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Of all the writing habits I have, one of the worst – the worst from good financial sense point of view – is that I like writing LONG books.

My first novel was a spine-breaking 180,000 words. Not one of my novels has ever been less than 110,000 words. The first “short story” I wrote was 8,000 words, which is to say miles too long to be an actual short story. Heck, even this email is likely to be far longer than any other email you get in your inbox today.

Ah well. There are some things you can’t fight, and my addiction to length is one of them.

But that also means that when it comes to short-form copy, I’m at a loss.

I’m not especially good at book blurbs, which want to be about 100-120 words (depending a bit on layouts and where you’re expecting them to appear.) Since titles need to be short and punchy, I’m not especially good at those either.

In a word: I’m pretty damn rubbish when it comes to coming up with titles … and this email is going to tell you how to write them.

Which means if you want to ignore the entire contents of what follows, on the basis that I obviously, obviously, obviously don’t know what I’m talking about, then I have to say that the evidence is very much in your favour.

That said, I think it’s clear enough what a title needs to do. It wants to:

  1. Be highly consistent with your genre
  2. Offer some intrigue – for example, launch a question in the mind of the reader
  3. Ideally, it’ll encapsulate “the promise of the premise” in a few very short words, distilling the essence of your idea down to its very purest form.

The genre-consistency is the most essential, and the easiest to achieve. It matters a lot now that so many books are being bought on Amazon, because book covers – at the title selection stage – are no more than thumbnails. A bit bigger than a phone icon, but really not much. So yes, the cover has to work hard and successfully in thumbnail form, but the title has more work to do now than it did before.

Genre consistency is therefore key. Your title has to say to your target readers, “this is the sort of book that readers like you like”. It has to invite the click through to your book page itself. That’s its task.

The intrigue is harder to do, but also kinda obvious. “Gone Girl” works because of the Go Girl / Gone Girl pun, and those double Gs, and the brevity. But it also works because it launches a question in the mind of the reader: Who is this girl and why has she gone? By contrast, “The Girl on the Train” feels a little flat to me. There are lots of women on lots of trains. There’s nothing particularly evocative or intriguing in the image. I don’t as it happens think that book was much good, but I don’t think the title stood out either. (I think the book sold well because of some pale resemblances between the excellent Gone Girl and its lacklustre sister. The trade, desperate for a follow-up hit to Gone Girl, pounced on whatever it had.)

The third element in a successful title – the “promise of the premise” one – is really hard to do. I’ve not often managed it, and I’ve probably had a slightly less successful career as a result.

So what works? Well, here are some examples of titles that do absolutely nail it:

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Brilliant! That title didn’t translate the rather dour and serious Swedish original (Man Som Hatar Kvinnor / Men Who Hate Women). Rather it took the brilliance of the central character and captured her in six words. She was a girl (vulnerable), and she had a tattoo (tough and subversive), and the tattoo was of a dragon (exotic and dangerous). That mixture of terms put the promise of the book’s premise right onto the front cover and propelled the book’s explosive success.

Incidentally, you’ll notice that the title also completely excludes mention of Mikael Blomkvist, who is as central to that first book as Salander is. But no one bought the book for Blomkvist and no one remembers the book for Blomkvist either. So the title cut him out, and did the right thing in doing so.

The Da Vinci Code

Brilliant. Dan Brown is fairly limited as a writer, but it was a stroke of genius to glue together the idea of ancient cultural artefacts with some kind of secret code. Stir those two things up with a bit of Holy Grail myth-making and the result (for his audience) was commercial dynamite.

And – boom! – that dynamite was right there in the title too. The Da Vinci part namechecks the world’s most famous artist. The Code part promises that there are secret codes to be unravelled.

Four words delivering the promise of the premise in full.

I let You Go

This was Clare Mackintosh’s breakout hit, about a mother whose young son was killed in a hit-and-run car accident. The promise of the premise is right there in four very short words … and given a first person twist, which just adds a extra bite to the hook in question. A brilliant bit of title-making.


So that’s what a title wants to do. A few last comments to finish off.

One, I think it’s fair to say that it’s quite rare a title alone does much to propel sale success.

Because there are a lot of books out there, and because everyone’s trying to do the same thing, there’s not much chance to be genuinely distinctive. My fifth Fiona Griffiths novel was called The Dead House, but there are at least three other books on Amazon with that title, or something very like it. That didn’t make my title bad, in fact – it did the promise of the premise thing just fine – but I certainly couldn’t say my title was so distinctive it did anything much for sales.

Two, if you’re going for trad publishing, it’s worth remembering that absolutely any title you have in mind at the moment is effectively provisional. If your publishers don’t like it, they’ll ask you to change it. And if they don’t like your title #2, they’ll ask you to come up with some others. In short, if, like me, you’re bad at titles, you just don’t need to worry too much (if you’re going the trad publishing route, that is.) There’s be plenty of opportunity to hone your choice well prior to publication.

Three, you don’t want to think about title in isolation. There should, ideally, be a kind of reverberation between your title and the cover. That reverberation should be oblique rather than direct. Clare Mackintosh’s I Let You Go had for its cover image a butterfly trapped against a window – a metaphorical reference to the anguish of the book’s premise. If instead it had shown a mother obviously distraught as a car struck her son, the cover – and title – would have seemed painfully clunky and ridiculous.

If you get a great cover image that doesn’t work with your chosen title, then change the title. If you have a superb title and your cover designer’s image is too directly an illustration of it, then change the image. That title/cover pairing is crucial to your sales success, so you can afford no half-measures in getting it right.

That’s all from me.

My kids are making elderflower cordial and singing as they do so. They are also wearing helmets for no reason that I can possibly understand.

Till soon


PS: Want to know what I think of your title? Then I’ll tell you. Just pop your title (plus short description of your book) in the comments below. I’ll tell you what I think.

    • "The Three Weddings of Benjamin Howes"

      Based on real people in the 1820s, but embracing issues of today – the rights of women, mental health, miscarriage, domestic violence, social mobility, exploitation in the workplace, ethnic disadvantage.

      But it doesn’t read like that. It reads like a fascinating story.

      Based on events which are documented in public records. The Three Weddings happened. The people existed. But everything else – their characters, how they met, why they did what they did, how they came to do things in particular places – is all fiction.

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      • "Beyond"

        A fantasy novel about a 14 year old pirate boy who sees things that aren't there. He has a personal grudge against the captain of the pirate ship Adamantes, who is taking his crew to an unknown location. 

        As The Adamantes sets out on its journey, a man joins the crew. He befriends the pirate boy and gradually our young friend learns this new crew member only joined up because The Adamantes was sailing to Beyond, the land of the dead.

        Together they find out that the captain needs the boy to enter Beyond because of the undiscovered magical abilities his father passed on to him. There are other secrets about his father that the boy must learn in order to stop his enemy, the pirate captain, from gaining immortality in Beyond.

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        • "The Money Masquerade."

          The third installment of my "Masks" trilogy, an edgy political thriller juxtaposed against the beautiful setting of the San Francisco Bay Area. Caryssa Flynn and friends have narrowly escaped a mass shooting in a sleepy, upscale cafe overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge.

          But for Caryssa, it's not herself she is concerned about. The haunted, striking grey eyes of the boy who carried out the shooting, and x-marine, had locked with hers just prior to the tragedy, and it is him she feels empathy for... She recognized what America's perpetual war economy has imposed upon the kid.

          Caryssa long ago warned Silicon Valley millionaire Sean Coleman to get out of military contracts. After high-level intelligence officials linked to the U.S. President nearly kill him for his technology and trade secrets, he listens, but is it too late? In The Money Masquerade, the proverbial "bad guys" are those least likely to be suspected. 

          I'm new to the community, but not to writing. I started writing this anti-war "Silicon Valley" trilogy in 2008. The first two novels are self-published and being distributed globally, including the brick & mortar shelves of Barnes & Noble, the USA's largest bookstore. I've completed the manuscript for the third novel, and am polishing it in a weekly writers circle for publication. My goal is to find a traditional publishing home for my trilogy, to increase my commercial sales. Seems the Money Masquerade took over my novels, with Amazon making more money than I!

          Based on real-life issues, my novels are in a sense "fictionalized memoir" in that I am the protagonist, that woman who grew the corporate ladder in Silicon Valley before becoming a mother, then the world changed before her eyes.

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        • Hello Harry,

          I'd love feedback on my memoir title.

          "Finding God Through Tadpoles"

          A 51 year old flailing business owner, convinced she’d be better off solo, plans to leave the world behind to live alone in the wilderness. Spending 45 days in survival school to learn the necessary skill-set, Shannon learns no woman has yet graduated from the elite program. Fighting through the threat of waterboarding, a five day challenge to live off the land, and a belief in her own inferiority, Shannon not only learns to build fire and shelters but discovers her male classmates are also battling for their lives. Then putting her newfound skills to a longer solo quest, she discovers truths about loneliness and friendship that alter her life forever.

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          • I absolutely love that title! The intrigue, the alliteration, the rhythm... 

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          • Harry Hi, Thanks for the opportunity to test my title.                                             

            TapDancers is a thriller about a threatened world without water. Imagining life sans nature's precious drop and the lengths one might go to seek supply. After a devastating cyber attack a city's water is cut off. Terrorists threaten to poison the main catchment. Millions are terrified to turn on their taps. Can a murder suspect redeem himself and save the city?


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            • Hi Harry: Love the Fiona Griffiths series and need to catch up with the others. For the longest time it was hard to get your books in Canada.

              If you like Alexander McCall Smith and whimsical crime fiction, you may like this first novel by Jo Harris.  Designed to be one in a series, Under the Radar introduces James Mount, an ex-British policeman who's had an uneventful life until he gets towards the end of it. He's always been resentful of other peoples' success and put it down to their good luck, but realizes its his own fault as he'd never made an effort. James desperately wants to redeem himself, but to do it involves taking risks and mixing with some dangerous characters. "Lie down with dogs, you get fleas," his mother used to say. James discovers she was right, but the risks may be worth it.  Thank you! Jo

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