Complete Guide to Titling Your Book

Rachelle Gardner

Blogger: Rachelle Gardner

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, 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.

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. Try for 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 20-or-so possible titles. Then put them away for a couple of days. Two things will happen: your subconscious will 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?

49 Responses

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  1. Great suggestions, Rachelle!
    * The flat-out best title I ever saw was for a painting – one of J.M.W. Turner’s later works, a seascape…and it was called “Sunrise With Sea-Monsters”. Yes, he did include a couple of nautical beasties. (And you probably know that the Impressionist movement got its name from an early painting by Monet, “Impression: Sunrise”)
    * I got a bit worn out on the whole title deal by having to find names for the dogs that wandered into our home. Names like ‘Denali’ (a Husky) and ‘Daughtrie’ (a cattle dog) gave way to Red the Red Heeler, Strawberry the baby Bullmastiff (so named because she liked the strawberry Pedialyte she needed when we got her), and perhaps the Nadir of Naming, a black lab named…wait for it…Labby.
    * My “Blessed Are The Pure Of Heart” was originally called “Home Of Angels” when it was SP’d. When a now-defunct publisher picked it up, they wanted a new title and were fine with BPH. Now that I have the rights back, if I can get the energy to re-release the thing, I’m tempted to go back to the very first working title, “The Place where Angels Dwell” (so chosen because the protag is a Marine Viet Nam veteran who served with The Walking Dead (the 1/9) along the Z at Con Thien…which, in Vietnamese, translates as ‘the place where angels dwell’).
    * In terms of chosen titles for WIPs or books ready to deploy (if I have the time and strength):
    – “Ringtones”, about a dude who starts getting phone calls from the rejected wife he assumed drowned in a boating accident (complete)
    – “The Last Indian War” – set on the Big Rez in New Mexico during WW2, it’s the story of a German POW who discovers he has the gift of healing, and then LOSES it (complete)
    – “Heroes One And All”, the long-awaited (!) sequel to BPH (WIP)
    – “Lady Stonewall”, a speculative Civil War novel about the possibility that the Confederate Navy’s last and most powerful ironclad. the CSS Stonewall, might have acquired a female captain (WIP)
    – “Unsung Bible Heroes”. which is about unsung Bible heroes, folks like Uriah the Hittite and Barnabas and Tobit’s Dog (WIP)
    – “Circling The Drain”, about what it’s like to be dying when you’re really dying to keep living…if that makes any sense (WIP)
    * I’m not in love with any title, though I do rather like “Lady Stonewall” because it reminds me of Barbara. I’d change them all without a qualm.
    * Sorry about the meandering and chatty and somewhat self-indulgent comment. Having a bit of a hard time, and writing it focused my mind on something besides a rather horrific dose of pain. Prayers would sure be appreciated.

  2. Carol Ashby says:

    I use a process very much like you describe, Rachelle, excerpt I don’t get to 100 on my list. When I narrow down to a handful, I include men in the people I ask about the title. I write historical with a romance interwoven, but the main plot line is the transformation of a main character. That made me change the title of my second book while in final edit. I even had the original title in the first version of the cover, but it skewed the genre perception.
    *For the story of how a super ambitious man reconsidered everything he’d valued after being rescued by a Christian woman and falling in love with her, the original title was Love Triangle, where God was the third person. But that made it seem like a pure romance and turned off the men. The final title that worked as a historical for both men and women was Blind Ambition. I did keep the original book title as the title for a crisis chapter.

  3. *The first, and only, novel manuscript I wrote has three different titles – one for the tone, one for the theme, one for the transformation. I guess it’s the mark of being a novice in the field.
    *This year has been a year of short stories, and the published ones – the best one, really – got it’s title at the last minute because it simply resonated with the story. However, titling short stories has broken some sweat off my face (there’s one eight weeks old and without an apt title yet). I do have a friend who is frustrated with thinking of titles – she’d be glad to pay a professional who titles – which made me think, are there people naturally inclined to titling stories?
    *Question: the process of titling a novel and a short story, do they have anything in common?

  4. I’m writing a trilogy–a book for each person of the Trinity. If an as-yet future publisher changes the title of the first, I hope it takes the responsibility for them all. It’s not that I’m so attached to the titles I have. But going through the whole process again and yet again would require cases of chocolate bars. The calories would kill me.

  5. What a great process. Sometimes I’ll start a book with a generic title for my eyes alone and think about possible titles for a few weeks. This is a keeper post for future books. Thanks!

  6. Wow, that is the most structured approach to titling I’ve ever read. I like it very much. It transitions the task out of the realm of a burdensome chore into that of an enjoyable task – almost a game.Thank you for sharing, Rachelle.

  7. Rachelle, I love, LOVE this post. I have the hardest time coming up wtih good titles for my stories. Your suggestions here make so much sense!
    *In the past, I’ve talked and brainstormed with friends. One thing I did (at a friend’s suggestion) was I looked at key themes in my story and then looked at song titles. When I found a title that could fit, I listened to the song to make sure it wasn’t too “out there” for my actual story. This was a helpful way to begin coming up with titles, but I also checked Amazon, and I discovered other books already bearing the title I decided I liked.
    *I like your suggestions because it opens the door to more original title ideas.

  8. Lynn Horton says:

    I probably shouldn’t admit this here, but the best title brainstorming I’ve done is over a bottle of champagne with my daughter, preferably right before Thanksgiving dinner. It’s a no-holds-barred exercise, with both of us tossing out options and rabbit-trailing after versions of these suggestions until we have our “AH-HA” moment. I do not become emotionally attached to titles and am always on the lookout for a better option because the title is somewhat of a pivot point in terms of a reader reaching (either physically or digitally) for my work. First the cover art, then the title, then the back-cover copy make the sale, so all are just about equally important. An open mind and flexibility are good!

  9. Lynn Horton says:

    Oh. And this is critical. After I settle on a title, I search for it on Amazon. If it’s been used recently, or used for a book whose content or genre are unacceptable to me and my readers, I nix my title and start over.The last thing I need is for my title to be used by another author writing porn or something. Amazon is an AMAZING vetting tool for the titles in the marketplace, and I use it EVERY SINGLE TIME for this purpose.

  10. Kimberly Duffy says:

    This is a timely post for me. I’m having a hard time coming up with a title for my WIP. Your process will be helpful!

  11. Well, after the most horrific night I have ever spent, fraught with pain I could not have imagined and fear I could never have foreseen, I’m still here, with the revised title for my memoir:
    “Forever Badass”
    * It was seriously suggested by some, this morning, that I really need to be drugged out now, that it’s time to bow to the inevitable. But since my personal hero is the aptly-named Hiroo Onoda, the last Japanese holdout from the Pacific War, I don’t think that’s likely to happen.
    * A moral victory is still a victory; so is a pyrrhic one.

  12. I like my titles, but I’m not stuck on them. And it seems like my title comes to me before anything else, at least until now. One thing about it, I trust the professionals. I’ve seen some book covers and titles for Christian romance that blend too well into … what I always considered bad books. I want my book covers and titles to speak purity and goodness. That’s real important to me.

  13. David Todd says:

    For most of my books and short stories, the titles came to me right away, and I stuck with them. For a few, I had the title first, and crafted the stories around them. For only one novel did the title come with great difficulty. I solicited opinions, and got none. I shared my working title, which nobody liked; then shared a better title, which everyone seemed to love, so I went with it.
    .
    My to-be-written list includes about 25 titles. Hopefully the stories will come to me over the next 10-15 years. Not my next one, but soon to be written will be “Catch a Falling Knife”.

  14. Thanks for the helpful tips, Rachelle. I admit, titles are among the most difficult for me, but these suggestions almost make it sound enjoyable (I’ll find out on my next go-round if it actually can be 😉).

  15. Pat Iacuzzi says:

    Thanks so much for these suggestions, Rachelle. Sometimes I can come up with a title and it sticks; then find out later it might not be such a good idea after all but have a hard time finding something new.

    Have a title for story I’m working on, and your suggestions just made me think it could date my work, possibly not in a good way (historical romance) and might not appeal to a broader audience.

    It’s the same coming up with characters’ names. But that’s another story…

  16. Deciding on a title is always difficult, so your post is very much appreciated. You make some great suggestions! Thank you.

  17. Heidi Mitchell says:

    Thank you for these suggestions. They are practical and doable.
    I heard R.L. Stein at a recent author event. I was intrigued when he said he always comes up with the title first and then writes the story.

  18. Mary Kay Moody says:

    I like titling, and usually it’s easy. But shall use your suggestions on new ones to make them even better. One beta reader said of a novel MS, she didn’t like the title but agreed to read it. She told me post-read not to let anyone change it! Perhaps it will need tweaking though. It fits the story but may turnoff readers who are unfamiliar with my work and what to expect.

  19. Wow Rochelle! I loved this post on selecting a title. So many ideas and practical suggestions to come up with a great title. It will not only be helpful with books but also with titles for workshops and other public speaking presentations.

    I love to come up with titles. I’ve had to do this for my poetry as well as my artwork. I am always open to suggestions and will change at times after hearing from someone, but I also may listen and still feel the title I choose is more appropriate. Since I just really started writing with publication in mind, I have yet to go through the process of the title being selected. Someday, I believe I will experience it.

    Thank you.

  20. Just to show how important a title or name is, I wonder how many caught me typing your name as Rochelle instead of Rochelle! I did. Anyway, it is totally weird sometimes to have a title or name so close, but not quite right.

    Prayers for you Andrew. By the way, I was so glad for your reply that I had helped you feel more peaceful, but there wasn’t a reply button for me to say, I was glad it helped.

    For your pain try this. It’s called, Heart Breathing. I had to learn it to help me with PTSD. But it is really helpful for anyone. It trains your brain to release endorphins and therefore decrease your pain. I attach it to the scripture in Philippians 4:8.

    So here we go.

    Pick in your mind a picture of something that gives you joy or makes you feel grateful. Something you can think on for 5 minutes. While you’re thinking about this, with eyes closed, breath deeply and slowly from your belly. Breath in slowly and out slowly. It’s important to either be laying down or sitting in a comfortable position. Do this three times a day: upon awaking before you get put of bed, around lunch time or after, and then sometime before bed.

    What happens is your mind gets used to this picture and the feelings associated with it . It then is like Pavlov’s dogs. As soon as you start to picture this and start your belly breathing the endorphins release which helps reduce pain, anxiety, etc.

    Let me know how it works. I mentor women who have come from various types of trauma, each brought to me by God, and this has helped each of them tremendously.

    God blessings on you and Barbara…and you wild and domestic kingdom.

    Prayers,
    Betsy

  21. Great tips, Rachelle. I will be sharing these with my writing clients. For my own books, I offered what I thought were well-thought out, creative titles. And the publishers changed nearly every one of them . . . and they were right to do so! We have to be flexible on the “name” of our babies! Thanks again for wise advice.

  22. hi,

    thanks for this posting , in this is posting subject is title for what , without title no one thing we are going to call each and every things have title . this is very important ,

    so thanks for this posting ,

    regards,

    mansi desai