Before the Publisher: Finding the Right Title
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?