“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” said Shakespeare, but clearly he wasn’t talking about book titles. When it comes to choosing the right book title, the name is everything.
Why is it so important? Because your book title, along with your book cover, are the first things a prospective reader or buyer are going to see. If you don’t hook them with those, you might as well wave bye-bye.
Your book title is even more important than the carefully worded “ad” you write for your back cover, although that is also a component in creating your hook. The reason: your target audience won’t get as far as the back cover if you don’t snag them first with the book title and cover art. (For tips on writing that back cover “ad,” see my article Writing Your Book’s Back-Cover Copy.
I’m a developmental book editor of both fiction and nonfiction. In this article, I’ll share with you the secrets of crafting an irresistible book title, whether you’ve written a novel, a memoir, a how-to, or a business book.
What Your Title Needs to Deliver
So what are the components of a captivating book title? It’s different for fiction than nonfiction. Novel titles need to evoke the color and mood of the story. We should be able to tell from your title exactly what genre your novel is in. The cover art you select should further establish the genre. Ever notice, in passing through a bookstore, how you can immediately tell which section you’re in just from the titles and cover art? Now you know why.
Nonfiction titles are a whole other story. Unfortunately, many nonfiction authors approach crafting their book title the same as they would craft the title of a novel. They go for mood and color, and give us little else. The end result? When people see their book, they mistake it for a novel! Now, that’s not good when you’re trying to sell a self-help book or biography.
The first rule, then, in constructing a nonfiction book title, is to make sure it conveys the genre of your book. If it’s a how-to book, it probably should say “how to” somewhere on the cover. If it’s a business book, it should include some obvious trade words that business people will recognize. If it’s a memoir, it should have a personal flavor and possibly include the words “my” or “a memoir.”
Nonfiction Authors Get Three Chances
Fortunately for nonfiction writers, you have three chances at getting this information across, because nonfiction books can have a title, a subtitle, and even a tag line—any of which you can use to convey your genre. You often need three chances, because you also have to convey another piece of information somewhere in those three parts of the title: namely, the central idea or problem of the book.
This means we should be able to tell, from a glance at the words on your book cover, exactly what genre you’re writing in and exactly what you will talk about in the book. If your title, optional subtitle, and optional tag line don’t get this across, you’ll lose a large percentage of your prospective buyers and readers.
Would you buy a product at the supermarket that wasn’t labeled clearly? If you couldn’t tell if it was dish soap or soup starter, would you put it in your shopping cart?
Cleverness—the Sizzle that Sells
There’s one final component of a killer book title, and that’s cleverness. Once you get the genre and the topic clearly into your title, massage the wording until it scintillates. Appeal to the reader’s curiosity, so they have to buy the book to answer a question or to learn the strategies that will solve a problem. Word your title in an original way. Make it dramatic or humorous, startling or intriguing.
Polish the wording so part of it alliterates, or has pleasing vowel-sound repetition (assonance). Pay attention to the rhythm of the title. Your finished product should be pleasing to the ear: melodious, not choppy. All superfluous words should have been pruned away, so only essential words remain, words that are packed with meaning.
Get Unbiased Feedback
Does that sound like a tall order? It is, and that’s why lots of care and time should be spent on choosing your title. Brainstorm and keep a list of your ideas and title revisions, then pick the best ones and run them by several friends or colleagues, being careful not to indicate by your words or tone of voice which title is your personal favorite.
Tally the votes, and if what your “marketing sample” likes is different than your personal preference, go back to the drawing board. Remember that the title exists for the reader, not for the author. If you like the title but no one else does, you’re shooting yourself in the foot to stick with it. That title will cost you sales and readers.
Finally, run your final title by a qualified book editor. Let them tweak it for you and make suggestions. You don’t have to go with their recommendation, but be open to their advice. Book editors worth their salt are skilled at honing book titles until they hit the mark, measuring up to the competition in your market.
Jessi Rita Hoffman … book editing by an industry professional