When someone goes into a bookshop and tries to decide what to read, how do they make their choice? Are they guided by genre? By the cover? By the price?
None of the above. According to Michael Hyatt, author of the New York Times bestseller, Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World (Thomas Nelson) and former Chairman and CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers, when people go into a shop they examine a book in this order:
- Back cover
- Flaps (hardcover books or trade paperbacks with “French flaps”) Table of contents
- First few paragraphs of the book’s content
Now, this begs a lot of questions: Firstly, I assume the reader is already in the section of the shop that appeals most to them. Very few bookshops display their wares simply by title or by author’s name. They separate the business books from the sporting journals; the mystery novels from the romances, and so on. But even assuming that’s the case and someone is looking for, say, a horror story; assuming they’ve already read all the King, Koontz and other kooks they know they enjoy, why will they choose your book to take home with them? Say it with me:
Titles are on my mind right now because I am currently working on the third and, I hope, final draft of my new novel, the sequel to A Biased Judgement and I’m trying to decide what to call it. There are no small decisions in writing a book, everything matters from the name of your hero (Dirk? Algy? Indiana?) to the length of the chapters. For me, some of the shortest pieces of writing are the most difficult and those are the blurb and the title.
A dubious title can not only shrink your sales potential, but can also cause unintended hilarity. See what you make of these — and yes, they’re all real books:
Castration: The Advantages and the Disadvantages (2003) by Victor T. Cheney
How to Avoid Huge Ships (1982) by Captain John W. Trimmer
The Manly Art of Knitting (1972) by Dave Fougner
Who Cares About Elderly People? (1995) by Pam Adams
A Passion for Donkeys (2009) by Dr Elizabeth D. Svendsen, MBE
The Best Dad is a Good Lover (1977) by Dr Charlie Shedd
Scouts in Bondage (1930) by Geoffrey Prout
Invisible Dick (1926) by Frank Topham
Pooh Gets Stuck (1999) by Isabel Gaines
The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice (1995) by Christopher Hitchens.
Even allowing for changes in attitude and in word usage, you really have to wonder if “Scouts in Bondage” was the absolutely best title Geoffrey Prout could come up with.
So much for the bad and the ugly, how do you find the perfect title for your book? Here are some ideas:
Sometimes the type of book will suggest a title.
What is it about? Is it a biography (either fictional or otherwise), then The Life of… can work. If you’re writing about someone extraordinary then The Life of Lawrence of Arabia is just fine. But if you’re writing about someone obscure or if it’s a work of fiction, then maybe spice it up a little: The Extraordinary Life Seabolt Hardbottom is good. So long, of course, as he actually had an extraordinary life. But surely he must or why would you be writing about him?
If the man’s accomplishments are the selling point then these should be upfront and central: The Electrifying Experiences of Nikola Tesla, perhaps, or Nikola Tesla: The Man Who Lit Up the Modern World. Nikola Tesla: The War of Currents is even better.
If the subject has an unusual nickname that can work too: Cool Hand Luke.
Genre stories often present specific ideas: A Murder is Announced… Death on the Nile… Murder on the Orient Express... Agatha Christie did a lovely job with her titles. So did Zane Grey in the western: Riders of the Purple Sage… Rangers of the Lone Star…
Early science fiction left the reader in no doubt about what story they should expect. Consider that master of titles, HG Wells: The First Men in the Moon, The Time Machine, The Invisible Man. You may not be able to tell the book by its cover, but you ought to be able to get a clue from the title.
Match the Mood
The Great Groucho Escapade suggests comedy, firstly in the name ‘Groucho’, and secondly in the word ‘escapade’. But if you’re telling a tragic tale of a sick puppy who eventually dies, well, prepare for some flak from your annoyed readers.
The Savage Mauling of Catriona Gregson sounds like a slasher tale, doesn’t it? So if you used it for a story about terrible gossips some of your readers might be a bit miffed. Unless you threw in some actual murder and mayhem just to balance things.
A lot of people didn’t care for one Raymond Chandler title because they didn’t realise The Big Sleep is a euphemismism for death. Not that it hurt his sales, of course. By then, the name ‘Chandler’ was enough of a draw.
Which brings up another point. If you have a famous name as an author you can get away with some liberties. I probably couldn’t sell a book called It, but Stephen King can.
Duh. But this is true of book titles as well as other, less refined items. Your title doesn’t have to be as in your face as J. Maarten Troost’s The Sex Lives of Cannibals (2004) — isn’t that a fabulous title? But you don’t have to see DH Lawrence’s name to guess Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) should probably not be shared with your maiden aunt. (Assuming maiden aunts still exist.) Even in English, de Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782) sounds positively sinful. Using words like flesh, sensual, sin or any synonym for them will spice up your title. Just make sure the prose is equal to it, though.
Here are some other quick tips for selecting the perfect title for your perfect story:
10 Easy Pieces
- Select a line from your manuscript to use as a title. “It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird…”
- Have the title ask a question: Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
- One-word titles never go out of style. Think Jaws, It, Hannibal.
- Use a quote from a favourite poem or song.
- Use a quote that you deliberately get wrong: Excuse me while I kiss This Guy instead of the correct Excuse me while I kiss the sky. I love Mondegreen (misheard lyrics). Not only are they hilariously funny, but they can make fabulous titles because they’re so unexpected.
- Translate a phrase from another language using google translate. I remember a Japanese friend’s comment about a concert was translated into “the room was full of yellow joy.” I haven’t used ‘Yellow Joy’ as a title yet, but I’m calling dibs.
- Titles that offer a contrast: Pride and Prejudice, War and Peace, etc.
- Add an unexpected adverb or adjective into an otherwise prosaic title. “12 Men” isn’t very interesting. 12 ANGRY Men though and you have a prize-winner. Adding “And Zombies” to a Jane Austen title can really set your title apart too. In this case it helps if the story is a bit Jane Austen-ish. And has zombies.
- Use a familiar expression: Gone with the Wind or Down all the Days for instance. It’s better if the expression is regional. Few people outside Georgia had heard of Losing my Religion until REM made it famous.
- A quote or expression that you tweak: “My Kingdom for a Pretzel”, “We Band of Buggers…” You get the drift.
Clipperton Publishing put together a list of the best book titles. Would yours fit in the selection? http://clippertonpublishing.com/content/new/101-best-book-titles-of-all-time
Now, what am I to call my next book? Sherlock Holmes and the Other Woman? The Case of the Camden Poltergeist? Sherlock Holmes: Zugzwang…?
I’ll get back to you.