Jump To Section
What Are the First Steps to Picking a Good Book Title?
There are a few things to think about before you pick a title for your book.
- Consider existing works in your style or genre. Look at other titles of books in the same genre and figure out if there are any titling conventions you need to be aware of.
- Titling conventions indicate what has worked in the past for books of a similar type to yours. This can help you connect with your target audience.
- Conventions can also help signal to potential readers that your work belongs to a particular genre. You don’t want potential readers confusing your political essay with a fantasy epic.
What Are Titling Conventions?
The world of publishing is full of book title naming conventions. Just think of bestselling book titles that end with “and other stories” or “complete works,” for example. There were many successful “The Art Of” books before Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fck* (2016). Writers can follow these conventions—or subvert them—to draw readers in.
Titling Conventions in Nonfiction Titles
A nonfiction book almost always has a title that clearly identifies its subject matter in some way. If not, the subtitle will clarify this information. Consider Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers: The Story of Success. The first word piques your attention, but the subtitle makes it much clearer that this is a work on the psychology and sociology of success. In nonfiction, there’s little reason to entice readers who are not interested in your specific subject.
Titling Conventions in Fiction Titles
In general, fiction titles can be more elusive. It’s almost impossible to know that To Kill a Mockingbird is about racism in America just from the title, but that hasn’t stopped it becoming a modern classic. The mysteriously named Normal People, Origin, and The Secrets Between Us were all bestsellers in 2018.
- Some fiction genres have clear naming quirks. For example, fantasy or science fiction books usually use an invented object or place in their title. The Harry Potter series is a great example, with titles focusing on the “Deathly Hallows” or the “Prisoner of Azkaban.”
- A recent trend in the thriller genre is to use “noun + noun” titles: consider The Girl on the Train; The Woman in the Window; and The Woman in Cabin 10.
- “Noun + ‘of’ + noun” titles are also popular across genres— think Lord of the Rings but also Lord of the Flies.
7 Tips for Coming Up With a Great Book Title
Many authors find it easier to outsource the task of finding a great title for their book, but some authors, like Malcolm Gladwell, think this is a mistake. Gladwell says authors are the ones who know their story better than anyone else and are therefore in the best position to give a work its name.
Here are some tips and tricks to consider when coming up with a great book title, be it fiction or nonfiction.
- Grab the reader. A title is the ultimate attention-grabber. Some authors even do it backward: coming up with the title first, and the story second. In some instances, titles can serve as wonderful prompts for a story.
- Add tension. The most powerful titles have an emotional connotation. Take Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed. The contradiction in this title— we’re not safe even at the slowest speed—is attention-grabbing. One way to do this is to combine words that are not supposed to be together. Aim for words that have emotional weight.
- Think of your title as an ad. Your title is an ad for your book. You have a split second to grab the attention of your reader. Make it count. Consider a handful of title ideas. Start by writing the first, most descriptive title that comes to mind. Don’t worry about being clever or keeping it short. Just write the one line that describes your story perfectly. Now work backward from here: What is the essence of the story you’re telling? What’s its theme?
- Roadtest titles. Write out eight to ten potential titles for your story and test them on your friends. Their feedback about what they think your story is about—based on your title—can help you settle on the best one.
- Do online research. You may have come up with what you think is the perfect title for your book, but if there’s already another work out there with a similar title—or worse, an established brand—you should reconsider. You don’t want to confuse readers or risk them mistaking your book for someone else’s.
- Is your title easy to say? It’s not a hard-and-fast rule that your title should be pronounceable, but if it’s not, some people may be discouraged from asking their bookseller about your work or discussing it with others. This also goes to memorability—people are less likely to remember words that are new to them.
- Pay attention to length. Some readers consider short and punchy book titles to be more memorable. Of course, plenty of books subvert this idea—The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared sticks in your mind precisely because it seems to take up more words than it needs to. Some successful nonfiction works have very long titles, as do a lot of works in the fantasy genre.
Learn more writing techniques in Malcom Gladwell’s MasterClass.