A successful title accomplishes several things: it entices the reader, is relevant to its genre, and is easy to remember and search online. Many writers say that deciding what to title their work is almost as hard as writing it. Let’s dig into these requirements to expand on the necessity of each.
Enticing your reader is essential in getting them to pick up the book in the first place! A title holds a promise of what’s to come. That enticement works on several levels: it can challenge, provoke, entertain, seduce, surprise or delight. The idea is to create a kind of emotional hook in the reader to compel them to read and help them remember the novel.
Being relevant to the genre ensures that you attract the “right” reader. Not every book will be loved by everyone—just have a look at some of the one-star reviews of recent bestselling novels! But meeting a genre title convention ensures that you avoid attracting a die-hard mystery reader to your romance novel, or a fantasy reader to your coming-of-age literary fiction. Have a look at the popular novels in your genre to see what patterns emerge in the title conventions, and follow them, while still putting on your original twist.
Being memorable is self-explanatory: people talk about what they remember so it helps the word-of-mouth promotion, which is still the most effective way to sell books. Being memorable also means there is something about your title unusual enough to not blur into the background noise.
More and more books are found while searching online or ordered after being seen in a bookstore or library, so having a search engine-friendly title is essential to discoverability. Make sure it is simple but not so simple that it could get buried by hundreds of similarly titled books.
Title trends can also influence writers: for example, the recent wave of Daughter, Wife, Sister-titled books in the domestic thriller category. Or the trend of one word YA titles that came after Twilight’s success. The concept is clear: if the book reminds readers of something they already know and love they are more likely to buy it.
Ultimately, it is wise not to get too attached as your title could be changed by your agent prior to submission or by your publisher if they believe something else works better. While you are the authority on your book, your agent and publisher are authorities on the market and trusting them to know what performs best is crucial to the relationship.
There are, of course, always exceptions to the rule. One memorable example is The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, an epistolary novel co-written by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Loosely based on events in Guernsey during WWII, and published in 2008, the book went on to become a New York Times bestseller, selling more than 7.5 million copies in 32 countries, and was later adapted into a well-received film starring Jessica Brown Findlay. Ask any bookseller or librarian in the past decade if they’ve ever had a customer who remembered the full title! But the unusual combination of words in the title helped the book to stands out: There is the Literary and Society, which signals that this will be interesting to readers of the genre; the book landed at the height of contemporary book club popularity, charming readers with the premise of resistance fighters meeting under the guise of a book club; the little-known island of Guernsey, alongside the other Channel Islands, was the only British territory that the Germans invaded and occupied during the war; and, Potato Peel Pie was an actual war-era dish. The sheer audacity of an eight-word title—when most novels strive for three or less—made this novel stand out on the shelf, culminating in the kind of title successful most authors dream of!
In the next blog in this series on naming your work, we will discuss how to title your non-fiction book and what makes a title stand out in a crowded bookstore or manuscript inbox. Contact us for a consultation to help select the best possible title for your work.