Presenting: A Title that Sells

You can judge a book by its title, Photo by Linda Wilson
It's true that an intriguing title for your fiction or nonfiction book, article, poem or story is your first pitchperson, designed to interest an agent, editor or publisher to crack the first few paragraphs, even pages. If they like what they find? You're in. Be open, though. Your publisher might surprise you by
wanting to think up a new title, thus opening herself up to the same grueling process you thought you had conquered.

Often, the right title pops in place with little conscious effort. Thank you, Subconscious. However, some titles aren't quite as apparent. That's when you dig. There are many ways to uncover it. But before you start, make sure your title meets certain criteria.

Intriguing Title "Musts"
Your title:
  • is your reader's first impression of your work. It's got to be evocative, unique and precise. (Writer's Relief)
  • is memorable--catchy, short (except in rare workable cases), appropriate, specific and intriguing. (Emma Walton Hamilton)
  • is distinguished by an original title. ( article by Arrie)
  • fits the genre of your book and sets the tone or feeling you want to convey. (Rachelle Gardner)
  • is consistent with the conventions of your genre because "fans of specific genres use titles as a kind of shorthand when they're deciding what to buy." (Writer's Relief)
  • gains acceptability from friends, family and your critique group, opening it up to new perspectives. (Writer's Relief)
  • Adventure: Tends to fit a tale of a journey
  • Humor: Title is odd or quirky
  • Mystery: Lee Wyndam in Writing for Children and Teenagers, revised edition, calls titling a mystery a "baited hook," that contains clue words. She points out that words such as mystery, secret, case, riddle and puzzle were once required. Today for books at the nine-to-twelve level and YA's, titles are more subtle; such as these selections from her list of books nominated for a MWA Edgar:
                                            Bury the Dead (Peter Carter)
                                           The Other Side of Dark (a winner, by Joan Lowry Nixon)
                                           The Twisted Window (Lois Duncan)
Begin by Brainstorming
Rachelle Gardner, in her post "How to Title your Book," offered an idea that sounded so good I tried it and highly recommend it. Not only did the exercise open up new ways for me to view my story, but it was loads of fun. I will summarize her idea here, but recommend that you read her entire post, which includes additional excellent information.
  • To get a feel for your genre, find twenty books titles on Amazon that you like and are in your genre. Write them down. Decide what you like and don't like, then put the list away.
  • Make lists of words in columns that relate to your book: nouns, verbs and adjectives. For a novel, list words that describe the setting, major characters. Nothing is off limits.
    Think of the action in your story and write down words that capture it. For non-fiction, write words that describe what your book is about and how you want your reader to think, feel or do after reading it.
    Think of words that evoke an emotion, a sensation, a location, a question.
    Keep going until you reach 100 words. Write down 20 title ideas from these lists. Then put them away for 24 hours.
  • Time's up: choose three to five possibilities. Run them by some people. Go back to the list from Amazon and make sure your title stands out and is not too similar to the others.
  • Voila! You've come up with the best possible title!
Title and Copyright Law
Titles cannot be copyrighted in the U.S. Writer's Relief says, "we don't recommend using the same title that someone else has previously used. It makes it more difficult for your book to stand out."

Now for my rant: A recent experience prompted me to think more about titling my work than I had in the past. While browsing through a free magazine that I picked up at our local health food store, I ran across an article titled word-for-word the same as a classic children's book (not included are the
names of the magazine, editor or children's book). I immediately thought of copyright infringement and wrote the editor an email to question the use of the title. He wrote back with an inserted document of the copyright law from the U.S. Copyright Office, which I appreciated. I would have let the entire matter rest if it hadn't been for his attitude, which made my blood boil.

"Book titles are not protected under copyright law, especially if a book uses a COMMON PHRASE such as "Title." They can freely be used in various media and formats. This is why so many books and movies share the same title. If we had used the image or the original artwork from the book cover you refer to, we would indeed be in violation. However, book titles fall under no such copyright law."

The attitude so infuriated me that I searched to see if I could find out how the author came up with such a terrific title. This is what I found:

Q: How do you come up with such creative titles for your books? Do you come up with them before or after you write your books?

A: Before, after, during, and I don't think of them all myself. My mother titled [this book]." Titles I came up with the publishers didn't like and the publishers came up with titles I didn't like. "My mother was visiting us and one morning I took her a cup of coffee. She said to me, 'I think I found a title our of your own text . . ."

Bottom line: I personally enjoy titles that are tweaked from common phrases, jokes, movies, etc. as I have attempted to do with the caption under this post's accompanying photo.
End rant!

For so much advice on making titles short, I sure found a lot of information on creating the right title. Next month I'll include the rest of what I found in, "Presenting: A Title that Sells, Part 2."

Sources: Writer's Relief ; Emma Walton Hamilton; Rachelle Gardner; Lulu article by Arrie; Wyndham, Lee, Writing for Children & Teenagers, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1989.

Linda Wilson, a former elementary teacher and ICL graduate, has published over 40 articles for adults and children and six short stories for children. Recently she completed Joyce Sweeney's online fiction and picture book courses. She is currently working on several projects for children. Follow Linda on  Facebook.


Linda Wilson said...

Hi Michael, I hope these posts help. Thanks for your comment. It brings home how challenging thinking up a title can be.

Karen Cioffi said...

Linda, what a great post. I had no idea book titles weren't copyrighted in the U.S. When I'm working on a book, I start with a working title then as the story progresses or at the end, I decide on the actual title.

Those that you listed from Lee Wyndam's book are outstanding!

Linda Wilson said...

I'm glad I could help! Thanks, Karen.

Debra Quarles said...

Loved this post. Great advice!

Linda Wilson said...

Thanks, Debra. There's more to titles than I first thought!

Shirley Corder said...

Thanks Linda. I have had an experience where the book cover was perfect for my original title, but the company changed the title! Lack of communication or something!

Linda Wilson said...

You're welcome, Shirl. That's amazing that your company waited so long to change your title! It's good to be aware that the publisher might change the title so we're not disappointed.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

I hope you'll give me permission to use a quote from this for my new book on book covers (Yep! titles--as you know--are a huge part of a great book cover! Ha!) I'll credit you, of course.

Linda Wilson said...

Carolyn, please email me with the details: what part of the post you would like to use, where it will appear in the book, how you plan to credit me, and the title of your new book. Thanks, Linda

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