A bad title won’t necessarily ruin the chances of a good book, but with so much competition out there it pays to come up with something that will work as hard as possible to attract readers.
A peruse of book and movie titles reveals that they fall into three broad categories:
These give you enough information to take a good guess at the subject and genre:
Dumb and Dumber. Unlikely to be about mutes or mimes, so we guess this story involves a pair of idiots; one more idiotic than the other. This strongly suggests a comedy.
An American Werewolf in London. Does what it says, and it’s obviously a horror story. You can’t get much clearer.
The Drowned World. A world…that’s drowned. Sounds futuristic/apocalyptic.
Vague and largely meaningless, but attention grabbing:
There Will Be Blood. Featuring blood obviously, but beyond that we’re none the wiser. Could it be about vampires?
The Big Sleep. No clues here unless we know this phrase is a euphemism for death; even then we’re left wondering.
Blazing Saddles. Something about horse racing?
Seemingly abstract titles whose meanings become clearer once we get into the story.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The meaning is a mystery till we find out that these labels describe the protagonists.
The Day of the Jackal. Possibly a wildlife documentary, but ‘Jackal’ turns out to be the codename of an assassin.
Blade Runner. Means nothing till we discover that this is futuristic slang for a replicant hunter. (This title was originally more prosaic – before it was acquired for the movie it had belonged to another story, one about a man selling illegal surgical equipment.)
The secret of success
However we might like to categorise these titles, they all share something in common – they’re effective. They engage our interest and encourage us to find out more.
Based on the above, we can theorise that an effective title will include one or both of the following elements:
- At least one evocative, powerful word that arouses interest and excitement: Blood, Ugly, Jackal, Blade, Blazing, Werewolf, Trouble…
- An intriguing combination of words: Big/Sleep, Blazing/Saddles, Blade/Runner, Day/Jackal, Big/Little...
To test this idea, let’s look at the following New York Times bestsellers of 2014 (listed in no particular order). How many power words and intriguing combinations can you find? I'll see you at the other end...
All the Light We Cannot See Anthony Doerr
Act of War Brad Thor
Words of Radiance Brandon Sanderson
The Target David Baldacci
The Book of Life Deborah Harkness
Written in My Own Heart's Blood Diana Gabaldon
Outlander Diana Gabaldon
Fifty Shades of Grey E. L. James
The One and Only Emily Giffin
Gone Girl Gillian Flynn
Missing You Harlan Coben
Festive in Death J. D. Robb
The King J. R. Ward
Unlucky 13 James Patterson
Invisible James Patterson
Hope to Die James Patterson
Private L.A. James Patterson and Mark Sullivan
Top Secret Twenty-One Janet Evanovich
Skin Game Jim Butcher
Sycamore Row John Grisham
Gray Mountain John Grisham
Edge of Eternity Ken Follett
Personal Lee Child
Big Little Lies Liane Moriarty
The Long Way Home Louise Penny
The Burning Room Michael Connelly
Concealed in Death Nora Roberts
Shadow Spell Nora Roberts
The Collector Nora Roberts
Blood Magick Nora Roberts
Night Broken Patricia Briggs
The Chance Robyn Carr
Mr. Mercedes Stephen King
Revival Stephen King
Carnal Curiosity Stuart Woods
The Invention of Wings Sue Monk Kidd
Captivated by You Sylvia Day
Of the 37 titles above, only 10 (by my estimation) fail to live up to our theory. However, most of these are by famous authors whose main draw will be their name. In these cases a fancy title would probably a distraction. These sub-par titles include The Target, The King and Sycamore Row, together with the one-word-wonders Invisible, Revival and Personal. I also don’t think much of Unlucky 13. What’s that about? Lucky 13 would be more of a twist. Then again, the title has me thinking about it. Perhaps that’s what they were aiming for.
In any event, I say the theory stands. Power words and intriguing combinations will do your book a lot of favours.
Keep it real
Your title shouldn’t make promises your story can’t keep. If you write a novel about a middle-aged woodworker having a romance with the widow of his best friend, the text would have to be pretty raunchy to live up to a title like Nails of Lust. Something more romantic, such as Carpentry With Flowers, might be more appropriate.
Make it memorable
Titles comprising short, simple, everyday words are the easiest to recall. It helps if they also conjure up a mental image to cement it in the memory.
Make it pronounceable
Word of mouth recommendations work best when people can actually pronounce a title. Avoid tongue-twisters and hard-to-say words. Could you get your mouth around Mrs Miller’s Pteridomania, Renumbered Remunerations or The Kyrgiakis Convention?
Will it fit on a cover?
A book cover offers limited space for a designer. How would a title like Incontrovertible Spiritualization appear? If both words were put on the same line, the text would have to be tiny or very compressed to make it fit. Putting the words on separate lines does something to solve the problem, but creates an ugly slab of verbiage. This is another reason to choose short simple words — they offer a designer more creative freedom in how they’re arranged.
Is it similar to anything else?
Do a little research and see if your title, or something like it, has already been used. Titles can’t be copyrighted, but if someone else has used a similar name there’s a possibility of confusion. Did you enjoy Hard Times? Which one? The Dickens novel or the bare-knuckle boxing movie starring Charles Bronson?