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How To Title a Book

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

Harry

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.

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Comments (113)
    • Hi Harry, I am writing a climate fiction novel: 

      'Babs, a troubled intern, starts work at a research lab where the equipment and materials are more sentient than she is... '

      Title: 'Re-Pairing' 

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      • Thanks Harry. My book is an information guided conversational that develops the notion of a non-being tri-polar energy God as the supreme foundation of Reality. My objective is to reinforce the decisions of people who left their religion but managed to stay spiritual. They are the I am spiritual but not religious or I love Jesus not my church folks. I'm using everyday trivia to explain my thoughts that have to be abstract at times. Nhous, an unhappy retiree from his Information Management consulting business, sets out to research — and befriend — the Tri-Polar Energy God.

        Title: When the Tri-Polar God Winks - The SBNR Bible. 

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        • A girl gets her wish and is whisked away by the faeries to be turned into a faery but can never return to her old life and her father.  Title: Little Leaf and the Way of the Faey or maybe just short- The Way of the Faey. 

          I'm wondering if people know of the Faey as faeries or if that is too abstract. And wondering if I need to put action in it? 

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          • It’s huge right now. Sarah J. Maas has every teenage girl an expert on faeries. Check out her first book A Court of Thorns and Roses only because your premise is very similar.  

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          • Good morning Harry.  I would appreciate your comments on my upcoming book title Thanks,  Alan Drwm

            A girl who is the product of two races, meets a girl who is the product of two species.

            TOKEN STONE, The Girl in the Cage, is the first book in a trilogy about a cursed child.  It is set among the warring tribes of north Wales and Ireland at the end of the stone age.

            A disfigured baby girl, the result of an illicit union between the leaders of two opposing tribes, is born on a foreign shore.  Her father has already been murdered, and her mother dies in childbirth. The only clue to her identity, and her inheritance as chieftain of both tribes, is the token stone around her neck.

            There are those who are determined that this inheritance should not be claimed. All they have to do is find her.

            The community into which she has been born regards her as a curse. As a consequence she spends the next five years bound in a cage. When the cage is finally broken open a banshee emerges, more animal than human. Things begin to change when something that looks similar to a twelve-year-old girl comes out of the caves of the White Mountain and rescues her. What the banshee doesn’t know is that her new friend is already over a thousand years old.

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            • "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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