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Titles That Sell
by Marg McAlister
"I can't think of a title. Do you have any ideas?"
I've lost count of the times someone has said this to me! I usually roll my eyes and groan. Do I have any ideas? Not likely. Coming up with a title is hard work. Oh, sure, sometimes the perfect title seems to appear from nowhere... but more often, it involves a lot of brainstorming and some pretty dodgy choices in the beginning.
A pet hate of mine is what I call the 'Nothing' title. You know the kind of thing: "Treacherous Heart"; "Deception"; "The Wedding". When looking at the books I own before sitting down to write this, I actually spotted two novels on my shelves both entitled "The Wedding." Please, a bit more imagination! (Of course, if you're a best-selling author already it doesn't matter much. Your name is going to be twice the size of the title anyway. All your readers want to know is: "Have I read this one before...? No? Great, I'll buy it.")
Your book title is very important, so it's worth spending a bit of time on it - no, a LOT of time on it! Your title needs to sum up the theme of your book in a few words... yet be 'different' enough to stand out. There's no doubt that a good title can help to sell a book, although a bad title won't necessarily affect your chances of acceptance.
FOR NOW: if you're having trouble, at least call the book *something*. That helps you to see it as an entity. It's much easier to imagine it as a finished product when it has a title. You can always change the title later, but meanwhile you can be thinking of your novel by name instead of just 'my book'.
FOR LATER: keep in mind that your name is going to be associated with the title of your book forever more. You will be sending out press releases about your book; you may be doing radio or TV interviews; you are likely to be introduced at author talks and on panels as "Jane Writer, Author of "How to Make a Million Before Breakfast". Your title will be OUT THERE.
Now that you're thoroughly intimidated, let's think about how you can make your title (a) grab attention and (b) have something meaningful to say about your book. ("The Wedding" might say something about the book, but it's too generic - hardly a 'grabber'. Sure, romance readers like to read about weddings... but which novel would you pluck from the shelf: "The Wedding" or "Too Wild to Wed" (a book by Jayne Ann Krentz)? Your title should make people want to pick up your book and read more.) Here are some titles I found on my shelves that are intriguing, or full of promise, or maybe just quirky:
=== Non-Fiction ===
The One-Minute Millionaire by Mark Victor Hansen and Robert G. Allen. (No comment necessary about why this is effective.)
You'll See It When You Believe It by Wayne Dyer (A clever twist on the standard saying)
Men Are From Mars, Women Are from Venus (An inspired choice that has paid off big time)
=== Romance ===
Vows Made in Wine by Susan Wiggs. (This one came from a quote from Shakespeare: "I am falser than vows made in wine". Intriguing both on its own *and* if the source of the quote is recognised.)
The Mist and the Magic by Susan Wiggs. (This is the blurb on the back cover: THE MIST: Caitlin MacBride, mistress of the beleaguered Irish stronghold Clonmuir, made a wish one evening at sunset. "Send me my true love," she whispered. THE MAGIC: As she watched, a man walked out of the mist that rolled in off the water. In John Wesley Hawkins, Caitlin saw a magic she thought had been lost to Ireland forever...)
A further note on Susan Wiggs' titles: Susan has chosen to stay with the same rhythmic pattern for some of her titles, using the formula "The XXX and the XXX". As well as "The Mist And The Magic", she has written "The Raven and the Rose" and "The Lily and The Leopard". (She also has what I call a 'nothing' title: "Embrace the Day" so it just goes to show you can't win all the time.)
Moving right along: Several authors choose to use well known song titles or excerpts as titles. This works well if it's tied to the book's theme. Included in those are:
Nobody's Baby But Mine (Susan Elizabeth Phillips)
It Had To Be You (Susan Elizabeth Phillips)
Walking After Midnight (Karen Robards)
=== Crime ===
A - Z titles
Some of the best known mystery titles are Sue Grafton's books featuring PI Kinsey Milhone. Grafton started with "A is for Alibi" and is working her way through the alphabet. The formula is simple: "[alphabet letter] is for XXXX". So far we have: Burglar, Corpse, Deadbeat, Evidence, Fugitive, Gumshoe, Homicide, Innocent, Judgment, Killer, Lawless, Malice, Noose, Outlaw, Peril, Quarry and Ricochet. (There may be more out that I haven't seen yet.) Naturally you can apply this formula to any genre: fiction or non-fiction.
=== Short Titles (2 or 3 Words) ===
Greg Iles, a popular writer of thrillers, likes short, punchy titles. People now associate this type of title with his books. It's much more of a challenge to relate the title to your book if you choose an ultra-short title, but it can be done. Greg Iles has written "Sleep No More", "Dead Sleep", "24 Hours"; "The Quiet Game", "Mortal Fear", "Dark Matter" and "Blood Memory". The danger of very short titles is that they can become 'nothing titles' very easily, but in Greg Iles' case, each title does relate to the theme of the book.
=== Humour ===
Everyone likes a quirky, humorous title. One I liked was "The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing" by Melissa Bank - which is a humorous novel related to the mating game, not activities in the wild! Other humorous titles that worked for me are: "Getting Rid of Bradley" (Jennifer Crusie) and "When She Was Bad" (Jennifer Crusie). There are many more... try going to the library for an hour or so and doing nothing but write down titles that 'grab' you. Then classify them: humorous, song titles, eerie, adventurous and so on. You'll learn a lot.
"How To" books are ever-popular, and these two words in a title often impel readers to make a purchase. Often the "how to" is in the subtitle - for example: "The Perfect Pergola: How To Build Your Own Pergola in 10 Easy Steps".
Pick your own "how to" topic! You might find it effective to link the word "Secrets" with a "How To" title - people love to feel that they're learning something that most other people don't know. (Example: "The Secrets of Property Investment for Retirees: How To Triple Your Nest Egg in 12 Short Months".) A subtitle is an excellent idea for non-fiction - it allows you to choose a shorter, punchier title for the main impact, then add clarification for the reader.
=== How To Find a Good Title ===
1. Spend an hour at the library browsing the shelves and writing down titles that appeal - and why. (You're expected to browse in a library. In a book store you might get a few funny looks.) See if you can figure out, by reading the back cover blurb or reviews etc, how the title is relevant to the subject matter.
2. Use the Internet. Google your way to www.Amazon.com and do the same thing... just research titles. You'll be able to look at magazine titles as well as book titles.
3. Browse at the newsagent. You can often get ideas for titles from the titles of articles in magazines. Check out the phrases used as 'grabbers' on the magazine cover, too.
4. Write down every title you can think of, and all variations of that title. Add different nouns and verbs. Think of how you might be able to use words that relate to colours, numbers, emotions, people and animals.
And After All That...
... be prepared for your wonderful, quirky, clever title to be changed. Aaarrgghh! Sad but true.
Often it will simply not appeal to an editor. Sometimes there will be another book about to be released with a similar title. Sometimes you'll be asked to change it because the title gives away too much! (This happened to me. I gave one of my books for kids the title "The Haunted Concert". I thought it was a great title: kids love ghost stories, and most have experienced being in a school concert. The editor pointed out that most of the way through the book the main character was convinced that his substitute teacher (who was very 'different') was an alien. Instead, she turned out to be the ghost of one of the first teachers at the school. By calling the book "The Haunted Concert" I had given the game away. Duh!!! After beating myself around the head a few times, I changed it.)
Can you fight for your title? Hmmm... not likely. Unless you hate it, it's best to accept the change and move on.
Finally, here's a few words about book titles from well-known fantasy novelist Cory Daniells (Author of The Shadow Kingdom).
You want something that will leap off the shelves and stick in people's minds. You spend hours puzzling over just the right title for your book, you consult friends and family. And then, when you get accepted, the marketing people change the title. This happened to two out of three books in my trilogy.
But it is still worth taking the time to come up with the best possible title for your book. Why not surf the net and compare book titles by your favourite authors: authors whose books will be on the shelves with yours. Which titles would make you pick up the book?
If you are writing a series, you'll need to think of a series title and individual titles.
- Can you draw on the theme of the series for inspiration?
- Can you link the titles so that the readers will have no trouble remembering them? Think of Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum books. 'One for the Money' etc.
- Can you set up a conflict in the title by using two words that contradict each other? I sold a story recently called 'The Nameless King and the Faithless Priest'.
But remember, don't get too attached. The marketing team will have their own ideas... but whatever it is called, it is still your book!
(c) Marg McAlister 2005
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