Ad and marketing creatives
Book Titles Made Easy: Nine Fast Formulas for Fame, Fortune, and a Good Night's Sleep
Writing a book is hard: just ask any author. But coming up with a title for your book? That's easy.
Oh, you've probably heard a different story, about how choosing a book title is the toughest part of the whole endeavor. But I'm going to share with you a six-word secret for skipping directly to a happy ending: Find a formula and copy it.
That's right: just as with successful corporate and product names, most successful book titles can be easily classified into one of several proven categories. All you need to do is learn the formulas and choose one for your own masterpiece.
Don't believe me? Take a look at the best-seller lists on Amazon, the New York Times, or your local bookstore. Sure, you'll find the occasional oddball title like Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time or Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics. But they're the exceptions. If you want to hedge your bets—and please your agent, editor, and publisher—you'll make your title conform to one of these nine time-tested formulas:
The power of one. One-word titles like Cod or Salt (both by Mark Kurlansky), Heat (Bill Buford), Audition (Barbara Walters), or Trump (guess who?) communicate the unassailable confidence of a subject-matter expert or the megalomania of an author at home in center stage. Single words can shock, as with Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel. They can amuse, like Steve Wozniak's iWoz. Sometimes they tease and startle: author Mary Roach has created a mini-franchise out of books titled Stiff, Spook, and Bonk (about cadavers, the paranormal, and sex research, respectively). What a one-word title doesn't do is confuse: it's backed by a long subtitle that spells out the book's actual premise. An important subcategory of the one-word formula is the single word preceded by a definite article, signifying "one and only": The Promise. The Gift. The Secret.
Exercise: What one word sums up the content of your book?
Adjective-noun. The shelves are full of two-word titles, too, usually consisting of a noun preceded by a modifier—and followed, of course, by a descriptive subtitle. They have some of the impact of one-word titles, shaded and burnished by an apt adjective. Take a look at Right Turn: American Life in the Reagan-Bush Era. Or Splendid Solution: Jonas Salk and the Conquest of Polio. Or Bad Money, Kevin Phillips's recent book about "the global crsis of global capitalism." All of bestselling mystery writer Carl Hiaasen's titles are two-worders: Nature Girl, Strip Tease, Skinny Dip, Lucky You, et cetera. You can sweat over an arcane, exquisitely crafted phrase, or you can come up with a mere two words and rake in the dough like Carl Hiaasen. Which sounds more appealing?
Exercise: Take the one word you chose for the first exercise and add a modifier to it. No good? Try other modifiers. Or opt for a subcategory of Adjective-Noun: add "The" to your title, as in The Omnivore's Dilemma, The Right Stuff, or The Tipping Point. Or go for the hot new trend: The Post-Adjective Noun (The Post-American World, The Post-Birthday World).
X and Y. The copulative title links two words (usually nouns) with "and"; the effect can be to compare, oppose, or underscore. Three popular books on grammar — Usage and Abusage, Spunk & Bite, and Sin and Syntax — illustrate use this formula to excellent effect. Barbara Ehrenreich did well with Bait and Switch and Nickel and Dimed. Blood and Thunder is so popular a variation that about a dozen authors have used it over the years.
Exercise: Identify two things your book is about, and link those things with "and." If you're stuck, go with Blood and Thunder.
X, Y, and Z. With the three-part title, we enter the realm of what Roy Peter Clark calls "encompassing magic" in his book Writing Tools (itself a nice example of an Adjective-Noun title). A series of three nouns "provides a sense of the whole," Clark writes; it allows us to triangulate the entire scope of a book's thesis. Consider Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, whose subtitle declares it to be about nothing less than "the fates of human societies." Sometimes a triplet title builds to a climax, or a punchline: Power, Faith, and Fantasy; Myths, Lies, and Downright Stupidity. For a contemporary twist, eliminate the "ands": Eat, Pray, Love. Or Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.
Exercise: Pick three words from your manuscript: one from the beginning, one from the middle, one from the end. String them together with (or without) conjunctions.
The X of Y. One of the most popular of all formulas, "The X of Y" is endlessly adaptable. On the one hand, there's Strunk and White's The Elements of Style. On the other, Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope. Or The Pursuit of Happyness, The Power of Now, The Botany of Desire, and that all-time bestseller, The Power of Positive Thinking. If you really want to score with your publisher and the public, let X = "End." I counted 43 "The End of ..." titles on Amazon (from the personal — The End of Diets, The End of Homework — to the global —The End of Oil, The End of Iraq, The End of American Exceptionalism). Substituting "Age" for "End" has much historical precedent as well: Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason, Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, and so on down to Alan Greenspan's The Age of Turbulence.
Exercise: Make two columns of nouns that bear some relevance to your subject matter. Let X equal a noun from one column and Y equal a noun from the other column. Switch nouns, and columns, until you've solved your title problem.
Verbing. If you want to communicate activity and direction, nothing beats a gerund for your title's first word. A verb makes the reader feel involved in the action; the gerund form gives you the cachet of omniscience. Stumbling on Happiness, Dreaming in Code, Getting Things Done, Loving Frank, Chasing Harry Winston, Breaking the Chains, Fighting for Air: Wham! Bam! Pow!
Exercise: What are you doing in your manuscript? Locate the verb, add -ing, and add a preposition and a noun. Voilà: your title.
It Takes a Proverb. Go ahead and adapt — or steal outright — a song lyric, idiom, or cliché for your title. It worked for Hillary Clinton (It Takes a Village), Yvon Chouinard (Let My People Go Surfing), and Mike Weiss (A Very Good Year: The Journey of a California Wine from Vine to Table). Mary Higgins Clark has built a lucrative empire on titles cribbed from children's rhymes and popular songs: Two Little Girls in Blue, Let Me Call You Sweetheart, On the Street Where You Live, I'll Be Seeing You. You can't copyright a title, so feel free to borrow!
Exercise: What were you listening to when you wrote the book? (Or: What does your main character listen to?) Your title's in there.
By the Numbers. Numerical titles are especially effective for business advice (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) and inspiration (90 Minutes in Heaven). Over in the mystery aisle, Janet Evanovich started her Stephanie Plum series with One for the Money and is now up to Fearless Fourteen.
Exercise: Roll a die. Write a title incorporating the number you get. No luck? Roll again.
How, What, When: Don't overlook the enduring appeal of "how to" in a book title, even if your book is not strictly speaking an advice manual. (Consider Liz Tuccillo's How to Be Single: A Novel, and Thomas Rockwell's kids' classic How to Eat Fried Worms.) What to Expect When You're Expecting has dominated the how-to bestseller lists for more than 20 years. Looking for something a little fresher? Try "when," the adverb less traveled. David Sedaris, a bellwether of literary hipness, titled his latest collection of essays When You Are Engulfed in Flames.
Exercise: Go down the Journalism 101 list: who, what, when, where, why, and how. Pick one; write a title. Repeat as needed.
See how easy it is? Now: go forth and title your way to the bestseller list. P.S. If you want some serious book-title advice, read Jayne Lytel's "Secrets of Book Title Writing."