How to find the best book titles ever!

Book titles are funny things. They have to distil the essence of the book into just a few words – words that are instantly captivating to a potential buyer. And therein lies the challenge for anybody trying to create one.

One of my bookshelves...
One of my bookshelves…

Commercial publishers are adept at getting the ‘captivating’ side right, which is why commercial publishing contracts inevitably hand the sole authority for titling a book over to the publisher.

But on my experience that sometimes leads to other problems – such as the title that the marketing department imposes not correlating with the essence of the book. That’s happened to me a number of times, with the result that – every time – I was crucified by critics on the basis that I was so personally worthless and incompetent I couldn’t even write content to match what was promised by the title. Quite. Curiously, most of the people doing it were authors themselves, with books in direct competition with mine, who knew very well that titles are a publisher’s prerogative.

Setting aside the way these issues tweak the insecurities of reviewers with conflicting interests in the field, the fact remains that getting the title right is challenge for both publishers and authors, and that’s true even when the author IS the publisher – as is so often the case these days.

There is no ‘right’ way to go about titling a book, but my suggestion is this – and it applies whether you’re self-pubbing or have a contract with a publisher. If you give a publisher a really good title, they’re more likely to use it – something that’s also happened to me.

  1. Start with the logline. Er- you DO have a logline, don’t you? You know, the one-sentence summary of purpose?
  2. Figure out ways of rendering it into a couple of punchy words plus a subtitle.
  3. Sit on it for a while. The ‘put it in a drawer and think about it’ principle applies.
  4. Road-test it. Check with beta readers.
  5. Repeat as needed – even have two or three possible titles.

Do you have issues finding titles? Have you had problems with the ‘title not matching content’?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016


13 thoughts on “How to find the best book titles ever!

  1. Cool, I remember reading a book about physics and there was mentioned that the authors of bestseller: “The God Particle” wanted to name it “The Damned Particle” but publishers wanted it to be more captivating, now there are people that thing that this has to do something with God 😀

  2. I think finding a title is a particular talent. When I wrote copy or articles or press releases, my editor had a great knack for distilling into a fantastic headline or title. I could never quite do it as well. So I am a big fan of #4. 🙂

    1. Too true. In my freelance journalism days I always used to try and second guess the headline the paper or magazine might use. It never worked – the subbie in charge of such things always made one up anyway… (and very good most of them were, too).

  3. Thanks for this truly interesting piece, more so because I often face problems while naming a piece of work. Hope I’ll do a better job of coming up with the perfect name hereafter.

    1. There’s quite a knack to it – and I’m not sure authors ever really get on top of it: every piece of work offers challenges. I often have more drafts of ‘chapter titles’, even, than I do of the main text in my books.

  4. Blog post titles tend to come to me quite easily, but I always struggle with novels. In part this could be down to the fact that there’s less riding on a blog post, they’re somewhat transient and won’t be lumbered with the title five years down the line, but you can’t really change a badly worded novel title. (Some have, but I don’t like the idea of doing it.)

    Another reason I find novel titles difficult is because I have a self imposed rule to avoid titles beginning with ‘The…’ unless there’s absolutely nothing else.

    1. My publishers have full control of the titles of my books, but they do listen to suggestions and I went through a phase once of suggesting titles to my publishers that were actually very bad puns or very lame word-play of some kind. They used some of ’em too – see the column on the right of this blog, for instance. ‘Desert Duel’ = ‘Desert jewel’ as in ‘jewel of the desert’; ‘Pacific War’, which is an oxymoron; ‘Italian Odyssey’, which is a play on the fact that the Odyssey was Greek, and even ‘Kiwi Air Power’, given that Kiwis (as in the actual bird) can’t fly. And, of course ‘Coal: the rise and fall of King Coal in New Zealand’ (given that he was such a merry old soul…). I don’t know if it helped sell them, of course…

  5. Greetings Matthew – another helpful post.
    I did an Internet search on effective loglines. Mine fails miserably. However because it covers a 4 (probably 5) book series, characters and things change. So I gave them all ‘Early Christianity Comes to Life’ and that is the logline of my susanprestonauthor website as well..
    I accept that fails, but it describes the series.
    On a related manner, I would also fail on advertising. Example – of advertising, not mine. The current series of Downtown Abbey being shown on TV. I have the disk of the series, and can see the way bits from the episodes are chopped and put back togeher, but make it look quite different to what the story is in that episode. All the things happen, but not as they are spliced together.
    I don’t like it – it’s dishonest advertising IMHO.
    So… what to do if you have no control over the title… That’s worse than putting a totally inappropriage cover on a book.
    Looks like you had ‘token’ listening when you made suggestions.
    This is not exactly an honest world!

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