Writers tend to think that tiles don’t matter, because “publishers are always changing them.” This is not true.
Publishers are always changing your titles because usually your titles suck.
Name your book right, and odds are the publisher will keep your title, provided that your title:
- Is not already taken (while it’s true you cannot copyright a title, you also can’t name it Gone with the Wind).
- Sounds like what the book is (that is, it’s a title for a thriller that sounds like a thriller title).
It’s easier to come up with a good title than you think. There are titling conventions for every genre and sub-genre; you’d do well to learn yours and follow suit. Study the titling conventions for your category. The following list will give you a good start:
Short action words: Get Shorty, by Elmore Leonard; Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro; Contact, by Carl Sagan; Brain on Fire, by Susannah Cahalan; Eat Pray Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert; Chomp, by Carl Hiaasen; Save the Cat!, by Blake Snyder
Short character descriptions: Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn; The Stranger, by Albert Camus; The Alchemist, by Paulo Coehlo; I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov, The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain, Alcoholics Anonymous, by Bill W.
Object of Desire/Talisman/MacGuffin: The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett; The Sword of Shannara, by Terry Brooks; The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown; The Notebook, by Nicholas Sparks; The Secret, by Rhoda Byrne
Relationships: Love Story, by Erich Segal; Le Divorce, by Diane Johnson; Shanghai Girls, by Lisa See; The Story Sisters, by Alice Hoffman; Band of Brothers, by Stephen E. Ambrose; Strong Mothers, Strong Sons, by Meg Meeker; Romancing the Duke, by Tessa Dare
Organizing Principle: The Jane Austen Book Club, by Karen Joy Fowler; Six Days of the Condor, by James Brady; The Twelve Clues of Christmas, by Rhys Bowen; My Horizontal Life, by Chelsea Handler; Bridget Jones’s Diary, by Helen Fielding; The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen R. Covey
Setting: Mystic River, by Dennis Lehane; Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman; Middlemarch, by George Eliot; The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett; Dunkirk, by Joshua Levine; The Urban Homestead, by Kelly Coyne
Theme: The Gods of Guilt, by Michael Connelly; War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy; Hunger, by Roxane Gay; Divergent, by Veronica Roth; The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien, Durable Goods, by Elizabeth Berg; Adulting, by Kelly Williams Brown
Saying, Quote, or Cliché Twist: My Sister’s Keeper, by Jodi Picoult; The Hen of the Baskervilles, by Donna Andrews; Without Feathers, by Woody Allen; Manifest Your Destiny, by Wayne W. Dwyer
Line from the Book: The Color Purple, by Alice Walker; The World According to Garp, by John Irving; The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls; A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf
Line from Literature: Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury; The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green; No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy; Surprised by Joy, by C.S. Lewis; The Road Less Traveled, by M. Scott Peck; Band of Brothers, by Stephen Ambrose
Line from the Bible: East of Eden, by John Steinbeck; The Children of Men, by P.D. James; The Lord Is My Shepherd, by Harold S. Kushner
Song: In the Bleak Midwinter, by Julia Spencer-Fleming; Go Tell It on the Mountain, by James Baldwin; Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, by Caitlin Doughty
Character Name: The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald; Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier; Rambo, by David Morrell; Paula, by Isabel Allende; Pope Joan, by Donna Woolfolk Cross; Marley & Me, by John Grogan
Titles Do Matter
Titles matter—so make yours count. Name your book right—and if you’re writing a series, be sure to choose a titling convention that can sustain a series.
Because just as a good headline sells papers, a good title sells books.
For more on titles and covers and the like, check out Dana Isaacson’s blog Covers that Sell.
And bat around more ideas about titles with us on our Facebook page.