Choosing Your Fiction Title

by Marla Buttars

Coming up with a title can make even veteran authors groan in agony. Don’t believe us? Check out some of these original titles we found in an article from The Huffington Post:

All’s Well That Ends Well  sends a much different message than War and Peace  (by Leo Tolstoy).

The High-Bouncing Lover  thankfully became The Great Gatsby  (by F. Scott Fitzgerald).

Tote the Weary Load  became the more poetic Gone with the Wind  (by Margaret Mitchell).

But fear not! Choosing a title does not have to be a horrible, agonizing experience when you know a few tricks of the trade and think about what your title is meant to do—sell books to particular readers. Let’s break down some of the key elements of making your title a powerful selling point—so it stands out and grabs the right attention.

(Note: We cover fiction titles here, though some of the techniques apply to nonfiction as well. You can check out our nonfiction tips here.)

 

What a Title Should Do

As mentioned above, a good title should sell your book. People want to know right away whether your product is something they want or not. To achieve that goal, there are three key results (upon which most successfully marketed authors agree) that your title should deliver on.

  1. A good title makes a promise to the reader (when properly matched with an image that communicates the same thing) about the type of content/story the book will hold, plus which emotional ride the reader can plan on experiencing. Just like with the packaging on your toothpaste, you need to be clear so the customer knows what to expect with your book (mint or cinnamon flavor, fluoride or not, etc.). As an example, on Joanna Penn’s blog post, she talks about how she changed her book titles and covers (post publication) to better appeal to her target audience. She talks about how her original titles for the Arkane series made readers think they would be more Christian-based, which led to some disappointment. It’s important to always make sure you’re fulfilling the promises your title makes. What is the book about? What does it promise about the content and writing style? For instance, a humorous voice in a paranormal mystery requires slightly different packaging than a nonhumorous paranormal mystery).
  2. A title should offer the reader a mystery (or a question they want the answer to).
  3. A good title should resonate with readers of established genres and subgenres (it should differentiate whether you’re writing a scary mystery versus a funny one—which emotional experience the reader can expect).

Concrete genre examples that make a promise to (and offer a mystery for) the reader:

A thriller should convey a sense of dangerous stakes.

  • And Then There Were None  by Agatha Christie (More of a mystery, but life is on the line, and the title immediately gives us chills.)
  • Crypt of Bone  by J. F. Penn (The cover images include people running, which portrays a sense of urgency and danger.)

Both titles also conjure a mystery or produce a question in the reader’s mind. Exactly what has been reduced to none? And how? Why would a crypt with bones be a problem? Anytime a question arises, it increases the chance the reader will pick up the book to find out the answer.

Humorous titles should spark a smile or an expectation for good laughs. 

  • The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things  by Carolyn Mackler (The title makes us laugh and creates a sense of comradery with female readers who often feel pressured to focus on their physical attributes.)
  • It’s A Mall World After All  by Janette Rallison (A twist on a popular phrase. Allusion can be a powerful marketing tool because it immediately connects readers to concepts they’re familiar with, thus extending the meaning/breadth of your title but without needing more words to do it. Popular phrases and lines taken from other famous works of fiction, poetry, or song lyrics can all be a good choice as long as they match the tone and message of the book.)

Fantasy and Sci-Fi (or novels that feature heavy worldbuilding—creative settings, new ideas, etc.) should suggest the exploration of new worlds or ideas via the title. 

  • Fires of Invention  by J. Scott Savage (We immediately draw an allusion to the idea of the fires of revolution—change. Invention alludes to something new and also to change.)
  • Steelheart  by Brandon Sanderson (This title is based on the villain of the story. Using a key character can be a great choice if it stands out and is the crux of the story.)
  • The Runelords  by David Farland (At the time of first publication, not many people were using rune magic, so the novelty stood out.)
  • Dune  by Frank Herbert (This classic sci-fi title shows the alien desert world is a key factor in the story’s development. A unique setting can be a powerful draw to many readers.)
  • Split Second  by Douglas E. Richards (A brilliant title that does double duty by referencing the time travel science while alluding to the thriller aspects also prevalent.)

A good title should resonate with readers of established genres and subgenres:

Take a look at the titles above and consider how they fit in their respective genres. Which segments of the overall genre audience are looking for a slightly more specific emotional experience as they peruse that section in a bookstore or online? And which segment of the overall genre audience are you actually writing for? No author is truly writing for “everyone.” If your book has a more specific audience, you want to know because that’s the type of reader you want to hook, since their passion for your work will likely make them a fan—and word-of-mouth is the best marketing out there.

For example, a title like Dragon’s Keep  will draw in the fantasy crowd and those who still love dragons, but it may not appeal to someone looking for a good fantasy mystery. If you’re writing sci-fi, are you clear on whether it’s for an adult, YA, or MG audience? And beyond that, is it military sci-fi, romance-focused sci-fi, hard sci-fi, or something softer and more about the worldbuilding? Go to Amazon’s best-selling lists for any genre, or even the library section, and break down what makes certain titles stand out over others. What emotions do they evoke, and what images do they portray? What promises do they make from the start? Jot down the things that stand out in your book that could help you come up with a title that makes the right promises.

 

Sharable and Searchable

Most marketing occurs via word of mouth. Do readers a favor and make it easy for them to share your title. This doesn’t mean it has to be “Jane Saw Spot,” but make it pronounceable and easy to remember. A prime example of a made-up, easy-to-share fantasy word is Brandon Sanderson’s Elantris.

Also, be sure your book can be easily found in a search on Amazon or similar sites. Check to make sure your title hasn’t already been used a dozen times. The more options that pop up for a title, the less likely readers are to connect with yours.

So make your title simple but memorable. Copyright laws don’t apply to titles, so you can use whatever you want. But any way you make finding your book easier for the reader increases its sales potential. (To increase online sales, consider using keywords in titles or subtitles where possible. See our article on that subject here.)

 

The Rest of the Puzzle

Though we’re focusing on titles in this post, obviously the title is part of several marketing pieces that combine to provide the “packaging” for your book. A title alone won’t sell most books. You’ve got to make sure the other pieces fit with your title.

Concept continuity: For starters, the title, cover image, and tagline (optional) provide the initial “hook” for your readers. All three should draw the reader across the room or make them stop while browsing the shelves to look more closely at your book. You don’t want an image that gives one emotional feel but a title that gives another. This is a common mistake in self-publishing—inconsistent branding that leaves the reader confused and the cover lackluster. Sometimes a tagline (that hook phrase on the cover of some books; see below) can pull the two together and make the meaning more clear and consistent, but make sure your branding isn’t haphazard. Even your font choice can confuse the reader as to your genre—remember the promises your product packaging is trying to achieve.

Hierarchy and movement: In addition to matching the promise of the title to the promise of the image and fonts, there are other important ways these elements work together to hook a reader. A few years ago, during a panel of illustrators at the LTUE conference in Provo, Utah, James Owen, author of Here There Be Dragons, talked about how the best covers have a circuitous aspect to them. The images, author name, tagline, and title should all draw the reader’s eye from one thing to the next, to the next, and around again, so it feels like one integrated whole. This is done through understanding the effects of design hierarchy: things should be different sizes, colors, visual importance, etc., to both help draw someone in and lead their eye to certain elements of the cover in a certain order—to create an emotional response in the viewer. If everything is the same size or color or contrast then nothing stands out. Given that effective cover design requires a bit of skill, we strongly suggest you get a good cover designer that can ensure the cover makes the right impact (i.e., the fonts, colors, imagery, proportions, margins—or deliberate lack thereof—and angles all keep the eye moving where you want it and tell a powerful “story” concept).

As a homework assignment in the future, pick up several dozen of your favorite books (recent covers) and try to analyze this principle, but in the meantime, jump online and take a look at the cover of Cinder  by Marissa Meyer (the image is a translucent Cinderella leg and high heel with robot parts revealed beneath the skin).  The title itself (the name and the font) leads us to think of a fairy-tale retelling and of fire (promises, promises). We’re intrigued and look more closely at the image: her metal, mechanical leg. Bam—another layer added to the expectation for this story! Not only will this be a Cinderella retelling, it will involve a sci-fi twist. (Usually the cover grabs the eye first and then the title gets noticed, but you get what we mean by the circuitous viewer experience).

Taglines: Another powerful marketing tool for Cinder is its tagline, “New York Times  Best-Selling Series,” but since not every book can boast that, here are some examples taglines that can inspire your own (remember they can enhance/clarify the promises your book is making):

  • A quarter of the world must die (tagline from Crypt of Bone  by J. F. Penn)
  • In a world of control or be controlled, never trust the one you love (tagline from Possession  by Elana Johnson)

The whole package: Once readers are hooked, you can increase their interest with the following pieces to seal the deal.

  • The backliner/blurb (back cover or online book description)
  • Cover endorsements or other creds (like “New York Times best-seller”; endorsements—useful if the person giving them has national credibility)
  • Your author name (matters once you’ve got name recognition, but obviously you always put it on the cover; however, consider pen names where they make sense for your genre—for instance, many romance authors often use dramatic/exciting pen names to better fit their genre)

Finding Your Title

Remember the three key results you want from a title, then start brainstorming. Here are some resources:

  • Search one or all the following sites for similar books in your genre to see what’s working right now.

Wikipedia’s list of the best-selling books of all time

Goodreads‘ list of best book titles

Amazon’s current best-selling books

  • Analyze the books you love in your genre. What makes them stand out to you?
  • For further inspiration, search Amazon to make sure your title meets the expectations for the genre and that it will stand out when searched. If there are a dozen books that already use your top two titles, look deeper into your own story to find an even more compelling promise for your readers.

The biggest things to remember about titles are the promises they’re making and reader resonance (the subgenre and hence emotions you’re aiming to evoke for specific audiences). Look at your characters, theme, setting—whatever has the most powerful draw for your unique story—and see if you can craft a title based on that. Brainstorm at least ten to twenty options, then test them out. You can use a poll on Facebook among writing groups or beta readers. Whatever gives you a good sense of reader response to a title will help you narrow down what works and what doesn’t. You’re watching for the “ooohs.”

Make both the book packaging and the story powerful, and readers will come.

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Marla Buttars is an intern for Eschler Editing. She joined the team at the end of 2015. Long before that, in a galaxy far away, she earned a degree in English literature and published a handful of articles no one ever read. She recently returned to school to study editing and writing so that someone other than her husband will want to read her stuff. When not dodging her toddler and housework, she reads, writes make-believe stories, and gets lost in the world of research.

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