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 (75)
  • The wording of the first 2 lines on the cover of my book is as follows:--

    Murders or Accidents?  (mainly in lower case on the first line)

    MEETING THE GRIM REAPER  (in upper case on the second line)

    It appears to the readers, when they look at the front cover, that the title is MEETING THE GRIM REAPER, but the published title on Amazon includes both of the aforementioned first 2 lines. This is done for the sake of formatting the wording on the cover, and in order to attract more attention.

    The novel concerns a series of mysterious deaths among a group of individuals working together and travelling together in various countries around the globe, as part of a Company team of Inspectors or Auditors.


     

    • That sounds a bit messy to me. Remember Amazon gives you a title and a subtitle. I would choose a proper title, then think about what subtitling could work in support.

      • Harry,

        It sounds messy, but using Amazon's own software to design the layout of the wording on the front cover, it was the only way I could get the front cover looking the way I wanted, with the words in the right sizes and in the right places, and I think the result is good, on the published cover.

        If you looked on Amazon for my book, entitled "Murders or Accidents ?  MEETING THE GRIM REAPER" and looked at the cover, I believe you would see what I mean.

        regards,

        Colin. 

        • Uh, yes. OK. But honestly? 'm going to say that no good cover ever came out of Amazon's cover software. The cover is too important for you to use something just because you were hemmed in by some clanky software and your own skillset. This is an area where you have to invest ... 

        • re: my earlier post, an hour ago. the wording MEETING THE GRIM REAPER occupies 2 lines on the front cover.

          • Hello everybody. I joined the community and immediately took a 'sabbatical'. I have written 19 articles based on my real-life experience including living through a coup in Liberia and blocking the motorcade of the President of Sierra Leone. I intend to publish these articles as an anthology. But I do not know whom to turn to for a read and opinion. I will be happy to forward the collection to any of you who have time to read it and give your views.

          • Hi, Harry!

            Working on my title from March (OMG) and was very glad for your e-mail. It's sooo hard. I had already 3 titles my editor rejected. No I'm thinking about "Anxiety in my heels". The work language is not English, so "anxiety" would be like good fuss, disquiet. The book is a little book comic, little bit romantic and lot of realistic about three 30-year old women living in the city and dealing with different problems.

             How does it sound for you?

            • My first draft novel is the story of a Hong Kong police inspector working as an interrogator in the spillover of China's Cultural Revolution in 1967. This frames the title. However, the story within is largely built around an illicit love affair and trying to cope with the murder of his wife. 

              (It probably won't take much thought to work out that the story is at least partly autobiographical.)

              My title is: White Skinned Pigs and Yellow Running Dogs.

              These were the terms levelled at police by communist rioters and insurgents at that time, though still largely used.

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