Before the Publisher: Finding the Right Title

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

Location: Books & Such Main Office, Santa Rosa, Calif.

Once you’ve found an idea that really clicks with you and one that should do well in the marketplace, it behooves you to take some time to find the right title…I heard someone out there mumble that such an activity is a waste of time–the publisher will change the title anyway. Maybe. Maybe not–if you find the right title. What does it matter? Because the first audience you will ever try to sell your project to isn’t the reader, it’s either an agent or a publisher. And, if you want your best chance possible, you need to come up with a razzle-dazzle title.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself about your title.

Does the title convey the tone of the book? One of my clients wanted to title her novel Conflict. What genre do you think the novel is?

It might surprise you that the plotline was about a playwrite who was afraid of conflict—so much so she couldn’t write conflict into her plays. The book was a romantic comedy. Conflict doesn’t do it, does it? The book ended up being called My Life as a Doormat (in Three Acts). That title much more effectively conveys the playful tone of the book.

This title also conveys the book’s tone: Jane and His Lordship’s Legacy: Being a Jane Austen Mystery.

Be sure the title you choose is a reflection of what the reader will find inside the volume.

–Does the title tell enough about the book to intrigue the potential reader? One author describes this as having both steak and sauce in a title. For example, take Ann Coulter’s How to Talk to a Liberal (that’s the steak). Now here’s the sauce (If You Must). In other words, go beyond just a description of the book’s content (the steak) to add some sauce–a playful twist or lovely addition. Mennonite in a  Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home was clever in that the cover showed a little black dress that was anything but Mennonite.

But don’t be so esoteric or literary that people can’t figure out what your book is about (especially for nonfiction). Here are two obscure titles: Chuck Colson’s The God of Stones and Spiders; George Otis Jr’s Twilight Labyrinth. Any guesses as to those books’ content? I didn’t think so.

For nonfiction, don’t be afraid to have an intriguing title matched with a straightforward subtitle: The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.

–Does the title pinpoint your audience? There’s no mistaking the audience for these titles: The Carb Lovers Diet: Eat What You Love, Get Slim for Life; What to Expect When You’re Expecting.

–Does it set itself apart from other titles for the same audience? A client of mine wrote a book about prodigal children; the number of titles on this topic are legion.

Her first title suggestion was:Peace for Parents with Prodigals: Hope Beyond Heartache. The title failed to reflect that my client  had a different take on a book about prodigals–not to fixate over your child but to get on with your life. When I suggested she key-in on the book’s uniqueness, she came back with: Helping Parents Get Over Their Wild Child. Hm, would a parent go into a bookstore and lay claim to a book that labels his or her child as “wild”? Or have such a book laying around the house? Unlikely.

I suggested: Ready? Set? Let Go! How Parents of Prodigals Can Get on With Their Lives

–Is it memorable? Author Julie Barnhill noted, “I think titles should be thought of much in the same manner as the names of children. You want something that rolls off the tongue.” Can a potential buyer remember a title long enough to get to the bookstore to ask for it?The Guernsey Literary Potato Peel Pie Society worked in a counter-intuitive way. Even individuals who have read the book can’t remember the title! But you can recall key words that would enable a bookstore sales clerk to know immediately what you had in mind. “I’d like that potato pie novel.” “Do you have that Guernsey Society book?” “I want that World War II novel no one can remember the name of.”

–Is it clever? Sometimes a clever title can cause a book browser to pick it up. One of my all-time favorites is Anita Renfroe’s The Purse-Driven Life (which released at a time that playing off of the Purpose-Driven Life was a very good idea). Bon Bon Voyage and Holy Guacamole are two titles in Nancy Fairbanks’s  culinary mysteries.

–For nonfiction: Does it promise a benefit either in the title or subtitle? I believe Joanna Weaver’s first nonfiction book sold so phenomenally not only because of the richness of the content but also because of the title: Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World: Finding Intimacy with God in the Busyness of Life. The title leaves no doubt as to the book’s content and its benefit. A person seeking such a book would know immediately the answer to her quest was in her hands.

Other hints to make your title stand out:

–Use alliteration. Bubble’s Betrothed (which followed Bubbles a Broad, a general market mystery series about a former hairdresser turned reporter).

–Use a line from the book. Sometimes it becomes the author’s trademark: Are You There, God. It’s Me, Margaret.

So have I convinced you to put a little effort into your titling? And can you see how fun it can be to find the right title for your right idea?

A potential agent or publisher sees hundreds of titles every month (if not every week). We’re not easily impressed as a result. Startle us with something so stellar we blink our sleepy eyes, perk up and say, “Wha…what did you just say?” Honest, we can be awakened from our stupor with exceptional titles and concepts.

Now, talk to me. What title are you struggling with?

What title have you landed on that has you doing the happy dance?

What book have you picked up lately because of its title?

What about the title drew you in?

34 Responses

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  1. Sue Harrison says:

    My favorite title of all time has to be the Potato Peel Pie novel. (How do you spell Guernsey/Geurnsey/Jernsee?) I love a title that makes me think, “What?”

  2. For nonfiction I think this is tough because the whole book idea may stem from one phrase – how could it *not* be the title.

    What’s helped me is to realize the phrase or idea can still be covered even if the not central to the title – “WWJD” has impacted many lives, but was not the title of the book.

  3. Titles are tricky. My historical romance was titled, Redemption Road, but another book beat me to publication and so I had to change. The same novel is now, Journey of Promise.

    I do look at a title, but a lot has to do with the way the title is portrayed on the cover. Color, size of wording, font, etc.

    One of my all time favorite titles is Gone With the Wind.

  4. I liked Tracey Bateman’s title, Thirsty. One word that described the book perfectly. It’s about a recovering alcoholic and a vampire. :)As far as my writing, once I have the story mapped out in my head I start toying with title ideas. My current manuscript’s title is Forgetting What Lies Behind.

  5. The novel I’ve come up with that I love that most is A Broken Kind of Beautiful, and it totally fits my contemporary romance.

    I’m big on alliteration.

    One of my recently contracted novels is Wishing on Willows.

    I love titles! Struggling with one for my current WIP. I strongly dislike calling it Untitled, or Novel #6.

  6. Ooops! I meant “title” not “novel”. 🙂

  7. Megan says:

    I love titles! I review books and often I’m picking blindly from a spreadsheet sorted only by genre. I’ve found that a good title is a pretty good indicator of a good book. I even started a “good titles” list on my blog at one point. A few of my favorites that come quickly to mind:

    –Dancing to the Precipice
    –Flying Changes (you have to know a little about horseback riding for this one, but if you do, it’s absolutely perfect)
    –Everyone Worth Knowing

  8. Okay, I’m not a chef. But weirdly, this metaphor comes to mind. When you’re cooking up your book, you’ve got a bunch of stuff to go in the pot. You add a little of this and not too much of that until you find the perfect blend. Then you give it a stir, turn up the heat, and let the pot simmer a good long while. The title for your book is the aroma that fills the kitchen.

    For ever so long, I struggled with my current WIP and its never-ending title quest. Nothing seemed to pin down the flavor of my message. I suppose it didn’t help that I kept changing the recipe. But when I finally boiled down the ingredients and got a good whiff–voila. A humorous memoir entitled Surviving Henry: Trial by Dog.

  9. Sue Gollbach says:

    Janet,

    I have two titles in mind for my novel. The first title is a little confusing until the reader is 1/3 the way through it. The second title stands out and makes a strong statement. The problem is that the second title involves one word plus punctuation. I know this is odd. But the punctuation actually captures the essence of the story, more so than any additional words. So what do you suggest?

    Sue Gollbach

  10. Janet Grant says:

    Sue, I first heard about The Guernsey Literary Potato Peel Pie Society when I was at BEA the year the book released. As soon as I heard the title, I wanted to read the book. Now, that’s a good title.
    One aspect of a good title that I didn’t mention is that it shouldn’t be vague enough that it could appear on all kinds of other books. Guernsey is a good example. That title works for one book, and one book only. This applies to nonfiction as well as fiction. So, Melissa, if I might gently point out, your new title isn’t unique; it could fit on all sorts of books, fiction and nonfiction.
    Jessica and Megan, you both mention titles that are layered in meaning–Thirsty (love how it applies to two to an alcoholic and a vampire) and Flying Changes. Multi-layers for a title add depth and richness.
    Katie, both of your titles are lyrical, really lovely. I’d be drawn to books with those titles.

  11. Karen Schravemade says:

    Novel titles that have drawn me in most recently –

    “Room” by Emma Donaghue. The simple, enigmatic title combined with the novel’s premise drew me in instantly. I had to read this book – and I was not disappointed.

    “The Lake of Dreams” by Kim Edwards. Haunting, atmospheric, hinting at things concealed. Of course, I loved Edwards’ first book (talk about a great title – “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter”), and that probably influenced me most heavily toward this purchase; but the title clinched it.

    Come to think of it, I loved “The Time Traveller’s Wife” too, but I wasn’t in a hurry to pick up Niffenegger’s second book – “Her Fearful Symmetry.” What??

  12. The title is really the handle of the project attache. I can’t work on a book that is “John Doe” for too long. I’ll stop everything else to get that right. For me it’s the DNA.

  13. Awesome information here. Thanks!

    One of my favorite titles is Tamara Leigh’s book Splitting Harriet, which has dual meanings and hints at the funny nature of the book.

    I’m ashamed to admit that titles are not my strength, but I put a lot of work into my latest one. It’s been through three previous titles before I settled on “Independent Ivy”. Goes along with that alliteration idea you mentioned. For my next one (which is a follow up to Independent Ivy), I’m currently titling it “Busy Bree”…The heroine’s name is Bree and she has a tendency to overcommit. Any thoughts on that one? I think it’s kind of fun, but I don’t know if I can trust my instincts sometimes. 🙂

  14. Lori Benton says:

    Mary Connealy’s The Husband Tree–I had to find out what THAT was about! The story was as lively, quirky, and entertaining as the title promised.

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  16. Nikole Hahn says:

    I’m writing a novel called, “The Rose Door.” It’s book 1 of a six book series I call The Origin Series. Because it’s speculative Christian fiction, I named the series The Origin Series because every book is about where the main character(s) come from or how they travel inter-dimensionally. The Rose Door, book 1, is how one character travels and is her namesake.

    I also submitted a non-fiction devotional to Women of Faith’s book contest which sort of explains why I write speculative Christian fiction called, “Finding Daddy: A Life Story In Journals, devotions, and poems.” It wasn’t really about me finding my Dad in 2008. It was about my search for God.

  17. I have nicknamed my WIP “Middle to End” cause well. thats what it is, there is no typicall beginning to this love story. Anywhoozle It is quite obviously not a great title, actually it’s not even a good one.

    So thank you for the hints because I am going to be referring back to this many times in my (probably painful) quest for a fitting title.

  18. Janet, this is an excellent checklist, but I think one more thing can be added: a good title has to move from printed page to spoken word with ease. I’m now on my third working title for my WIP, “Friday 10:03”

    Because it’s a countdown to an execution, the focus of every character is on what will happen just past 10:00 on Friday. It’s also a key line from dialogue, because early in the story the governor tells a POV character that it was “Friday at 10:03” while attending a previous execution, that he lost his belief in the death penalty. Much of the tension in the story is in trying to guess whether the governor will grant clemency.

    However, not everyone reads 10:03 as “Ten-o-three,” and colons in the middle of titles routinely separate title and subtitle. I’ve also heard there is an aversion to numbers in titles. I don’t have my heart set on this, but it’s the best I have at the moment.

  19. Lindsay Franklin says:

    Brian, what about…

    “Friday, Three Past Ten.”

    Obviously the dialogue would have to be changed to match, but that might solve the reading aloud problem, as well as the number and puncuation issues. Just an idea. 🙂

  20. Janet,
    Thank you for taking the time to comment on my title. An editor requested the whole manuscript, so I’ll be coming up with some better options to offer.
    Thanks again,
    Melissa

  21. Caroline says:

    Thank you for the terrific tips for titling. I’m excited that my title options for my current manuscript follow several of your non-fiction title guidelines.

    As for titles that grab my attention: “Sun Stand Still: What Happens When You Dare to Ask God for the Impossible” by Steven Furtick, “Outlive Your Life” by Max Lucado, and “Mr. Darcy Broke My Heart” by Beth Pattillo (though I haven’t read it yet). These titles both bring intrigue and give information.

  22. Kate Barker says:

    Great checklist and good reference tool.

    I have a friend, Cathy, who can rattle off clever titles faster than I can write them down. It’s fun to brainstorm with her. We usually come up with a nugget or two that can be used or reworked.

    Some recent favorite titles:

    “Half-Broke Horses” by Jeannette Wells
    (I also like her other book,”The Glass Castle”.

    “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak

    “Sweetie Pies…An Uncommon Collection of Womanish Observations, With Pie” by Patty Pinner

  23. Sarah Thomas says:

    I love titles! Ones that have intrigued me recently include The Swan Thieves and The Prayers of Agnes Sparrow. It’s like the label on a wine bottle–a really good one can pull me in to try something I might not have otherwise.

    Fortunately, with a work in progress you can change the title as it develops (unlike a child!). My first title was Walking on Water–like that’s never been used. Then I had a revelation and began calling it The Lotus Leaf Effect–intriguing maybe, but way too obscure. Now it’s The Memory of Drowning, which I think is just perfect.

    I also think it’s a good idea to Google your title and run it through Amazon.com to make sure it (or some close variation) hasn’t already been used too much.

  24. Peter DeHaan says:

    More times than not, I catch myself saying, “I just read a really great book…but I can’t remember the title.”

  25. The manuscript title I’m struggling with is for a YA novel: THE BUTTON GIRL. I don’t like it but can think of nothing better. It does fit the book and it has grown on me as I’ve used it. But I don’t think it will compel anyone to pick the book up (if it’s ever, finally, published!).

    The one I like best is THE PRINCESS AND THE SEA: A MODERN FAIRYTALE INVOLVING A PRINCE, A PROPHECY, AND THE LOST CITY OF ATLANTIS but this one has turned into a YA book and the title sounds too much like a middle grade book.

    ARGH.I love good titles, but I can’t come up with any for the life of me.

  26. Joanne Sher says:

    Love good titles too! The working title of my NF (in the hands of an agent’s assistant for consideration) is “Ailing Body, Nourished Soul,” and of my Biblical fiction WIP is “Handmaiden to a Princess.”

  27. It seems the book title should hook with curiosity and information at the same time.

    Titles I chose for my picture books were short, yet the publisher chose a longer title on one specific title. The titles below are for two different books…
    Mine: DON’T HUG A GRUDGE (stand alone book)
    Theirs: THE ADVENTURE OF AMELIA AIRHEART BUTTERFLY IN BYE! BYE! DRAGONFLY (2nd in series of 3 butterfly books)
    Your explanation shows why they chose the long title. A new character is introduced and the second part of the title is a line from the story.

  28. Jill Kemerer says:

    Joanna Weaver’s book changed my life. I love that book, and I would never have picked it up if I hadn’t related to the title.

    I’m not great at titles, so I have my friends help me!

  29. Lindsay, all suggestions are welcome, thank you. Interestingly, I used the comma until a critique partner told me to drop it. I’ve decided not to obsess about the title until the book is finished. (That’s an obsession I do need to ratchet up a couple of notches.)

    As a final thought on titles, one of my favorites in the last year has been Dale Cramer’s LEVI’S WILL. The main character’s name also has two common noun meanings, and each one correctly describes the story.

  30. Michelle says:

    My recently completed romance novel is about a girl who is searching online for her perfect man. The title is Oh, Boyfriend, Where Art Thou? Thoughts?

  31. David Todd says:

    I’m a little late to this party; two days dealing with the blizzard and I didn’t check blogs.

    “What title are you struggling with?”
    My Bible-era fiction, completed novel. It’s about the writing of the gospel of Luke, told from the POV of a Jewish assistant he hires. My title is “Doctor Luke’s Assistant”. Several have told me it’s not good enough, but nothing else comes to mind.

    “What title have you landed on that has you doing the happy dance?”
    For my WIP baseball thriller: “In Front of Fifty Thousand Screaming People”. Love it.

    DAT

  32. Lori Benton says:

    This post comes at a perfect time for me, as I’m attempting to title a work in progress now, while I’m still in the plotting stage. I tend to call my novels in progress by the name of either the male of female protagonist. This one’s stuck in that phase. Hopefully something will come to me in the next couple of days, but if not I’ll start writing it anyway. Sometimes if you write it… the title will come.

  33. I struggle with titles all the time. My current WIP, however, came much easier than most. Amelia’s Mission is the story of an impulsive orphan girl who is sent to live with her spinster aunt. The girl’s father had told her stories of what her aunt used to be like when she was younger, and they don’t mesh with the stern, sour aunt she knows now. So, Amelia decides she must discover the secret in her aunt’s past that changed her and fix it. That’s her mission.

  34. I’m still kicking around my title. My friends talked me out of “The Cliche Cowperson,” which was the working title. As the book evolved, the theme of the book became less about cliches, and it conveyed nothing about the fact that the book’s genre is contemporary fantasy.

    My main character is an inept rancher’s daughter who is forced to take over the ranch, which is plagued by cattle mutilations and disappearing livestock. She and Stinky, her intrepid mustang mare, fall through to a world that is attached to our own. Chance forces her to step in and try to avert a child’s kidnapping by the Necragii death priests, and she winds up causing his death. She then has to team up with the Tribes of Nealra to survive.

    I’ve been calling it, “The Rider of Nealra.” I’m afraid it’s too bland, and that people would not know how to pronounce “Nealra.” Anybody have any advice? Other titles I’ve kicked around would look better on a romance cover.