How to Come Up with a Great Book Title

ereader-best-titleLife just isn’t fair. It’s hard enough to write a book, but then you have to come up with a title for it, too.

Not long ago, as we minions reclined around the gruel pot, we got into a discussion about how we come up with titles for our books. (We were asked for our input for an article about story title secrets at ridethepen.com, which started this conversation.) As it turns out, we use a range of techniques, from market research to gut feelings to serendipity.

Yvonne Hertzberger is at the market research end of the scale: “I try to make sure the title fits the genre. And I check that there isn’t another one out there with the same title. Sometimes I struggle forever; others it just pops into my head and feels right. Last time I also consulted my writers group and the feedback was helpful.”

Melinda Clayton’s process is similar: “I always research a title before I start writing. I try to find something that incorporates the story but also includes a little bit of mystery. My favorite way to find a title is to search through relevant poems or Bible verses.”

Laurie Boris brainstorms her titles: “I like to pluck a line of dialogue or a recurring motif from the story… I was having such a tough time on one title that I’d brainstormed three hundred possibilities. And then came back to the first one I’d thought of.”

I’m a brainstormer, too. The titles I’m happiest with relate to several things in the book at once, and I’ve been known to dive into a thesaurus to find words with the right nuance. The title I struggled with must has got to be the one for Book 4 of the Pipe Woman Chronicles. The other books in the series all have one-word titles ending in -ed. I ended up calling that fourth book Gravid, which at least ends in -d.

RJ Crayton blends market research and her gut: “I try to get titles that capture the essence of the book, and that aren’t overly long. I’ve heard that three words is the sweet spot, but it also depends on genre. A good rule of thumb is to look at the titles in the top 40 in your genre and see if there’s a trend or certain feel about them and try to mimic that.”

Melissa Bowersock’s process is about as far from that as you can get: “I give my books a working title while I’m writing them, but something else invariably suggests itself when it’s done. I actually have no idea how I come to the titles I do, but they always seem to fit.”

Martin Crosbie, too, is a gut-feeling kind of person: “I’m sorry to be so unoriginal but I do pretty much what Melissa and Yvonne do. A title always seems to come to me while I’m writing the book, I check that there isn’t a competing title, and I run with it. And like Yvonne says, sometimes I also struggle forever and other times it just pops into my head. Depends on the kindness of the muse I guess. Or maybe it’s a Canadian thing?”

Maybe not. Gordon Long is Canadian, too, and his process is pretty involved: “I spend more time on titles than on any other words in the story. Sometimes I go through lists from the thesaurus. I look at other people’s titles in my genre. I have even stooped to the story title generating programs on the Internet. Not for the actual words, but to find a pattern that feels right. I have a trilogy written with two perfect titles, forcing me to spend years (yes, years) trying to match them for the third book. Except for my book Why Are People So Stupid? On that one, I’ve had the title in my head all my life, waiting for me to collect enough evidence.”

Kathy Rowe seeks her inspiration wherever she can find it: “Sometimes silly places – like seeing a billboard with ‘Space Available’ written across it.”

And our fearless leader, Admin K.S. Brooks, is all over the map. Sometimes she’s a little bit Melissa Bowersock with the working title and then something else comes along. Other times, she knows the title before she writes the book, or she pulls a piece of dialogue a la Laurie Boris. And then, there’s this: “It all depends on the story, and if it’s part of a series. For my Cover Me series, the word ‘Night’ is in every title.”

So there you have it. We don’t know the perfect way to find a book title, either. How do you do it?

Author: Lynne Cantwell

Lynne Cantwell grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. She worked as a broadcast journalist for many years; she has written for CNN, the late lamented Mutual/NBC Radio News, and a bunch of radio and TV news outlets you have probably never heard of, including a defunct wire service called Zapnews. But she began as a fantasy writer (in the second grade), and is back at it today. She currently lives near Washington, DC. Learn more about Lynne at her blog and at her Amazon author page.

27 thoughts on “How to Come Up with a Great Book Title”

  1. My debut romance novel is a MG/YA Paranormal romance entitled “I Kissed a Ghost.”

    The way I came up with the title is really quite simplistic. I merely kept on summarizing the storyline for the book until I had enough words to form a title. The story is about a girl who has to move with her family because her father has gotten a promotion. When she gets to her new home she soon discovers it has a ghost her age named George who she winds up kissing.

    This is NOT a request for anyone to buy a copy of the book !!!

  2. I find it interesting that more often than not, the title I have in mind at the start ends up being very distant and unrelated to the story at the end. I’ve done 2 books that way this year; started with a title that I just knew was the right one, but by the time I’d finished the books, the title was just completely superfluous. Luckily, in both cases, a more fitting title suggested itself. Once I get a title, I will often spend days trying to improve on it or destroy it, a devil’s advocate kind of thing, trying every way I know to prove that the title isn’t good. If I’m lucky, the title stands all onslaughts and makes it to the cover of the book.

    1. I like the devil’s advocate approach, Melissa. I may have to do something similar for my NaNo project. I finally got around to brainstorming titles for the individual books in the series last night, now that I’m 35k words in. I’ve had the series title for weeks — but now that I have the book titles, I may end up tweaking that, too.

  3. This is fascinating stuff and I’ve often wondered how other writers choose their titles.
    My titles basically tell what the book is about and with most of them it’s been there since I decided to write that particular tale. During editing I read the whole text aloud to my dog. Okay, I know he sleeps through large parts of it, but hearing the words helps me. Then at the end I ask my dog, “does the title fit?” At that point he generally comes and puts his nose on my knee, which is his sign of acceptance. So there it is, he decides my titles, and hasn’t approved a duff one yet. 🙂

  4. I don’t have much to add about coming up with a title, but I do take an extra step in the process that helps narrow down my list of potential titles. I do a search on Amazon to see how many times a title has been used. For instance, I might like “The Journey” as a title, but probably not so much after seeing how often it has already been used.

    This also leads to a preference of mine to find a title that hasn’t been used before, or hardly at all.

    1. That’s what I was doing last night while brainstorming for my new book, Bruce. It sounded like such a good idea to put “moon” in the title — until I checked out Amazon. :/ Back to the drawing board…

  5. One thing that has only been mentioned in passing is the research involved once you’ve found the “perfect” title. That’s to make sure that 17 other writers didn’t think it was the perfect title, too. That’s why one-word titles are problematic. Although I doubt if anyone else has used the title “Gravid.” Well, not in Fiction, anyway 🙂
    Google Search, Amazon search, Wikipedia search. Have I missed any?

    1. I only look on Amazon, Gordon, as I figure that’s where my biggest competition is going to be. But maybe I should expand my horizons.

      And yes, I figured Gravid would be pretty safe. The next book in the series was Annealed; I figured that one was safe, too. 😀

  6. I haven’t published that many books, but of the ones I have, the first was easy because it was a name I made up, plus it was out of the story, and I couldn’t imagine any other title.

    The second one, a book of short stories, gave me hell. I had a working title, but once I began the cover, I knew the working title wouldn’t work. Not sure the title I finally chose works any better but it’s sealed in concrete now.

    The serialised book I’m publishing now ended up being easy too. I’m not sure that Innerscape is a real word, but it encapsulates the world of the story, and again, I can’t imagine any other title. A small benefit is that there are only a few other books with the same title on Amazon, so I’m happy.

  7. Of my four published books, I came up with the titles of two before I started writing them, and the title helped me to focus on what lay at the core of the story. This was especially true for Gringolandia (which started out as In Gringolandia but lost the “In” pretty quickly), a novel about a Chilean teenager living with his mother and sister in exile in the United States, and what happens when his father, a political prisoner under the Pinochet dictatorship, is suddenly freed and joins them in what he calls, disparagingly, “Gringolandia.” The two manuscripts I’m revising now also had titles before I started. One is from a children’s song and the other, a nickname for a notorious prison.

  8. Of my 13 books with Harlequin, I think only two kept the titles I’d wanted. The editors changed the others, sometimes a little, sometimes totally. And their decision was final.
    Now I’m publishing for myself, I can choose my own titles. I’m about to republish one of my backlist and it will have a variant on the title I originally chose and that Harlequin vetoed!
    Finding titles ain’t easy, but it’s one of the great freedoms from self-pubbing. Along with having covers that actually fit my story and my characters😏

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