How To Title Your Book

Rachelle Gardner

Blogger: Rachelle Gardner

Lately I’ve been coaching several of my clients through the process of coming up with a good title for their book, so I thought I’d share my tips with you.

Let’s start by acknowledging a few things. The publisher is usually responsible for the final decision on title, and in the query stage, it’s not that important. In fact, some agents have said they don’t pay any attention at all to titles. But at some point, you’re going to want to think seriously about this. Your title is part of the overall impression you’re creating about your book. It can set a tone and create an expectation. Whether you’re pitching to an agent, or your agent is pitching to publishers, I think you want to have the strongest title possible.

Think of it this way: the better your title is, the better your chance that the publisher will decide to use it, rather than changing it.

So here’s what I recommend when you need a title, for either fiction or non-fiction.

First, make sure you know the genre of your book, and identify what kind of feeling or tone you want to convey with the title. Write it down. This is important, as I’ve seen humorous books with dead-serious titles, contemporary books whose titles say “historical romance,” novels that sound like self-help books… you get the picture. Be clear on what your title needs to instantly communicate.

Time to start brainstorming:

→ Find twenty books on Amazon that are in the same genre as yours and whose titles you like. Write down their titles. Try to get a feel for what works with your genre. What do you like about the titles? What don’t you like? Then put the list away for awhile.

→ Sit with a pencil and paper (and maybe your critique group and a white-board) and free-associate, making lists of words related to your book. Put them in columns: nouns, verbs, adjectives. If it’s a novel, list words that describe or suggest the setting. Then think about each of your major characters and write down words that relate to them. Think about the action in the story and write down verbs that capture it. If your book is non-fiction, list words that capture what you want your reader to think, feel or do after reading it. And words that describe what your book is about.

→ Nothing is off limits—write down anything you can think of that conveys anything about your book. Use visual words that suggest a scene. Other words that evoke an emotion. A sensation. A location. A question. You should have at least 100 words.

→ See if any of the words would work as a single-word title. Then start experimenting with different word combinations. Adjective-noun, verb-noun. Keep a thesaurus handy and look up other words. Write down as many word combinations as you can. Try not to self-censor at this stage.

→ From these lists, come up with at least 20 possible titles. Then put them away for 24 hours. Two things will happen: your subconscious may still be working on it; and when you come back to your list, you’ll have fresh eyes.

→ Go back to your title list. Add any new ideas you’ve had. Then narrow it down to three to five possibilities. Run them by a few people. (This may or may not help, depending on if there’s a consensus or the opinions are all over the map.) Take a little more time before narrowing it down to one. If you can, wait another day or two.

→ Remember your list of titles from Amazon? Go back to it. Ask yourself if the title you’ve chosen would fit the list—without being too similar or generic.

A few more questions to ask about your title: Does the tone of the title match the tone of the book? Does it convey the right genre (including time period if applicable)? Would it attract attention? If the book were spine-out on the shelf (so the cover and sub-title were not visible) would it still attract attention? Would a reader have any idea what the book is about just from the title? (Sometimes important for non-fiction.)

Once you’ve made a decision—celebrate!

How have you decided on titles for your books? Do you find yourself emotionally attached to the one you’ve been living with since you first thought of the book?

 

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48 Responses

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  1. Nichole Osborn says:

    For my novel, I was emotionaly connected to the “working” title, but after the major rewrite I’m doing, it just doesn’t fit. Thanks for this post. I’m going try it out, when I’m finished with the rewrite.

  2. Rachelle, Not sure I ever formally went through the entire process you’ve outlined so well, but did lots of it in my mind.
    I was totally in love with the title I’d chosen for my first novel until my publisher pointed out that it didn’t at all suggest the medical aspect of the book. They changed it, so I made sure that subsequent titles were catchy, accurately reflected the nature of the book, and weren’t the same as a recent hit book or movie. So far, they’ve liked them all.
    As always, thanks for sharing great advice.

  3. Thanks for this blog topic! I’m in the process of changing the working title on two of my novels. The first one I’m readying for publication as an e-book, and the other I’m in the revision process and plan to submit to agents. I’m positive the working title for the latter doesn’t fit as I revise, just as Nichole said. It’s good to know that nothing is written in the old stone tablet until it’s published.

  4. Thanks for the great blog, Rachelle! This is really helpful. There have been times when finding a title seems so easy, but later I realize it didn’t really introduce the story or play I’d written. So I generally do a huge brainstorming activity. Next time, I’m definitely going to try yours. Thanks!

  5. Lisa Marie says:

    I like my working title, but I’m not married to it. I told my agent that whatever the publisher wanted to do with it was absolutely fine by me! Because to be honest? I really blow when it comes to thinking up titles. My WT is fine right now, as it reflects both the genre and flavor of the book. I’ll leave the final titling to the pros! 😀

  6. I’d love to hear any thoughts/tips you have about finding a title for a sequel!

  7. Great post! This is the hardest part of writing for me. Luckily, my publishing team is super good at it. I stink. LOL But I’m going to try this!

  8. Coming from a journalism background where editors are responsible for the titles, I’ve always had difficulty when it came to titling my short stories. Thankfully, for my novel, my editor John Skipp & Ravenous Shadows publisher Lori Perkins, had a very clear vision of what they wanted. Skipp & I ended up brainstorming a list of possible titles that all had a retro 70’s/grind house horror feel to them and we finally settled on Die, Bastard! Die! Lori added the “You” and my book title was born. Thanks for some great ideas, Rachelle! I’ll give them a try next time I’m working short.

  9. I had a title for my book. It’s interesting because I went through some of the ideas you mentioned. When I had settled on the title I searched to see if it was already in use. Mine was “The Big THaw”. I thought it was a play on “The Big Chill”. It would explain the character being in a cold dark place and finding new life. Well, it turns out there were several books with that title. None of them were novels. They were all about global warming. It was time to ditch that title. Now I’m with the pronoun title of the place the story takes place; “Miner’s Pass.” Thank you for a great post!

  10. This is great. My critique partners have helped me with titles in the past. Coming up with book titles seems to be more of a team sport.

  11. I definitely get attached to titles… but that has to be set aside.

    An editor took interest in a recent project BECAUSE of the title. So it’s worth the effort. I like the process you’ve outlined and will be using it. Thanks.

  12. Great tips, Rachelle! I’m not all that great at titles, but that means I’m not super attached to the ones I do come up with! I like the brainstorming steps you’ve given us here.

  13. Amanda says:

    My sister-in-law, who is not a big reader (that is, she hasn’t read any of my stuff) comes up with the best titles! I just give her a verbal synopsis and she comes up with two or three really great titles! It’s kind of strange actually.

  14. E.Arroyo says:

    I like this. I usually wait until something within the text of the manuscript calls out to me with an aha! moment and that becomes my title. Then I go back to make sure it’s not already out there.

  15. Tiana Smith says:

    This is a great exercise. I’m happy with the title I’ve chosen for now, though I might change it after I’ve sat on it for a while. Luckily I won’t be submitting any time soon so I can take all the time I want!

  16. So funny–book titles come pretty easily to me, and they’re multi-layered and capture what I want. Now, trying to come up with a branding blog-title to represent all my future works? NOT so easy!

    I’m using (after my name) “Writing Beyond the Vows,” which does capture the books I’ve written/will write. Unless I want to do YA someday. I’d thought about “Married Romance,” but since I don’t WRITE romance, just adult fiction, that didn’t work. Branding is the toughie for me! Hope you blog on ideas for that sometime, too, Rachelle! Great post.

  17. Amanda Dykes says:

    What great ideas! I have a title-related question that I’ve been wondering about: what are the rules for repeat titles? I’ve seen, many times, different books by the same title (in fiction) published- usually separated by genre, audience or a significant amount of time between publication dates. What are the rules for this, how does copyright play into it, etc.?

    Thanks for such an interesting and useful post!

  18. Donna says:

    Another great post to save for handy reference. Thanks so much!

  19. The title of my recently completed novel was inspired by a conversation at the Florida Writers Conference.I love the title because of the powerful way it inspired the manuscript and galvanized me into capturing the story on paper.Becasue I’m more committed to publication than to salvaging the title, I would readily change it if an agent/publisher offered a more marketable title.

  20. Kate says:

    I have NO talent for finding a good title…but am absolutely addicted to the brainstorming process! It’s just freeing and fun.

    Sometimes when I was teaching it was hard for students to “let go”….they were convinced there was a RIGHT answer…took a bit of coaxing, but eventually they trusted the technique.

  21. Jeanne says:

    I loved the suggestions you make for coming up with a title. This is not my “gift,” but I do like my current working title. I think when I finish re-writing, I’ll follow your steps to come up with the best possible title. Thanks, Rachelle!

  22. Isuppose we could also think of our working titles like the pet names we use for loved ones–full of meaning for the family, yet not necessarily the persona they need for walking through the world at large.

  23. Do you think this can apply to urban books as well? The urban market is saturated with indie publishers and self-publishing authors, so there tends to be a lot of title recycling. I used to think that I was clever to come up with titles for my books such as, The Bedroom Bandit, Sexual Exploits of A Nympho, Sexual Jeopardy, Hoodfellas, Mr Erotica, Neglected Souls, Ignorant Souls and so on, but now people are duplicating titles or stealing titles from songs and movies. And what if the title really fits the story? Have you ever represented a black author?

    • There’s nothing you can do to keep people from taking your titles, or using something close. In the indie market “anything goes” I suppose. Sounds like a dog-eat-dog world!

      And the race or age of an author has no bearing on whether I/we represent them, but from the sound of your titles, I don’t think your books fit in to what our agency represents (which is primarily Christian books). There are a lot of agents out there, though, so don’t give up.

  24. Sarah Thomas says:

    I LOVE coming up with titles. Which means I’m probably far too attached to mine. I think it comes from starting out as a poet. LOTS of titles to write and they really have to add to and support the poem. I go through a process similar to what you describe (including running possible titles through Amazon–I’ll avoid an already used title). Even so, both of my titles jumped out from behind a bush and said, “ta-da!” I think a big part of the process is just juicing up the subconcious. Fun!

  25. Ha! The title is the only thing of my maybe-someday-I-will-be-able-to-write-it book about my faith journey that I am sure of!

  26. My working title takes a dangerous flaw that most of the characters struggle with and plays on that aspect of the story. Which may or may not change.
    Although, since Rachelle said that titles are not copyright-able, I *may* go with “Harry Potter Goes To The Hunger Games And Meets Lady Gaga”.

  27. Absolutely love this post, Rachelle. Titles are the hardest part of writing for me. I’ll definitely be using these tips.

    Thanks!

  28. Cindy R. Wilson says:

    This is a great post. I usually try to think of my title before I start writing the book because I like to get a feel for it, and I try not to get to attached too because I know it could change.

    This new WIP is stumping me, though, so thanks for the tips. I’m going to keep this post so I can refer to it when I get going on giving this new book a title 🙂 Thanks!

  29. Wendy Sparrow says:

    Even though you’ve addressed in comments that titles aren’t copyrighted and some titles are knowingly or unknowingly duplicated, I still think part of the process outlined should involve plugging your prospective titles into Amazon and seeing how many other books have that title. I’ve got three books in my TBR stack with the exact same title, and I remember the year when two “Gone” books came out for basically the same audience.

    In recent history, several books with “Shades of Grey” in their title enjoyed renewed attention due the E.L. James book and returned search engine hits, but that could have gone easily downhill–especially for those writing for a conservative Christian market.

    I would assume that over-used or ill-used titles wouldn’t make it by a publisher/editor but it doesn’t look professional when you’re subbing a book with the title “Twilight” as evidenced by the cranky tweets I STILL see from agents saying, “Don’t title your manuscript Twilight. That ship has sailed!”

    LOL. Can you tell I’m a little annoyed that I have three books in my TBR with the same title? I swear it’s been gnawing at me for a while. Sorry… this should have been significantly more politic and not so channeling the Hulk. Other than the above, I thought this post was superb and I look forward to your posts, Rachelle.

    • I took this advice and was somewhat dismayed to see several books whose title was the same or almost the same as the working title for my WIP. None are similar in content, and none have covers similar to what I’m planning, but I’ll be thinking about alternatives….

      • Wendy Sparrow says:

        I once thought I was the only one clever enough to play on the words “Killing Time” only to discover a plethora of other similarly brilliant authors–including a book by one of my favorite authors. I bought her book and changed the title of my WIP, but it did make me feel proud to have come across the same title as one of my faves. And her book was a great book! I felt like I came away a winner from that bit of research.

  30. I do better with nonfiction titles than fiction. I am so not attached to my titles. And they usually change as I write the novels and the characters and plots change a bit and become more focused.

  31. C.E. Hart says:

    Great post! Thank you for the advice. I’ll be using this outline for one of my current WIPs. I keep switching back and forth between two titles – and this may help me choose! 🙂

  32. Christy says:

    This blog post is great! I’ve been trying to come up with a title for my WIP for a few weeks now. I have two prospectives, but not completely sure about either of them. I’ve tried to tell myself that God will provide the title when the time is right, but hey, there’s no reason why I can’t try this– who knows, maybe it’s His way of providing. Thanks again, can’t wait to get started on this!

  33. Angie Dicken says:

    Funny, I was just brainstorming titles for my WIP today!! Because I write Historical Romance, I end up sticking “Love” or “Heart” in the title during the initial stages! Sometimes brainstorming titles makes me dizzy:) These are great tips!
    Angie

  34. You are so right, Rachelle. I was married to my first idea and totally convinced it was the perfect working title. It was soon apparent that it wasn’t “working” at all, for anyone but me. I went through the process you describe and produced a laundry list of new titles. Opinion was all over the map; some loved this one- some loathed that one and nobody agreed on a choice. I finally took a chance on a two word title that was so technical that I didn’t think anyone would understand it. Most people probably didn’t but for whatever reason, everybody liked it. When I was fortunate enough to get a second critique of the book from you, your first comment was “A much better title!”
    I think you know a good title when suddenly everyone “gets it.” Will an editor change it? Maybe, but like you said, the better the title you submit, the more likely you are to see it in print.
    James

  35. Ann Bracken says:

    Would you believe I come up with a title before I even outline the book or characters? It helps me to write, for some reason. If my book starts changing tack, then my title changes at the same time. Once the book is finished, I go back and see if the title still fits.

    Even with all this, I’m not married to the title. Or maybe it’s because of this?

  36. My critique partners are Title-Divas! We may not always agree on the final selection, but the brainstorming sessions are a blast. (And we always have great snacks!)

  37. Miranda says:

    I love the idea of adjective-noun and verb-noun strategy. I can see it already positively shaping the way I title my projects!

  38. Josh C. says:

    I have to admit, I didn’t “come up” with the title to my first novel. I stole it from a bit of dialogue in a Cormac McCarthy novel. In it, two characters have a conversation about what is essentially my theme, and a phrase used in that conversation fit my book perfectly. I’m probably too attached to it since, like you say, publisher’s have the final say, but until (if?) it comes to that point, I’m loving it for now.

  39. What great suggestions.

    I’m struggling to title my WIP at the moment—these brainstorming activities make me less worried and more excited to dive into the process!

  40. Nancy Hopp says:

    Thanks for this input. I would love to add one more thing. Research your title on the internet. My publisher chose the name : Amber, Jewelry, Art, and Science for my book on amber. It made sense even though I preferred a catchier thtle. However now that it us published, I’ve found it difficult to locate. When you type in Amber, you get two things: amber alerts and girls wanting to offer you their services. Neither will help you find a book on the gemstone. For my novel, I’ll try to follow your suggestions and do some research on where the web takes me