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Secrets of Book Title Writing

Visual Thesaurus subscriber Jayne Lytel, a nationally syndicated columnist and author of Act Early Against Autism, graciously sent us this terrific article. Thanks, Jayne!

Writers agonize over everything -- tone, style, word choice, structure, leads, endings, grammar, the long hours they work, don't work. One thing that's absolutely worth obsessing about is writing a tantalizing title for your book.

Your title is the initial element that attracts attention. While a book won't sell on its title alone, if your book is well written, focused and targets the needs of a specific audience -- and has a great title -- then you'll be ahead of most writers in securing a literary agent, which is still the first hurdle to overcome before earning a book contract.

Birthing a title requires condensing to its core the idea of your book, which is likely to run for at least 60,000 words, and then choosing 10 words or less to describe it. That left-brain exercise of distilling the meaning of your book into a handful of words is work. Sometimes, you'll have an ah-ha moment and come up with a stellar title.

I can tell you the general rules for producing a book title:

  • Avoid long titles and obscure words. Example: Responding to Infants and Parents: Inclusive Interaction in Assessment, Consultation, and Treatment in Infant/Family Practice (huh?)
  • Use poetic devices like alliteration and rhyme. Example: Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High
  • Use contrasting ideas. Example: The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference
  • Include benefits and solutions. Example: The First Days of School: How to Be an Effective Teacher
  • Consider words with the "k" and "c" sounds since the human ear likes these sounds as well as words that end in "o." Though not titles, these examples point to successful products, and your book is a product: Kodak, Coca Cola, Jell-O and Dumbo.
  • Browse titles at your local bookstore (or online) and study what makes them great.

There are also some new rules about titles that you have to consider in our cyber-connected, Internet age:

David Meerman Scott, author of the newly released The New Rules of Marketing and PR: How to Use News Releases, Blogs, Podcasting, Viral Marketing and Online Media to Reach Buyers Directly (that breaks the 10-word rule), elaborates: "An often ignored aspect of finding a good title is owning the title on the search engines and on Amazon.com. I have three books and in each case, I did a search for the title on Google before I finalized the titles. It is important that if someone goes to Amazon and enters your title or goes to a search engine, that only your book comes up. Too many authors make the mistake of choosing a title that is too common and brings up many 'false' hits, which only serves to confuse the person who may want to buy the book."

I'd like to add that your title needs to contain keywords that a potential reader would use to find your book on Amazon. Amazon doesn't always index the subhead of a book, so you'll need to make sure essential words are in the main title. That happened with my book, which is not yet published. Its original title, Almost Normal: Healing Autism through Early Intervention, lacked autism in the main title.

But there were other problems. It contained jargon (the words "early intervention") and sounded too "memoir-y." While my book blends memoir and prescriptive advice, the sales and marketing forces at Penguin said memoirs on autism weren't selling very well. They wanted more emphasis on the prescriptive advice to sustain sales. I deferred to their judgment, even though my literary agent and I loved Almost Normal.

My editor reminded me that the message of my book was about acting early. I suggested Act Early, which is the meaning of early intervention. But the title got rejected until I tacked on Against Autism, making the new title of the book, Act Early Against Autism, the winner. The subhead got revised to Give Your Child a Fighting Chance from the Start.

Although your publisher will seek your input in crafting the final title for your book, your publisher has the final say, or more precisely, the opinion of your publisher's sales force weighs heavily into the decision-making process.

Barbara Esstman, author of several books and a Redbook fiction award winner, said she sometimes gets a title early, especially with short stories. "It helps to have it, since it serves as a thematic target and focus point. Other times, I'm not so clear on where I'm going with the writing and wait for friends to bail me out."

She did that when she wrote The Other Anna, inviting over her writer's group. "I gave them a lot of wine, and we brainstormed." In the end, the group came up with several choices. Her U.S. publisher picked one title but British publishers picked another, which was the one they said they hated but a marketing survey told them would sell better because readers liked it.

For another book, Night Ride Home, Esstman said she stole the title from a Joni Mitchell song. That book went into 13 foreign translations, and all of them were given different titles, so if you look at her bookshelf, it appears she wrote 14 different books.

Author Carole Fungaroli Sargent told me she played a word game to come up with Traditional Degrees for Nontraditional Students. "I wrote all the possible words and word combinations I could think of on a sheet of unlined paper, trying not to put the words in neat rows, but instead placing them higgledy-piggledy on the page. I put them in circles, stacked them under one another with the same letter connecting, wrote them backwards, and spoked them like petals radiating out from the center of a flower. This helped create unexpected word combinations that eventually led to the title."

As you begin this process, think of a title as a movie marquee or sign on a billboard. You only have a few seconds to attract a reader's attention. Make it memorable. Sometimes it helps to write the title and then delete all the unnecessary words.

While you won't be able to adapt all of these ideas to fit the unique idea, or message, of your book, you should be able to put the best ones to work for your best-seller.

(More on messaging: Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip and Dan Heath. Keyword research search tools: 1) Wordtracker (membership fee required; aggregates search term volume from all major search engines) 2) Keyword Selector Tool (free tool but shows Yahoo! search volume only).

Jayne Lytel is a former nationally syndicated columnist and debut author of Act Early Against Autism: Give Your Child a Fighting Chance from the Start. You can subscribe to her newsletter on writing contests at her blog, My First Book Debuts: Musings and the Nitty-Gritty of Writing Your First Book

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday July 25th 2007, 2:30 AM
Comment by: Nur Aysegul G.
Thank you very much, I can now stop worrying about my title :o)
Thursday July 26th 2007, 8:37 PM
Comment by: Ernesto D.
Great Jayne !
I am brazilian and living in Brazil. I am just about sending My Original on Columbus Great Projet: cross the Ocean [851 pages]. Evethough is written in Portuguese, I found a perfect adaptation for ideas you just gave me.
Thank you very much.
Ernesto DeVita, Jr
Saturday September 15th 2007, 3:13 PM
Comment by: Marjan P.
There should be a seventh rule added: Break the rule! If here is a certain fashion of giving titles in a genre, it is innovative to break it. Arthur Kopit did that titling his play »Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad«. Title must be distinctive in the array of titles.
Thursday December 3rd 2009, 8:54 AM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)
Would “huh?” be a good title? Would it be distinctive?
I’m thinking of a subtitle along the lines: “I thought we could communicate” (where the title and the subtitle would form a dialogue, as if between two people). Would this suggest that the book would be about communication?

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