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.