The consensus is clear: titles
are powerful tools. But what’s the best way to come up with a book title that
will draw readers in, and how do you recognize a title that will drive them
away? As the sampling below shows, many PMA members have suggestions to offer.
In upcoming issues, we’ll
present techniques for testing titles once you’ve created them, and guidelines
for better titles from publishers who’ve developed them the hard way.
Listen for the Tipoff
If the author has supplied a
suitable title—it contains at least some clues as to what the book is
about, has a good keyword in it, is free of jargon, and is short enough to fit
on the cover—we usually go with it. Otherwise, I brainstorm (in person if
possible; by email if not) with a small group of people who have read the book,
including the author.
You know when you have a good
title because people start using it instead of using the author’s name to refer
to the book, or sticking to the working title, or saying, “That book about . .
Press of Friends General Conference
Information vs. In Your Face
I am a doctor who has written and
published five highly controversial books on the origin and cause of cancer and
AIDS. Because I think a title should indicate what the book is about, all my
books have Cancer
in the title or the subtitle. I realize many people don’t want to curl up with
books on such scary topics; and the books are not an easy sell.
The Mystery and the Solution was
published in 1984, around the time that HIV was discovered, and it was one of
the first books on the epidemic designed to educate the public. Despite the
A-word, it remains my most successful book, with sales of more than 13,000
My fourth book, <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>Queer Blood: The Secret
AIDS Genocide Plot, which explored the theory of manmade AIDS and
its ties to biological-warfare research, was published in 1993 and had dismal
sales. However, I was honored when it won a Ben Franklin Award the following
year. In retrospect, I am convinced that the main title was too shocking and in
It’s rare to have a bestseller
with the words Cancer
in the title. The most successful book on the AIDS epidemic has been <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>And the Band Played On
(1987) by the late Randy Shilts. But who could guess from the title what the
book was about?
I forget who said, “A good title
is the title of a successful book.” A good motto, but easier said than done.
Creating in Collaboration
My best title was <span
a mystery about a teenage sleuth set in a nudist colony. I’m a writer first and
a publisher by accident, so if an author is set on a particular title, I try
not to argue. But if we agree there could be a better title, I ask for a list
of 50 possible titles and say that the right title will usually be on it.
If all else fails, I go to one of
my favorite online spots, the Mystery Writer’s Forum (<span
and ask for help. Among others there, Scott Summit, Steven Torres, or Matthew
L. Schoonover can usually come up with a good suggestion.
The Key Questions
Titling in the niche-publishing
world is straightforward—mention the end user (or buyer) in the title
(first, if possible), then what the book is about. So <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>What Every Superintendent
and Principal Needs to Know and <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Standard Operating Procedures for All Dentists
are not only our best sellers (since we market them solely to those buyers);
their return rate is almost zero.
When we go to general markets, we
focus heavily on what the book will help the reader/buyer do with the contents:Speaking for Money,Treasure and
Scavenger Hunts: How to Plan, Create, and Give Them, or <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>How to Plan a Great Second
Life: What Are You Going to Do with Your Extra 30 Years? They
sure aren’t sexy, but we’d much rather be square than mystify the rare
book-buyer with some tongue-twister or play on words that’s good for a laugh
but seldom a sale.
Who decides? Me, since it’s my
money! That decision is usually made, though, when I start writing the book. I
ask, “What’s the book about and who is it for?” Bingo, the key words of the
title. If we buy a book by somebody else, I always quickly retitle it, and we
usually edit the opening chapters to support the title. The book for supers had
a stilted academic title that was doomed. Do I ask others which titles would
work best? Sometimes, if they are in the niche field itself. Have they ever
changed my mind? Once I switched some words around.
Did I ever miss it big? Yep, with
my only novel (where titles seldom make much sense anyway). I called my pet <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>Lian McAndrews and the
Perfect Human World. It drew the pious like flies, but no book
could be more secular! Alas, it never found any buying world, perfect or
imperfect, at all!
Similarity Search Snags
Making sure you avoid using a
title that is already in use is a crapshoot. I did a Web search two weeks
before settling on the title for a mainstream novel about female friendships
and the circle of life from infertility to Alzheimer’s (<span
and found no hits. By the time <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Sunrise Sunset was published, there were
several books (fiction and nonfiction), a full-length movie, even a calendar
with almost that exact title. I’m not sure if this is hurting or helping sales,
which have been phenomenal.
Run Books LLC
With Multiple Goals in Mind
We worked really, really hard on
picking the title for our book (<span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Drive I-95: Exit by Exit Info, Maps, History and
Trivia), since it is an annual travel guidebook and we knew that
we would be using that title for a long time. Also, as we saw that it might
become a series, we knew it would have to work for other geographic areas in
We thought of it in two distinct
parts: the title and the subtitle. It was important that the title be short,
snappy, and memorable when heard on radio or TV. We wanted the subtitle to
convey the entire concept of the book in a few short words.
We also took into consideration
how both would read in retailers’ book databases and other lists. Since titles
appear alphabetically in each subject area, you want one that is close to the
beginning of the alphabet. And since only a certain number of letters is
visible on screen, you want the first few words of the subtitle to be the most
To derive our title, though, we
asked everyone on my writers’ listservs to try for “winning” their words on the
cover of a book and also offered a prize. These creative sorts gave us dozens
of great ideas. We picked the best five and then had them vote. They all felt
part of the birth of the book, and some wound up writing stories about it when
it came out.
In the end we did not use any of
their exact words; instead, we rearranged the ideas. But the contest was hugely
helpful, partly because of the coverage but also partly because it helped us
see what people would read into certain words in the titles, and it gave us
many ideas for press releases.
A good title should sound pleasing
to the ear—you want people to be comfortable saying it repeatedly.
It should be meaningful to the
type of readers for whom it is intended, and it should reveal the substance of
the book in the first few words. We publish books in French and in English, and
the title Memoirs
from Normandy: Childhood, War & Life’s Adventures seemed
appropriate for Anglophone American readers interested in that time period, but
we did not translate it literally for the French version. We named it <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>Drôle de mémoires en
Normandie instead, a play on the phrase <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>drôle de guerre<span
with which French people are familiar.
A subtitle, if there is one,
should clarify the main title. So, to give more information to those who might
not be familiar with this era, we added the date (1940–1944) to the
following title and subtitle: <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Tu t’appelles Renée: Paroles d’une enfant cachée dans
la France de Vichy (1940–1944) (“Your Name Is Renée: A
Story Told by a Hidden Child in Vichy France”).
We take our time and rack our
brains to create a good title, but we do not test them; we know our readership.
Lloyd Publishers, LLC
Titles Cut Through It
I often sit watching the river cut
through my backyard and think, Norman Maclean’s <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>A River Runs Through It ranks first
among titles, even better than <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Macbeth, etc. The action verb gives it
As a free-verse poet, I like
literary allusions (Small
Bundle of Shivers, <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Not Icarus, <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>On Seeing Lions for the First Time) and
internal rhyme, particularly assonance: “Later, in a circle, as if performing
some ancient ritual.” When I chose the title for my Africa poetry collection, <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>Into the Okavango,
I wanted to penetrate the country in reverse of Isak Dinesen taking something
out. I also sought a darkening, foreboding effect that might chill like the
forlorn sound of “Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore,’” but darker still. Hence, the
An editor suggested I subtitle the work <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>The Africa Poems and Pictures.
Immediately, I saw the opportunity to use more long <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>o’s: “Photographs,” which word I prefer:
The Africa Poems and
As a prose writer, I like
oxymorons because they are beguiling and make people think. <span
Freud’s term for repressed memory, works well for my novel about incest and its
Generally, titles are my own
brainchildren; however, I am never opposed to advice. I listen to a few
intelligent colleagues and have changed titles accordingly:
Depending on how complex a subject
is, I adjust accordingly. “Wine Country by Air: After a Vision of Cézanne” is
the final poem before the epilogue in <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Into the Okavango. The poem is full of
visions: the father’s, the daughter’s, Paul Cézanne’s, Gertrude Stein’s, Jean
Léon Gérôme’s, Edvard Munch’s, Max Beckmann’s—even an epiphany. The
title, divided by the colon, creates a fracture, and yet the divisions remain
connected. The countryside seems fractured from the air; the poet’s fractured
mind surges with associations, nightmares—familiar
strangers—finally forgiveness, stimulated by the dizzying euphoria of vineyard
landscapes and the life-giving force of whales mating between rotor slices
below. Ambiguous, yes, just as childhood memories are.
Do my titles work? I don’t know;
you tell me.
When I process a good title, I
watch my river, think long and deeply, and follow my gut instinct to cut
through the heart of the subject.
and Burgoyne, Publishers
Should This Be a Series?
We had an interesting choice to
make with our upcoming title. The first book in the series <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>Memoirs of a Papillon: The
Canine Guide to Living with Humans Without Going Mad came out in
2000 and continues to do well. It was written by our dog, Genevieve, who
happens to be a papillon, though the book is not about papillons.
We’ve learned that the title has
both helped and hurt. It’s helped in that the book has become a must-have for
most papillon owners, and this continues to provide new buyers and fans. It’s
hurt in that some potential buyers (dog owners and dog lovers) mistakenly interpret
the title to mean that the book is of interest only to papillon owners.
Now comes the sequel, which
Genevieve insisted be titled Diary of a Mad Dog. The question was: Do we link it up to
the first book by including More Memoirs of a Papillon in the title? We decided to do
so, though we have no data to back up that decision. I think we did it because
putting the word papillon
in the title gives the book definite legs (four of them, to be exact).
The moral of the story is this:
Not knowing what you’re doing is sometimes the best that you can do.
On the Marketing-Meeting Agenda
When creating a title from scratch
we bring it up in our marketing meeting, which is attended by our CEO,
acquisitions editor, managing editor, sales director, marketing director, art
director, and CFO. We all throw out ideas and give feedback. The best picks are
discussed with the author.
We have come up with some real
winning titles. A few examples: <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>How to Date Your Wife, <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>Beating the High Cost of
Eating, and I Chose You. We like to ask ourselves, What are we trying
to give the people? If a title successfully answers that question, we have a
I think one-word titles are best.
At the most, use two words. If you need more, save them for the subtitle, and
don’t put the subtitle on the cover. Save it for the title page.
It is hard for readers to remember
long titles. If they recommend the book to a friend they will usually mess up a
long title. We feel the same goes for the cover art. I am dismayed by how many
overly busy, multicolored covers I see on books. Our black-and-white cover on <span
simple color cover on Adirondack
Harvest help them stand out from the crowd.
Geezer Gets Attention
As a former English major and
long-time literature teacher, I think belles-lettres first, marketability
second when it comes to titles (and content), and I follow my own aesthetic
guts, with little outside input, in titling my books. Call it expensive
My first book under my own Calafia
imprint was an experimental novel, a dark comedy titled <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>The Complete Works of
Marcus Uteris, a mocking title for a thin volume of 174 pages of
addled philosophy that begged allusion to the most intellectual of Roman
emperors, Marcus Aurelius. Beyond a few kind words from literary critics, <span
nowhere, and I still have copies gathering dust and mold in my garage. Sales
certainly weren’t enhanced by the title.
I fared better with my second
book, My Summer with
Molly: The Journal of a Second Generation Father. I liked the
euphony of the first part, and the suggestion this was a love story. Which it
was, of course, but my love was for the newborn baby daughter I stayed home to
tend for her first summer. The title’s second part literally defines the nature
of this tome on family/relationships. Its modest print order sold out, and it
won a Benjamin Franklin Award for Autobiography.
My third and latest Calafia book
is No Paltry Thing:
Memoirs of a Geezer Dad. Initially, having passed age 70 and not
looking forward to the self-publishing grind again, I gave the manuscript to an
enthusiastic book scout from St. Martin’s, who had only one reservation: he was
horrified by my working title, “Memoirs of a Geezer Dad.” He thought the word <span
and disrespectful. Yet everyone I’d tried it on had laughed. When St. Martin’s
passed on the manuscript, I reverted to the wisdom of listener reaction,
but—ever the lover of literary allusion—prefaced <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>Memoirs of a Geezer Dad
with the apt reference to W. B. Yeats’s great poem, “Sailing to Byzantium,” and
felt fulfilled on the aesthetic side. The <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Geezer half clearly sells more books.
Interestingly, the writer-producer who recently purchased the film option on
the book refers to the property as “Geezer Dad,” while saying, with a kindly
wink, “You can continue to call it <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>No Paltry Thing.” And so I will.
calafiapress.com [in preparation]
Could This Have Been There
Since the goal of the <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>Hard Case Crime
series is to revive the style of the great pulp paperbacks of the 1940s and
’50s, our titles have to reflect the aesthetic of that golden age. Half our
books are new, and half are reprints of undeservedly forgotten pulp gems, which
come complete with authentic period titles such as <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Say It with Bullets and <span
Sometimes the authors want to change the original titles. For instance,
Lawrence Block changed Mona
to Grifter’s Game,
and the late Ed McBain went through two dozen possible new titles for <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>I’m Cannon—for Hire
before finding the new title that worked for him: <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>The Gutter and the Grave.
If it sounds like a book that
could have appeared on a wire rack at a newsstand in 1952, we know we’re on the
Adding to an Audience of
class=95StoneSerifIt>Everything You Always
Wanted to Know About the Special Theory of Relativity but Were Afraid to Ask—was
chosen to assure potential readers that the subject covered in the book is not
nearly as difficult as they probably think it is. If I had to do it over again,
I’d make the title shorter.
My intention at first was merely
to write a book for my grandchildren. I typed it out, made copies at the local
office supply store, and put them in folders. Only later did I get a small
number of copies printed up by Poor Richard’s Press. Then Karen Juran of
NightWriters said I should send a copy to Barnes & Noble in New York, and
to my surprise they said they wanted to place an initial order for 100 copies
(actually they ordered 130). I ordered 1,000 copies from Central Plains Book
Manufacturing in Kansas, and now the book is in some libraries and available on
Amazon.com. Most local independent bookstores stock it, and it is soon to be
published in India, and possibly South Korea. Overall, though, sales have been
pretty slow. Mind you, if I’d known of the existence of PMA earlier on, then I
wouldn’t have made the mistakes I did make, and I would have saved myself a lot
Doing Things Sdrawkcab
Because most of our books fall
into the extremely popular legal-thriller genre, our most important step in creating
a good title is finding out if it’s already been used. We start at Amazon.com
and then go on to other resources like Bowker’s, IMDB (movie titles), search
Once we establish that Grafton,
Grisham, Tanenbaum, Turow, or any of the other people crowding our field
haven’t already used a tentative selection, we then see how the title might fit
into one of our story lines, either by subject or dialogue—with a little
tweaking here and there
The secret truth is, I don’t write
the book until final selection of an available title. Then I write it, making
sure that the title fits in somewhere. This is a method I used many years ago
when creating crossword puzzles for the <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>California State Bar Journal. I
completely filled in a puzzle first, and then worked backwards to create clues
for people to use.
So far we’ve been lucky, with <span
…By Reason of
of Innocence, …<span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Until Proven Innocent, <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>A Class Action,The Common Law,The Magician’s Legacy,The Reluctant Jurist,
and The Final Case.
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>…Until Proven Innocent was published
early this year, we noticed two other books with the similar title of <span
Innocent (by separate authors), both copyrighted years before
ours (1977 and 1983), but released or rereleased after ours hit the streets.
About Daring to Be Different
For nonfiction, I use the shortest
and most descriptive adjective/noun combination, or two nouns and a conjunction
(Healthy Living, 1850–1870;Spells and
Incantations). One deliberately provocative title sells well (<span
class=95StoneSerifIt>Snails, Sex and Sermons,
1744, a clergyman’s biology lessons).
For fiction, I use a short phrase
that relates to the theme: Flotsam of Mardi Gras—what a Rhine flood carried into
Cologne just before Mardi Gras; or <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Twisted Root—why an outwardly
normal person became a killer.
Deliberately different titles,
such as Snails, Sex,
and Sermons, or <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Planned and Unplanned Parenthood, 1850–1870
(sex education for Victorian youths), stop some buyers in their tracks and make
others walk faster. Those who know my reference books smile and buy them.
Think Ad Headline
A good book title is like a good
advertising headline: It must be specific enough to be an ownable or original
idea, and it must be big enough to have general appeal.
Hence the title <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>I Was Much Happier When
Everything I Owned Was in the Back Seat of My Volkswagen succeeds
because it hits the very specific emotional chord for a nostalgic return to
simplicity, while at the same time it rings a bell with 76 million baby
It has received very positive
Tapping Into a Fan Base
In our case creating a good title
was easy. More than 100 years ago, the character of Hopalong Cassidy was
created by Clarence E. Mulford. In the mid-1930s, his stories became a series
of popular Western films starring William Boyd. Boyd eventually made 66 feature
motion pictures as Hoppy, plus 104 radio shows and 52 television shows. Our
mission was to bring back this famous character and at the same time salute all
those wonderful B Westerns. So we set out to build a story that had just about
everything that was ever in a Hoppy movie—<span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Hopalong Cassidy Rides Again.
We knew that his name had to be in
the title, since our audience is made up largely of loyal fans of Hoppy.
The Trouble with Fiddle EE Fee
Reader’s Kit, <span
the Watch Me Grow
series, Singing Games,
and other titles of ours all tell what the books are about and often give the
level of the content.
We have learned that having a
title that is just fanciful doesn’t help sales. For instance, our album on
early learning of important concepts through songs has not sold as well as
projected because we called it <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Fiddle EE Fee (the title referred to the
Something I never would have
thought of seems relevant. One of my titles happened to have a string of words
that were uncommon enough so that if you put it into an Amazon.com or
Barnesandnoble.com search, it would come up first or second. My next title used
very common words, and if/when customers look for it at Amazon.com or
Barnesandnoble.com, they have to scroll through pages before they find it.
Local Mention Makes Good
My major discovery is that a book
with something familiar in the title is a big hit, especially with local
readers—and when you first start out, your local readers are the ones who
spread the word for you. I discovered that with my second book, <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>South River Incident.
Readers connected with the title, and when they found out this book was the
second in the series, many bought the first as well (I offered a special
discount for buying both). My third book was already titled and marketed before
I discovered this fact. Starting with the fourth, <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Middle River Murders, the rest of my
titles will include the name of a local town, river, or event. I’m sure there’s
going to be a fictional murder somewhere in Culpeper, a stalking in
Ruckersville, or a kidnapping in Greene County that will require the services
of Jesse Watson and Billy Blackhawk, Private Investigators.
The possibilities are endless.