Find twenty books on Amazon that are in the same genre as yours and whose titles you like. Write down their titles. Try to get a feel for what works with your genre. What do you like about the titles? What don’t you like? Then put the list away for awhile.
Nothing is off limits—write down anything you can think of that conveys anything about your book. Use visual words that suggest a scene. Other words that evoke an emotion. A sensation. A location. A question. You should have at least 100 words
See if any of the words would work as a single-word title. Then start experimenting with different word combinations. Adjective-noun, verb-noun. Keep a thesaurus handy and look up other words. Write down as many word combinations as you can. Try not to self-censor at this stage.
→ From these lists, come up with at least 20 possible titles. Then put them away for 24 hours. Two things will happen: your subconscious may still be working on it; and when you come back to your list, you’ll have fresh eyes.
Titling works of non-fiction is laughably easy. Just remember one word: colon. In general, the more colons you have in your title, the better. Also, make sure one of the colon-separated sections in your title focusses on the words “how” or “why.” Try “Busted!: Why the Liberals Liberalize While Conservatives Conserve: A Mother’s Story” or “Land of Milk and Terror: How the James K. Polk Administration Ruined Our Values, and Why it Matters: A Roadmap for the 21st Century.” Did you see how I got bonus points for using how AND why in one of my clauses? Pretty clever, huh?
Read over your work
. Are there any parts or phrases that jump out? If not, ask someone else to read your book. When they have finished reading it, ask them what parts they enjoyed the most. Scan that part one more time and take out a phrase that is catchy, or grabs one's attention. If it is concise enough, you could put that as the title.
Make the title mysterious or even strange, at least enough so to provoke readers
Most genres have crowded namespaces with familiar patterns. Aiming here defeats some of the purpose of the title: to uniquely identify the book. If you follow too much of the advice you hear, soon you’ll be in questionable territory:
- The Art of Blah
- Transforming Foo
- Breathing for Dummies
- How to Blah and Blah
- Noun + Number of Noun
- Somebody’s something
- The Joy of <thing not generally thought of as joyful>
- The End of <Something people are afraid of ending>
- Extreme Coughing
- The <something important> playbook/guidebook/handbook
- <Invented word you pray will become a meme>
- Breakthrough Cheese
- How to <verb> <adjective> (“How to” is so common it’s abbreviated h/t)
- Short word: long long long long long subtitle filled with keywords (or see: Gladwell Book Title generator)
- Outrageous Claim: How something or other will do something or other
Remember that for every cliche there is an original idea for a book title that started it. And you can bet when that author pitched that title, they were told mostly why it wouldn’t work.
What really matters
Of all the advice I’ve read, been given, had thrown at me, or pulled out of of more experienced authors, here’s the core of what matters:
- Short. Easy to say. Fits anywhere. Easy to type, write, tweet and text. Unless you are Fionna Apple.
- Memorable. The more specific, original and short the title, the easier it is to remember. Or write down. Or type into amazon. A title can be both cryptic and easy to recall: Life of Pi means almost nothing to someone who hasn’t read the book. But it’s just 3 one syllable words.
- Provocative. One way to be memorable is to be provocative. To achieve this likely means dividing your audience: provided half of that division is very interested, it’s a win. It’s better to split a crowd than to bore everyone. Many books make a provocative promise that’s impossible to deliver on. You need to decide how close to an infomercial you’re willing to be.
- Easy and fast to say. At parties, on TV, on Radio, the name should be easy to say and enunciate. The fewer the syllables the better.
- Author wont get sick of saying it 1000 times. Anyone selling the book, including the author, will say the book title thousands of times. Consider what you will think of the title the 5000th time or five years from now. You want something you’ll be excited about each and every time you say it.
- Matches the soul of the book. Only people who have read the book can help here. Many novels make the title pay off after you’ve read it and in some ways make the title more potent than other kinds of titles. Organic titles, meaning titles pulled from something in the book itself (a story, a term, a name, such as The Perfect Storm), can work well.
Key word. The first word of the title should be the same as the subject whenever possible to make the book easy to find. The book will be listed in Bowker's Books in Print by title, author, and subject. If the title and subject are the same, you have doubled your exposure. Most other directories list only titles in alphabetical order.
Make your title specific, familiar, and short. The title should be easy to remember and easy to say. The words should relate well to each other. Ollie North's book was titled Under Fire. Alan Dershowitz wrote Chutzpah. And Derek Humphrey penned Final Exit. Keep your title short and snappy. A shorter title is easier to remember.
Image. The title should project a warm, successful, positive image. Consider, for example, a book titled We, The Lonely People. No one wants to admit he or she is lonely; no one wants to be seen reading this book on the bus. Bookstore browsers are even reluctant to be seen picking up The I Got Dumped Handbook. Think about image. Remember, Hog Island in the Caribbean wasn't drawing tourists until it was renamed Paradise Island.
A test was made by running large ads for a book with two different titles. One was named The Art of Courtship, and the other was called The Art of Kissing. The Art of Courtship pulled 17,500 orders, while The Art of Kissing sold 60,500 because it was more specific. In another test, Eating for Health sold 36,000 copies, while Care of Skin and Hair sold 52,000 copies. And here are some more: The Tallow Ball—15,000; The French Prostitute's Sacrifice—54,700. The Art of Controversy—very few; How to Argue Logically—30,000; this title includes a promise. An Introduction to Einstein—15,000; Einstein's Theory of Relativity Explained—42,000; the new title is more specific and makes a promise.
Title testing. Make up a list of possible titles and subtitles and test them on your friends. Show them a title and ask, "What is the book about?" How do they react? Do they perk up? Remember that big corporations spend lots of money testing names for new products. Record reactions. But make sure they are being objective and not just agreeing with you. Test the titles on booksellers and librarians; they know the customers, books and the business.
Comedian Mort Saul tells this story on the importance of titles: One method of bolstering sagging sales is to republish a book with a new, more provocative title and an eye-catching cover design. To illustrate, he told of a new paperback he had seen in a drugstore. On the cover was a dramatic picture of a Cossack sweeping a half-clad maiden onto his horse. In large red letters was the title: This Is My Flesh. And underneath, in small letters, was the statement, "Formerly published under the title Introduction to Accounting."
Writing a good book title for non-fiction
For a non-fiction book title, writing a good title generally means a crafting a concrete promise, a clear benefit statement as to what the reader can expect to learn about. Some good, straightforward examples include:
- The 4-Hour Workweek
- John Adams
Reverse cliches, proverbs with your key words. Reverse or replace words. “Puppy Power” is initial phrase (play on People Power). Chapter titles could be like “Dog Tired” about keeping dogs fit, etc. Table of Contents becomes a selling piece. Don’t just state the obvious in your TOC. “You can teach a new dog old tricks” was his subtitle.
If your book is non-fiction, consider a subtitle
to clarify your clever main title. Readers of non-fiction want to know up-front what they’re going to get from your book. Before it becomes a nationally-known best-seller, a vague title like What Color is Your Parachute?
needs a descriptive subtitle (A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers)
to appeal to the job-hunters who might need the help this book can provide. The combination of title and subtitle of Deborah Frye and Tracy Mercier’s Our Father Who Aren’t In Heaven: A True Story of a Career Criminal
does a great job of telling the reader the subject and tone of the book.
Don’t be afraid of long titles. Some of my favorite book titles make an impression because they’re long: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran-Foer; Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? by Raymond Carver; and The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance by Elna Baker.
The title of your book should be presented clearly on your book cover as well as on the spine of your book to accomplish two things:
1. It gives your reader a basic description of what your book is about at first glance.
2. It immediately captures your reader's attention and makes them open it up to find more about it.