Placing a good title on a book is not as simple as one might think. In fact, some prominent books have had rather circuitous journeys to their final title.
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice started out as First Impressions.
Tolstoy’s All’s Well That Ends Well released to some yawns until it was re-titled and published as War and Peace.
On the Road to West Egg; Under the Red, White, and Blue; Gold-Hatted Gatsby; Among Ash-Heaps and Millionaires; and The High-Bouncing Lover (huh?) were all titles considered for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
Before settling on Mein Kampf (German for My Struggle) Adolf Hitler originally wanted to title his book to be Four and a Half Years of Struggle Against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice. (He was crazy, you know)
Orwell’s 1984 started out as The Last Man in Europe.
William Golding’s first novel was called Strangers from Within, but is now known as Lord of the Flies.
Tomorrow Is Another Day was the working title of Gone With the Wind, and Scarlett was named ‘Pansy.’ Frankly my dear, movie actress Vivien Leigh doesn’t strike me as a Pansy.
Bram Stoker considered The Dead Un-Dead, before settling on Dracula.
Joseph Heller titled his novel Catch-11, but doubled the number to Catch-22 to not compete with just-released Ocean’s Eleven. (I doubt we would use the phrase “That’s a real catch-eleven” to describe a difficult choice)
Alex Haley’s influential 1976 novel was changed from Before This Anger to Roots: The Saga of an American Family.
Harper Lee’s Atticus became To Kill a Mockingbird.
Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage started as Private Fleming, His Various Battles.
So, how do you choose a good title for your book?
Often, authors and publishers will do one of two things. Either they don’t think about it enough, or they think about it too much.
Many times a good title is simply waiting to be discovered in the text of a book the author wrote. In an attempt to find an amazing and difference-making title, authors and publisher ignore the obvious one, which is right in front of them. It could be a chapter title or a compelling summary-phrase found in the text.
Other times not enough effort it put into the process and the question, “Is there a better title for this?” is never asked. Authors and publishers can fixate on a certain title and not subject it to critical review.
Some authors might even get an inspiration for a title before they write their book. Sometimes the title sticks, but sometimes it doesn’t, so my advice is don’t get too attached to one title.
But sometimes a title is actually inspired and sticks.
A few things to remember when selecting a good title and subtitle for your non-fiction book:
- For the most part, a title will be relatively unspectacular.
- Never, ever (my personal opinion) title a book intentionally playing off a famous title unless you are writing a parody or response. A memoir of running away from home on your bicycle should not be titled Gone With My Schwinn.
- Don’t get too cute. With online searching so much a part of selling new books, it is far more important your title (and for subtitles as well) contain key searchable words than creative words. If Amazon or Google can’t find you, then it is a bad title.
- Don’t get too obtuse. Creating something no one can figure out even after an explanation is not going to help your sales. For the most part, titles will be direct and obvious to all.
- If you have a title and subtitle, try switching them. I have often suggested the title would make a better subtitle and subtitle a better title.
Now, for fiction:
- The title should make a reader intrigued.
- Still don’t steal a famous title and play off it. There are a lot of words to use. Use your own, not someone else’ inspiration or success.
- For the most part, the title should explain what is in the book, however the more literary the work, the more creative a title can be. It is part of the mystique of the book.
- In general, subtitles are not used in fiction, but if you do, make it interesting, asking yourself, does this make the book compelling?
This is always a balancing act. Over-thinking a title can be almost as bad as under-thinking the process. Rarely will a title be magical. Mostly they will be relatively direct and explanatory.
But once in a while, magic happens, a truly creative title is discovered, and everyone knows it immediately.
Ah, yes. Don’t get too attached to your title if you’re going traditional. Marketing will have a lot of input during pub board consideration.
I loved the dancing rhythms in “As Grandmother Used to Say”. Was not so fond of the direct march of “As Grandma Says”.
K Douglas Brown
I find choosing a title to be an enjoyable challenge. I try to put myself in the place of potential readers picking up my book and imagine how a particular title would intrigue them.
Good point. Looking at it from the reader’s perspective is a great way to determine a title.
Sheri Dean Parmelee
Dan, thanks for the posting. I have struggled with the title for my fiction book, Victoria Susan Isn’t Dead, But She Isn’t Exactly Alive, Either but my nonfiction Suddenly Single: A Practical Guide to Maintaining Your Household When Your Spouse is NLA just “came” to me. Go figure!
Dan, how about adding a practical point to the list?
Short enough for a font big enough to read on the spine from 3 feet away without tipping your head past 20 degrees. That probably means no more than 4 significant words.
I blush to recall that “You’re the Cream in My Coffee” started out as “Thoroughly Modest Marjorie.” Since it’s set in the 1920s, I was trying to play off the old Julie Andrews musical “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” This failed on several counts. Scads of people had never heard of “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” thus missing the reference entirely. Those who had heard of the musical thought my book was “Thoroughly Modern Marjorie,” thus missing the Christian-insider-wink “modest.” Epic fail all around. By contrast, the current title is memorable and catchy and still evokes the 1920s via an upbeat song of that title. (Although just yesterday someone asked “What’s the name of your book again? Something about tea?” lol)
I try to think of an intriguing title for my fiction stories, but I’d always heard editors never use your original title. Do you think our titles need to be intriguing enough to hook an agent and editor, and then should we be prepared to have the title changed?
Jackie, my publisher ended up using my title, but at one point I had to make a case it: why it was a good fit for the book, how it related to the story, how much beta readers liked it, etc. I convinced them, but they could have easily gone in another direction, and it was their call to make. That said, I did NOT have the final title yet when I signed with my agent. She agreed to take me on with (or should I say in spite of) the earlier title, and we landed on the final title later. Anyway, it’s not a hard-and-fast rule that publishers always change titles. I agree with Dan–try for a winsome working title, but don’t overthink it, and be prepared to have it changed–or to defend it, if you feel strongly about it.
I can’t imagine a title hooking an agent, but if you try to get attention with the title and go too far, it can get you rejected, fast. In an attempt to be too provocative you could lose your audience.
Not everyone responds to certain words as you think they will.
Linda Riggs Mayfield
Your posts are just ridiculously practical! Thanks! I write a newspaper column, and used to spend significant time on getting the article titles just right. Then the editorial staff at the paper changed, and suddenly the article word count limit was different, and NOT ONE of my well-considered titles were ever used again. Some of the ones the new editor has assigned were so obscure, even I had to reread the article to find what in the world the title was referencing. I think if a publisher ever even considers my opinion in a final book title, I’ll be quite happy. ;-D
Linda Riggs Mayfield
*was* I really should proofread more thoroughly before I hit Send. 😀
Linda, I had an upper manager who simply had to change something in anything he looked at. We solved that problem by always inserting two or three typos. He’d fix those and be content.
Thanks for the group discussion. Wonderful ideas.
As a non-fiction author, what I see most is folks who forget that their titles are intended to grab the eye of the non-specialist, not be obscurely clever in a way that will impress people who have already read the book. A book has a split second to catch a person’s eye, and the title can’t be obtuse.