Finding a Title for Your Book

Rachel Kent

Blogger: Rachel Kent

During some conference appointments, I’ve heard authors say that they didn’t work very hard on their title because they’ve heard that the publishing house will change it anyway. It is true that the title is frequently changed by the publisher, but there’s good reason to put some effort into the title even when you’re  trying to find representation or a publishing home for your book.

When I read query letters, one of the first items that jumps off the page for me is the title of the book. I don’t stop reading the query at the title, but a poor title might sway me to feel negatively about a project even when the book is great. The most common issue I see is titles that don’t match the genre of the writing. Other times authors will just use the main character’s name as a title. Rarely are books published with a name as the title, so it’s best to try to think of something more creative that has to do with the plot.

Even though a title might not be used on the final product, it still gives the publishing house an idea of what kind of title you’d like to see on your cover, and it can start the brainstorming off in the right direction. For example, the original title on Sarah Sundin’s book A Distant Melody was Better than Sacrifice. Both of these titles are three word titles with a similar rhythm. Her title idea of Better than Sacrifice set the title “tone” for all of her following books as well. If she had come to the publishing house with a book called Allie Miller (main character’s name), it would have been harder for everyone to get to the right title. And Sarah’s most recent book, The Sea Before Us, is keeping the title Sarah presented.  Jill Kemerer’s upcoming release, The Rancher’s Mistletoe Bride, is also keeping the title she pitched. This happens every once in a while.

I’ll put a little disclaimer in here. Some books do very well with just a first name as the title. For example, Christy by Catherine Marshall. There’s no hard and fast rule to find the right title, but it’s a great idea to put some thought into the title instead of throwing one on the book with hopes that the publishing house will find the title for you. Your work on the title will be a great starting place for the titling committee when they meet to discuss your book.

What tools do you use to come up with your title?

How do you start your title brainstorm?

19 Responses

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  1. My plan is for a trilogy, and I worked on all three titles up front. Made the list of rejects three times longer. –sigh–
    * After all that,I tell myself not to get attached, the titles may change. But whatever the world calls them, their birth names are written on my heart.

  2. Kristi Woods says:

    When perusing new reads at a bookstore or library, the titles are the first thing to garner my attention – a hook for certain. Your thoughts on this make sense, Rachel. Thanks for allowing us to soak up a portion of your publishing world wisdom. Happy Friday!

  3. I’ve always thought names and titles were pretty important…I mean, would you rather have told people you’re going to John Deutschendorf concert, or that you were going to see John Denver?
    * I generally pick titles early, to highlight an important theme, and almost never change them. They become a part of the story, really, in unexpected ways.
    * Case in point – my own “Blessed Are The Pure Of Heart” originally had the title “The Place Where Angels Dwell”, chosen because the protagonist was a Marine of the 1/9 (“The Walking Dead”) who had served on the DMZ at Con Thien…which, in Vietnamese, means “The Place Where Angels Dwell”. That title was chosen while I was writing the first chapter, and the choice definitely influenced the story, which morphed from a straight ‘veteran recovers from PTSD through true love’ tale to something that had supernatural overtones, and the influence of Pierre Teilhard des Chardin’s writings on War in Heaven. I don’t think that would have happened without the title as driver. (When the story was picked up by a publisher, they asked that the title be changed…thus, BPH. Now that I have gotten the rights back, I’m thinking of returning to the original title.)
    * There is one title I’m dying to use. During the Viet Nam war, a group of operations was set up under the umbrella name of ‘Hostage’, which had been randomly chosen. Subsets within Hostage were also randomly named, and for me the Ultima Thule of this process, and the title I would most like to use, is…wait for it, and it was a real programme…”Hostage Cow”.

    • Elaine Faber says:

      Perhaps this book is actually about a cow that is held hostage. Reading the title, that’s the only thing that comes to my mind which may or may not make one want to pick up the took. I think the title should at least ‘suggest’ what the story is about. Please tell me if I’m totally on the wrong track, here.

  4. Carol Ashby says:

    I know all the major events in my plots and the key relationships very shortly after I start writing, so I have a potential title that’s part of the file names from the beginning. But that title changes more than half the time while I’m fleshing the plot out into a finished manuscript. I’m my own publisher, so I must get it right myself with the help of my betas and critique partner. The title and cover are the click-bait at my author websites, just as they must tempt someone to pick up the book from a shelf. In a bookstore, often only the spine is visible, so the title is even more important there. The title and tagline in my email signature also attract readers.
    *I try for a title that will appeal to my main target audience without discouraging others who might not be in that targeted group. I write historicals where a romantic plotline is interwoven with deep conflicts and life-changing decisions not dependent on the romance. That means both women and men can enjoy them. I know men are reading the two I have out from posted reviews.
    *How that works in practice is illustrated by my second novel. A lead character is forced to choose between her love for a man and her love for Jesus. My working title for a long time was Love Triangle, but the book focused even more on the transformation of the man from an ambition-driven pagan to a man who wrestles with rejecting everything he thought he wanted to follow Jesus. I changed the title to Blind Ambition. Love Triangle would have been a turn-off for men. I tested the new title on several men (thanks, Andrew!) and found that Blind Ambition has the broader appeal I was seeking.

    • Yup. I agree. If I saw “Love Triangle” on the bookshelf, I would not even pick it up. But “Blind Ambition” would likely catch my eye. Why “blind” though?

      • Carol Ashby says:

        Two fold. Ambition for the wrong target is sometimes called “blind,” and the Roman is rescued by a Christian woman who know he’s supposed to kill her family after he’s robbed and left for dead. He has vision problems for a while.

      • Excellent! That totally works, and I suspect the back matter would clarify some of that. But the key is the title got me to pick up the book and look at the brief descriptions.

  5. Oh, goodness … I am almost the opposite direction, giving extensive thought to my titles and going through multiple iterations before arriving at my ultimate choice. I want it to be “catchy” yet definitive of the book’s content while still leaving the reader, or store shelf browser just enough of a question mark to pick up the book while asking, “What exactly does that mean?”

    My current manuscript, titled “The Christ Saturated Life” goes back to a passing statement made by a seminary instructor in 1984. Prior to that, I came up with title “Finding Faith in Slow Motion” based on a sports commentary while listening to the radio on the long commute home after work.

    Coming up with a catchy book title is fun and challenging.

  6. Rachel, when I got my first contract, I was thrilled. I couldn’t imagine that my editor would find anything wrong with it–after all, they’d accepted the work.
    What really sent me for a loop was a suggestion for a different title. The one I’d chosen perfectly captured the essence of the novel. But, as she pointed out, it didn’t tell potential readers it was a novel of medical suspense. I not only accepted their alternative suggestion, but I made certain that all of my future titles filled the bill–and they’ve all been accepted. Thanks for sharing this post.

  7. I think finding a title can be very inspiring. It changes the whole book sometimes. Actually, I’ve found a title first on several occasions and built a book around it. It takes time, at other times, years of brainstorming. But the perfect title is just gold.

  8. Sarah Sundin says:

    How fun to see my titles in your post 🙂 I fuss and fight over titles. They’re very difficult for me. I try to capture the mood and the genre and perhaps use key words to hint at the story. I’ve learned to never get too attached to my titles, but to still work hard on them for all the reasons you mentioned. Besides, a good title inspires me!

  9. The title for my first novel was the first thing that came to my mind, before I even started writing. I wanted it to include something that had to do with the main topic, but I also wanted it to touch the heart. But I’m definitely okay with changing it … 🙂

  10. I knew the title for my current WIP before I even start writing. I’m open to changes of the publishing house (once I have one) suggest them. But there has never been a doubt in my mind what I would choose for the title. I feel it speaks to the culture and setting of the book as well as the internal struggle for spiritual freedom and joy in which my heroine finds herself.

  11. I have to admit that titles are not my strong suit. I love naming my characters, but titles generally require Tylenol (not really, but you get the picture).

    Occasionally, a potential (random) one will come to me, and I’ll store it away for later, but more often I sit there and think, “What in the world…”
    For my WIP, I had settled on a “meh” title for awhile. There was nothing wrong with it, it just didn’t quite hit the mark. Then, while adding a new scene, something a character said (the antagonist, go figure) stood out to me, and I realized that phrase spoke to both the internal and external struggle of my main character. It fit.

    On a slightly different note, I find short story titles can be a bit more manageable. I recently started a short story mystery series on my blog, and coming up with a fitting title was rather easy. Perhaps that’s because the word-count restraints limit the number of sub-plots, helping detail-oriented people like me to focus on the overall theme. Or it could be that the style is more relaxed than what I usually write, so I was okay with a relaxed title. At any rate, I chose to name the series after a coffee shop that plays a primary role in the story’s setting.

  12. Judith Robl says:

    For me, the rhythm of the title must scan like poetry. If the words dance in my ear, I’m happy. If they just fall to the ground like nuts from a tree, it’s not appealing to me.

    I ruminated long and hard before I consented to Harvest House changing “As Grandmother Used to Say” to “As Grandma Says.”

    I only signed the contract after a friend pointed out that it was more important to get the message out than to hang on to the preferred title.

  13. Lynn Horton says:

    In advertising, a billboard is the “three-second read.” I cannot tell you how much time and money (and brainpower) is invested in the copy on a billboard. The product has to make an impression—often a FIRST impression—on a passing motorist in three seconds or less. To me, a book title is the “three-second read” in writing. So to create my titles, I do what I used to do: gather words as I create, turn them over in my mind (I suspect unconsciously), and see what bobbles to the top. (I keep a list as I write, and another file of titles I’ve created for random reasons—in hopes that I’ll need them one day!) I’m looking for relevance and cadence (like Judith Robl says, it “has to dance.)

  14. It is funny that I came across this blog post now. As I am struggling with a title for my WIP. It’s a Snow White retelling and I originally had it as her first name: Eira White.

    Now, I am rethinking this and am leaning towards…

    Hunting Beauty

    Or Hunting Beauty and Power.

    How do you decide if you are caught between two?
    Is there any tips on what it catchy or most popular?
    Maybe a formula, lol? If that is possible?

    Thank you in advance!
    Melanie