dave Mathews Band song (What can I say? I was young and unaware that using Dave Mathews Band songs is universally disqualifying in every aspect of life) and b) it was so bad it made her feel all-new kinds of sadness.
Since then, I’ve come to accept that my natural instincts are terrible when it comes to titles (Also: Fashion). And I’ve also come to understand that coming up with a great title for your work is vitally important at all stages of the publishing and marketing process. Most importantly, I’ve come to realize that not being naturally good with titles isn’t an indictment of my talent or my chances of selling books—because history tells us that an alarming number of classic novels had truly awful, terrible original titles. As a first lesson in the importance of titles, ask yourself if you would buy a novel titled Something That Happened? What’s that? That might be the laziest title you’ve ever heard and you instinctively hate the author for trying to use it? Well, that was John Steinbeck’s original title for Of Mice and Men.
What about a novel titled All’s Well that Ends Well? Does that give you the vibe of a sweeping story of war and the search for meaning in your life? Probably not, which is why Leo Tolstoy eventually sobered up and changed the title to War and Peace.
So don’t feel too bad—if writers like that can make poor title decisions, there’s hope for you yet. The first step to crafting great titles is acknowledging their importance.
The argument can be made that selecting a book title, subtitle, and series name (if applicable) is the most important part of selling a book, because it’s usually the first thing that people see. You can have a terrific story and brilliant back cover copy, but if your title is awful I can pretty much guarantee no one will ever know.
A great title needs to convey three things to a potential reader:
Yes, you have one—or you need to develop one as soon as possible. Whether you’re pursuing traditional publishing or self-publishing, you need to offer readers a persona they can identify with—that’s your brand. While your Author Brand can—and usually does—align generally with your true personality and values, it’s held at a slight remove from that reality, giving you latitude to be creative with your image.
You can have more than one brand if you work in different genres or lanes. For example, I publish fiction in the sci-fi, urban fantasy, and crime genres; my ‘fiction’ brand is violent, profane, and littered with funny antiheroes. I also write extensively about the craft of writing and write a lot book reviews and roundups on a freelance basis. My ‘freelance’ brand is a bit of a cozy literary drinking buddy vibe. I make a lot of references to whiskey and my cats and I employ a steady stream of self-deprecating humor (The whiskey and the self-deprecation are definitely related).
A good place to start is to be literal. When I began work on my book about writing, I used the working title The Unconventional Writer, because that encapsulated both the kind of advice I planned to offer and fit in with my image as a left-of-center writing guru. Now, that’s not a terrible title but it lacks a certain pizzazz (This is a technical term used by literary scientists. It means ‘I don’t know what it is, but I like it’). By the time I delivered a draft to my publisher, we’d changed the title to Writing Without Rules. That had more flow and rhythm to it while still conveying the same fundamentals.
This isn’t a black-and-white aspect of a book’s title, of course. You can’t always guess a book’s genre from the title alone—but your title should be in line with genre conventions, and it should convey at least an impression of the style of the book. If you’ve written a serious historical crime novel, for example, you probably don’t want to give it a goofy title like Wobble to Death, even if Peter Lovesey actually did really well with that book. If you’ve written a zippy romance, you want to convey that with a playful title—but if it’s an erotic romance, you’ll want to clue in potential readers right away. If your book is a serious non-fiction work or a memoir, you should choose a title that reflects that. Consider a title like Thinking Fast and Slow or A Brief History of Time. The titles instantly suggest their subject matter.
You want to do this for both artistic reasons—you want your title to represent the book, after all—but also for practical purposes. If a reader is looking for a regency romance and finds themselves reading a book that makes Fifty Shades of Grey seem tame, they’re going to be irritated at best, and feel tricked at worst. In fact, Fifty Shades of Grey is a great example of purposeful titling: Romance readers knew immediately that those books were outliers in the romance world simply because the title was so grim and completely devoid of your typical romance trappings. Similarly, you want to attract readers who are looking for what you’ve written, and many of them aren’t going to bother checking the genre listed the Amazon page.
Finally, one of the most important but difficult-to-articulate aspects of a great title is the way it grabs the reader and makes them want to read the book. There’s a bit of science to this—one reason we’ve seen so, so many crime thrillers titled with some variation of “girl” (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl, etc.) is because those titles give you a hint as to the focus of the story, while the use of “girl” instead of “woman” adds an element of perceived vulnerability. In other words, the moment you see a title like The Girl on the Train you know that girl is going to be in danger. You’re already thrilled and you haven’t even read a word. Consider a title like Ruth Ware’s *The Woman in Cabin 10—*the woman in question may find herself in danger, but the title conveys less worry with the use of the grown-up woman, which hints that you should be more focused on the mystery aspect.
Of course, there are plenty of other ways to intrigue and excite with a title. Good titles usually offer a glimpse of the story. Sometimes this is a bit literal: Pride & Prejudice is a classic title for this precise reason, and you know something pretty crucial about They Both Die at The End before you’ve even opened it. Another option is to use your character’s name in the title, like James Patterson did with Alex Cross, because it tells the reader where to put their attention. Coupling your character name with a description of what they’re about to experience is also a great way to excite your reader—just ask J.K. Rowling, whose Harry Potter titles are Platonic ideals when it comes to Young Adult fantasy.
One enormous mistake is to be contemptuous of your title, because that contempt conveys to your audience. A good case study would be Sean Penn’s debut novel, Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff. Putting aside the general critical assessment that Penn should never write anything ever again, that title is a disaster on every level. Most importantly, it makes the reader feel like they’re the butt of a joke, as if Penn couldn’t be bothered to come up with something eye-catching and interesting. “Don’t be Like Sean Penn” is a good general rule of thumb in life, of course, but doubly so when it comes to titling your work.
Knowing what a book title is supposed to do is easy enough; applying that to your very real book is something else. Coming up with great titles isn’t an exact science—there will always be examples of titles that seem too flowery and melodramatic (Gone with the Wind), too weird (You Shall Know Our Velocity) or too long (The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared) that nevertheless seem to work really well. But exceptions prove the rule, and the rule is to go for a title that fits the book and genre, excites the reader, and carries your brand. Here’s a rough guide to doing that.
We live in the age of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and there’s no escaping it. Shopping for books online is a fundamentally different experience than shopping in a physical store. On the one hand, selection is infinite. On the other, discovery is incredibly difficult. It all comes down to keywords and algorithms; Amazon, which dominates the market (it sells about half the print books in the U.S., and about three-quarters of the digital books), uses a complex algorithm to suggest books to people based on their shopping history and other factors. Some of those other factors is the genre you (or your publisher) explicitly place your book in when selling it on Amazon—and keywords you specifically supply or that are culled from your title and subtitle, if any.
That brings us back to how your title should sit well with the genre of your book and offer a glimpse of the story. If your books is an epic fantasy about fighting dragons, having the word “dragon” in your title is fairly obvious (maybe, as we’ll see, too obvious), as that will cause the algorithms of this world to suggest your book to people who have bought a lot of other fantasy titles with dragons—presumably your precise audience. But keep in mind that you can also add “dragon” to your keywords when adding your book to Amazon or other platforms, so you don’t have to bend over backwards to awkwardly get keywords into your title.
Which brings us to keyword stuffing and overdoing the keyword bit. If you troll through Amazon you’ll come across plenty of books with long titles and subtitles like Political Thriller: Unwanted, an American Assassin Story: an assassination, vigilante justice and terrorism thriller (Paladine Political Thriller Series Book 4) which very obviously “stuff” keywords into their titles in a bid to show up in more search results. This might even work, but it’s going to backfire when your potential readers are put off by the title’s length and might even become confused due to the grammatical chaos unleashed there. The better approach is to use Amazon’s keyword section to its fullest potential—you get 7 boxes of 50 characters each. Stuff your keywords there and you’ll show up in more searches without annoying your reader—and use specific phrases, like “epic fantasy,” because that will rank you higher in those specific categories.
A great place to start when trying to come up with a title for your book is to take an image directly from the story or the subject matter. If you’ve written a noir mystery centered on a falcon statue from Malta covered in precious gems, calling it The Maltese Falcon is a straightforward way of achieving everything a title needs to achieve. Any recurring or powerful image from your story or your character’s internal monologue might do—just add some modifiers.
Before you settle on that title, however, do some research. Genre stories tend to have similar elements, after all—let’s revisit the whole epic-fantasy-with-dragons scenario. If you search Amazon for books with the word “dragon” in the title you’ll get more than 70,000 results. Chances are whatever combination of words you put around “dragon,” there’s a decent chance someone’s already used that title. It’s important to note that you can’t copyright a title, but you can trademark a title—so you probably shouldn’t call your fantasy novel A Dance with Dragons even if it’s literally about a dance competition in a magical kingdom where everyone has to partner with dragon (author’s note: I would buy that book three times). Even if you do your research and discover that title isn’t trademarked, all you’ll get for your trouble are angry and confused readers. You might also consider that no matter how clever your title is, you’ll still be one of more than 70,000 books showing up for the keyword “dragon,” so maybe a more distinctive title is in order.
If your book is part of a series, you’re going to need to come up with a distinctive name for the series as well. Otherwise readers will assign their own—which might happen anyway. After all, George R.R. Martin wants us to call his epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire but everyone pretty much refers to it as Game of Thrones. Why is that? While A Song of Ice and Fire makes perfect sense within the universe Martin created, it’s also kind of obscure and, well, weird. Game of Thrones is not only a catchy, easy-to-remember phrase, it also captures the energy of the books perfectly. Plus, it’s the first book in the series, which makes it easy to remember.
That last part is key: Your series title should ideally ground the reader in the universe, immediately evoking the overall story you’re telling. That’s why Game of Thrones, with its implications of ruthless politics and violence, is perfect and A Song of Ice and Fire meets resistance. When coming up with a series title, you need to consider everything mentioned earlier when coming up with book titles, but in a broader context. There are several basic options:
You don’t need to say Harry Potter or Alex Cross to know that naming your series after its main character is a successful strategy. This approach allows you to get more creative with your individual book titles, too, since you won’t necessarily have to remind everyone who your main character is each time (though you certainly can).
Whether your books are fantasy or mystery, sci-fi or romance, another option is to take some unique aspect of your universe and craft your series title around that. If your fantasy story is a series of adventures linked by a single legendary band of mercenary soldiers, calling your series Chronicles of The Black Company will work just fine. If your regency romance series is focused on a single family, calling the series the Bridgerton series is perfect. If your epic fantasy is focused on a war to defeat a dark lord who likes to make magical rings, calling it The Lord of the Rings is terrific.
You can also choose something epic and poetic for your series name—though as seen with A Song of Ice and Fire this can backfire to a certain extent. But there are plenty of examples of book series’ titles taken from poetry or other sources that work really well, like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials or Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past.
If all else fails, consider making your series title very basic and literal. No one ever complained that Lemony Snicket’s sardonic book series about the series of unfortunate events that befall the Baudelaire kids was called A Series of Unfortunate Events, after all, and no one’s disappointed to find that Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad books are, in fact, about a Dublin murder squad.
One thing to keep in mind here is that your series title can be a lot broader than your book titles—and can even hint at events or secrets that haven’t been revealed in the story.
Subtitles can be tricky. As noted earlier, the temptation to cram subtitles with keywords and use them to befuddle search engines is strong but inadvisable, and the first question you have to ask yourself is whether your book needs a subtitle at all. If your book is a standalone novel, the only subtitle you should probably use is “A Novel.” Subtitles on novels often come across as telling the reader what to think about the book before they’ve even read it. You should only give your standalone novel a subtitle if you need to convey something to the reader immediately—most probably that the book they’re holding is a bit postmodern and metafictional. If that’s not your goal, put down the subtitle and back away with your hands in the air.
There are exceptions to this rule of thumb. For novels in a series, subtitling them to make it clear they’re part of a series is good marketing and very helpful to your readers, and explicitly noting their place in the reading order with a “Book X of The XX Series”-style subtitle will be appreciated. And for genre novels like mysteries a subtitle that makes the genre clear can also help readers decide if your book is worth investigating. A famous example is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus, which gave her early 19th-century readers a clue at to the nature of the story, linking it to a ancient myth and making it clear it wasn’t meant to be a ‘realistic’ story at all. If your non-fiction book is called Murder in Canaryville, giving it the subtitle The True Story Behind a Cold Case and a Chicago Cover-Up tells crime fiction fans that this is not their next bloody mystery novel.
If your book is non-fiction, subtitles become more important. When you see a title like Sapiens, you likely have no idea what the book is—it could be a work of fiction, a sci-fi adventure, or even a memoir. The subtitle A Brief History of Humankind settles it into the non-fiction category and lets the reader make an informed decision about their interest in the book. The same rule generally applies to a memoir, especially if you’re not particularly famous. Giving a subtitle that eliminates confusion will get you goodwill from your potential audience while also ensuring your book shows up in the right searches and on the right lists.
The bottom line is that coming up with a book or series title or subtitle is more of an art than a science—and it’s best to take your time when coming up with one.