Memorable. It’s most important that a book title be memorable. A title is the name of the book. Think of all the famous people who changed their names to something easy to remember. John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, Mark Twain, and Jack London are all made-up names.
The worst title for a book is an interchangeable combination of common words. People will never be able to remember what the book is called.
In my pursuit of the perfect book title, I did some research and started a list of best-selling titles to see if there was a common trait. Here’s what I discovered.
The best titles are metaphors. For example:
- Chicken Soup for the Soul
- Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus
- The Grapes of Wrath
- A Moveable Feast
- Tender Is the Night
- The Catcher in the Rye
The next desirable quality for a title is a phonetic echo. It gives you that “batta bing–batta boom.” If your readers hear the first half, they will automatically remember the second half.
Here’s a list of a few best-sellers with the phonetic echoes highlighted in color:
- Chicken Soup for the Soul
- How to Win Friends and Influence People
- Fix-it and Forget-it CookbookThe Power of Positive Thinking
- Gone with the Wind
- Rich Dad, Poor Dad
Making Memorable Metaphors
The Holy Grail of book titles is a metaphor with a phonetic echo. In the process of creating a metaphor, you could be creating a new word or phrase that will become part of our lexicon.
One way to create a metaphor or a unique title is to put two words or syllables together that are not commonly used in the same context. In 1946, Winston Churchill coined the phrase Iron Curtain in a famous speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri–“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.” From that day forward, the phrase Iron Curtain became a metaphor for the Cold War with the then-Soviet Union. Aerobics and Dianetics are other examples of words authors created as the titles of their books.
Two more examples of created names with phonetic echoes are Kinko’s and Kodak. Kinko’s and Kodak don’t tell you anything about the product. They were created as trademark-able names with phonetic echoes that customers would remember. Imagine all the copy shops and printers who went out of business just because customers couldn’t remember what those companies were called.
Other qualities are important in a book title too, but less so. Here’s a dozen, in rank order.
1. Memorability — the most important quality
- Metaphor — e.g., The Grapes of Wrath
- Phonetic Echo — e.g., Gone with theWind
- Words combined in an unusual way — e.g., Chicken Soup for the Soul
- Contradictions — e.g., War and Peace
- Questions that make readers wonder about the answers — e.g., Who Moved My Cheese? and What Color Is Your Parachute?
- Trademark-abliity — i.e., can the title be a trademark?
- Avoidance of combinations of common words
- Controversy — to get more interviews
- Pointers to something in the story — character, setting, theme, or genre. The best titles often name two or more elements at once; think of Jaws.
11. A newspeg — i.e., a hook to an annual event such as Christmas, Easter, or Independence Day.
12. Ways to… Book titles that start with 101 Ways or something similar often become best-sellers. Adults want to know how to do things (unlike children, who want to know why things are).
Begin with a List
You must start a list of titles when you start a book. Ask as many people as possible to suggest some. If you don’t have a written list of at least 50 potential titles, you could fall in love with your first idea and become a victim of tunnel vision.
As soon as you discover your great title, register it as a domain name at
www.yeswildwest.com for only $8.95 for the first year. Your website registration gives you valuable intellectual property that you can make good use of in your marketing plan.
George DeTellis has a B.A. in marketing and a Master’s in business administration. In the process of running a mission, he has published a monthly newsletter for the past 20 years, along with five books. His latest book, “The Witness Carol,” will be released October 15, 2003. For more info, visit www.thewitnesscarol.com or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.