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A book title will make or break a book’s sales and popularity. In essence, the title is the book. It is a summary of the book, an encapsulation of all its content in a few words. It is a split-second advertisement, so creating the best title possible will determine how well your book sells.
No matter how good a book is, if the title does not appeal to readers, they are never going to read your book. Picking a good book title is crucial and should be done with a great deal of thought and testing. Here are a few tips for creating a book title that will capture the reader’s interest, clearly convey the book’s subject matter, and be memorable.
Short and To The Point
If you’ve ever been in academia, you know that academics love convoluted titles, and a subtitle is a requirement. The problem is that no one can remember those long titles later. You want your title to be short and to the point, so it immediately conveys your book’s subject. Titles should be no more than five words, and one, two, or three is preferable. Remember, the longer the title, the more likely readers will forget it or substitute wrong words into it.
The Victorians loved short titles that summed up the content in a couple of words. Think of how many classics were named for their main characters: David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Jane Eyre, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Dracula… the list goes on and on. Often a place name was also used: Mansfield Park, Wuthering Heights. In these cases, you knew the book was about someone named David Copperfield or a place named Wuthering Heights. Simple and to the point. That’s not to say you can’t have fun with the title, but it needs to be clear from the start. We’ll look at how to have some fun below with subtitles. (Note, for novels, subtitles are not recommended, but they can sell a reader on your book’s benefits for a nonfiction book.)
Alliteration and Rhythm
You want your title to roll off the reader’s tongue, so it is not only easy to say but a pleasure to repeat. Some of the best titles have alliteration in them, a repeating sound that gives the title emphasis and flow. Repetition of a word also works well to give the title a rhythmic sound. Here are a few effective titles that use alliteration:
He Knew He Was Right (repetition and alliteration)
The Way We Live Now (alliteration)
A Tale of Two Cities (alliteration)
For that last one, note that if it were titled “A Tale of Three Cities” it would not be as effective a title because the hard “T” sound is lost. However, “A Tale of Six Cities” sounds just about as well with the duplicate “S” sound, though it would have been quite the lengthy book to write.
Be Careful With Prepositions
Just in case you don’t know, prepositions are words like of, in, at, on, between, and with.
“A Tale of Two Cities” has a preposition in it. So does “The House of Seven Gables.” But we’ll view those as exceptions. Certainly, “The Cabin of Uncle Tom” doesn’t work as well as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” So, use possession whenever you can instead of a preposition. However, “The Children of Henry VIII” works better than “Henry VIII’s Children” but “King Henry’s Children” would be effective—although readers will then ask, “Which King Henry?” No hard rules exist with prepositions in titles, so just be conscious of using them only when most effective.
“The House at World’s End” has a preposition but is not a title easy to twist around. “Gone With the Wind” is another that works since “with” is a preposition. For the most part “of” is the preposition to avoid but think long and hard before you settle on any preposition in your title.
Avoid Words with Double Meanings or Pronunciations
Unless that is your intent. For example, “Ugly Lives” could be misconstrued as being about a monster named Ugly who is still alive, while you might mean the book is a portrayal of people whose lives are ugly.
A word like “lead” can be misconstrued as a noun or verb, and a word like “read” can be misread depending on its context. Ask yourself if your title has any words that could be misread before you settle on them.
If your title is “Estate Planning,” chances are seven other people have already used that title, and if people go online to find your book, they may end up buying another author’s book rather than yours. Be sure to do an online search for your title to see whether anything comes up. If you find other books with your title, pick a different title.
Reserve Your Title’s Domain Name
When making sure your title is original, also check to see whether your book title is being used for a website. Probably www.estateplanning.com is already taken. Furthermore, if someone has a website with your book title’s name, then what is your website going to be? You can use your own name for the website, but that won’t work if you have a fairly common name like Kevin Smith or Michael Johnson since those websites are already taken too. You want to pick a title without a website already taken so you can purchase that domain name. And if you settle on a title and the domain name isn’t yet taken, buy it today. Don’t wait or you may lose it. Your book title is what people are going to use as a search term and you want that title to lead them directly to your website so you can sell them your book.
If you feel your title needs more explanation, a subtitle is a good idea, provided it’s not there just for show. But don’t let that stop you from having fun.
For example, Dickens’ novel “Martin Chuzzlewit” actually has a long, humorous title we would probably qualify as a subtitle today: “The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit: His Relatives, Friends, and Enemies, comprising All His Wills and His Ways, with an Historical Record of What He Did, and What He Didn’t: Showing, Moreover Who Inherited the Family Plate, Who Came In for the Silver Spoons, and Who for the Wooden Ladles. The Whole Forming a Complete Key to the House of Chuzzlewit.”
Beyond humor, a subtitle can reinforce a catchy but vague title. For non-fiction books, a subtitle can provide a lot of clarity as shown below.
Use “–ing” and “How to” Appropriately
When writing a non-fiction self-help book, it’s best to avoid “How to” in the title. Save that for the subtitle.
A title “How to Overcome Adversity” sounds less interesting than “Overcoming Adversity: How to Surmount Life’s Obstacles with Ease.” Similarly, that nasty preposition “of” can often be resolved with an “-ing” word. “The Discovery of the Loch Ness Monster” will be more effective if it reads, “Discovering the Loch Ness Monster.”
Whatever you are showing people how to do, use the “–ing” form of the verb and then move the “How to” to the subtitle. Retaining the “How to” will make it clear to readers you are going to help them, which tells the reader the benefit of the book. It’s always good to let readers know how they will benefit with a non-fiction book but don’t limit yourself to “How to.” Phrases like “Your Guide to” or “Your Solution to” are also effective.
Show the Benefit with a Non-Fiction Title
Besides “How to” in a Subtitle, using “You” or “Your” is also effective. For example:
“The Million Dollar Mom: How You Can Be a Parent and Still Have It All”
“For What It’s Worth: Your Guide to Evaluating Stocks and Bonds”
Both examples address the potential reader, letting her know this book is for her, and it clarifies not only what the book is about, but also that the book offers a benefit to the reader. It will make the reader’s life better somehow.
Ask for Opinions
Never be afraid to ask people for their opinions. It can save you a lot of grief down the road. Other people are your potential readers, and they do not know much about the book you are writing so they can only judge your book by its title and will make you aware of your potential audience’s reactions to that title. Come up with multiple titles, and then ask people which one they like best. In the process, the people you ask for help might even come up with better titles for you. Brainstorming your title can be extremely productive.
Whatever you do, don’t forget to give your title a great deal of thought. Make it clear and memorable and your book will be too.
Great article, I would add that “Titles themselves are not copyrighted, only the CONTENTS of a book can be copyrighted. That’s why you see a half dozen books all called COVEN or something like that”
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