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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


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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  • 2008
Comments (101)
  • Your kids sound fun, like mine. Creative, musically driven and entertainingly enigmatic. My WIP is as follows;

    Current title: Valley of the Kept

     In order to free those he loves from the secluded valley they are kept in, Nao must breach his own moral integrity and become just like his captors, losing the trust and respect of everyone in his life, including himself. During their escape the reason for their confinement becomes clear, as does answers to their unexplainable dreams and the risk to their parents if they are successful. 

    I initially titled this "love is the chain", but many thought it a romance. Love for their children is the chain that keeps the parents compliant. I'm not good at short descriptions, I'm going to have a lot of work to do when it comes to the back cover.

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    • Dear Harry, 

      I love you humour! :D
      Thanks for all your tips and sharing so much information with us, this helps a lot.

      My title is: My lovely star and me.

      It is a picture book starring the kid reading the book and his or her 'lovey star' which is a depiction of a person close to them who passed away. The kids reading the book adds colour to the main character, giving it their own hair- eye- and skincolour.

      I'm Dutch so I asked my English relatives to help. They kindly supported me and choose this title for the English version. I'd love every feedback :) 

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        Family saga identity and Emigration. About 3 generations of Czech Jewish family and partly 3 generations of a West Indian family, 3 countries- Czechoslovakia, UK, USA

        MY PUBLISHER ASKS about subtitle. is it necessary? does it help with keywords?

         They thought they were safe in there home, but they were wrong

        What if just being yourself  is dangerous ?

        Anybody could become a refugee

        Anybody could become a refugee when the alternative is being killed.

        Staying meant often getting killed.

        They thought they were safe.

        Their mistake was thinking they were safe at home.

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        • Hiya, some interesting feeds above and sounds like a fab way to get some useful feedback, however short and sweet! 

          I've come up with:


          An account of one of the UK's fire services as seen through the eyes of a serving firefighter. It's a vivid narration depicting the transition of a naive young recruit, into experienced senior-hand during the so-called 'modernisation' of the fire service. The story takes the reader on a roller-coaster journey through happy and desperate times, combing hilarious tales of adventure and misadventure with vivid accounts of excitement, tension and tragedy, between an often-monotonous routine. Written in a tone which portrays the psyche of  operational firefighters, it describes their lighter, and darker moods in the build up to industrial strike action on two separate occasions, as they fought with varying levels of success against local and central government where there are no winners, and lives and pride are both at stake.

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          • Richard, at a very distant level I understand some of the pressures on FireFighters. We used to have a member of our flyling club (microlights, not expensive GA aircraft) who had been a firefighter, but who had been retired on medical grounds. 

            He had been the first firefighter on the scene at the Paddington rail disaster, and as such was the officer in charge of the initial operation to triage the situation. It did horrible things to him, and several months later he was still suffering flashbacks of what he'd seen when he first arrived. It affected his mental health, and he was eventually invalided out of the service. 

            All that took place before I knew him, but although he'd been out of the service for a while, he still found it difficult sometimes to talk of his time in it, and I don't blame him for that. Anything that brought back such appalling memories for him must have been difficult to deal with. 

            As far as I know he's now happily married, and a stay-at-home father bringing up his daughter while his wife works as head teacher in a junior school somewhere in the midlands. And I wish him and his family nothing but happiness for the future. I think he deserves it.

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          • Ooooh good post! Here's mine:

            UNEVEN GROUND

            Callie loves Wolfie. Wolfie loves long walks on the golf course. With their entire lifestyle threatened by a building development, can Callie learn to control anything in her life - including her troublesome dog.

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