Titles distinguish the mediocre, embarrass the superior and are disgraced by the inferior. - George Bernard Shaw
There are 327 million entries on Google for ‘great book title’, 166 million for ‘what makes a great book title’ and 82.5 million entries for ‘how to write a great book title’. That’s why this blog has the rather boring title ‘What makes a great book title?’ because I’m looking to maybe snag a few of the people who are obviously interested in finding a catchy title for their book. ‘Catchy book titles’ would bring up 88.6 million entries by the way and the only reason for this introductory paragraph is to use these keywords as much as I can because all of this makes a difference to the spiders that crawl over all our sites all the time looking for new content.
Now we’re done with all that let’s get started. The real title of this post is:
Do you come here often?
It’s a line. I seriously wonder if it’s used any more. Then again, using a cripplingly obvious cliché like that can actually work wonders if you have the right comeback to, “You cannot be serious!” The chat-up like is something that takes real skill to master. I am not one of them. A line, however, is no good without a hook and some bait. You’re looking for a response so that you can reel them in:
- I have had a really bad day and it always makes me feel better to see a pretty girl smile. So, would you smile for me?
- Excuse me, but I think I dropped something!!! MY JAW!!
- Hi my name's Doug. That's God spelled backwards with a little bit of you wrapped in it.
- Pardon me miss, I seem to have lost my phone number, could I borrow yours?
Of course a chat-up line is a form of advertising. The more blatant you are, even if you’re clever, the less chance you have. The best lines are often cryptic. Incidentally there are 25.4 million sites devoted to chat-up lines. There are so many, the majority of which are bad, but every now and then you come across one that might just word, for example:
- Hi. I suffer from amnesia. Do I come here often?
Okay, it’s still not good but it shows initiative. You’ve added a twist to an old favourite. It might buy you a witty response rather than a sarcastic one and that’s all it needs to do. If you’re lucky your chat-up line will have turned into a pick-up line. If you’re very, very lucky. But then it takes all sorts.
Book titles are pick-up lines, They’re crying out to passersby: “Pick me up! No, not that one over there. Me. Me. Pick up me. I’ll make it worth your while. We don’t even need to see each other when you’re done with me. You can toss me back on the shelf and you’ll never have to worry about me calling you up and being all desperate on the phone. Just pick me up. Please!”
If you heard all that from a book, seriously, would you pick it up? No? Me neither. I’m looking for a book with a bit of class. I don’t much care for the hard sell. Whenever I go into a shop and a smarmy salesperson sidles up beside me then I can guarantee I’ll be out of there in two shakes of a jiffy.
So, what makes a great title? (See that’s me cunningly slipping in my keywords there.) The real answer is: It depends. The real problem is getting your title in front of your potential customer. You could be sitting in Wembley Stadium with another 89,999 people and the girl of your dreams could be sitting in the stand opposite, straight in your line of vision but what’s the chance of you seeing her, let alone managing to bump into her? A snowball’s chance in hell I’d say. The Iliad Bookshop in North Hollywood carries 100 thousand books and from the photos it doesn’t look so big but that’s a lot of books whatever way you look at it. Go online and you’re looking at 100 million+ (that’s the figure AbeBooks quotes).
The trick is getting your title to stand out. (Let’s forget covers for the moment.) How does one do that? Are there are rules worth considering?
A title is not just important, it’s crucial. It has a tremendous amount of work to do in a fraction of a second. Consider how fast you scan books either online or in a bookshop. I would actually suggest that online is slower. The facts show that we read 25% slower onscreen and as far as book titles go we’re never simply faced with a shelf of spines. It’s scary how quickly I scan bookshelves. I’m a little informavore, scurrying around the shelves trying to sniff out something tasty to read and every now and then I’ll stop and snatch something from a shelf for a closer look.
Now, I don’t usually go into bookshops unless I’m looking to buy a present and frankly most of the time I buy all of them online but here are three books I bought for my wife, my daughter and my wife’s daughter:
Each of them proved to be a perfect buy and all of them went on to read everything each author had written. The thing is, when I look at what sites online recommend I have to wonder why I made these particular choices.
Keep It Short. Your book title should portray a message but not be too long as to bore the potential reader. It should of a length that can be read at a glance and require no time at all for it to register with the brain. Short and simple works best.
It’s been suggested that no more than three words works best, certainly no more than six. Short, sharp and to the point, e.g. Robert Ludlum's thrillers have three-word titles: The Bourne Identity, The Matarese Circle, The Rhinemann Exchange. The other word that keeps cropping up when you think about title is catchy. You want a title that doesn’t simply attract but one that stays with you. A catchy tune sticks in your head. Think of a catchphrase. Every time you hear it, if it’s a good one, it evokes good feelings. It’s a childish thing. My daughter when she was wee would often say to me: “Do it again. Do it again,” and I’d do whatever it was again and no sooner had I done it then she wanted it again; there’s pleasure in the familiar which is why we love it when Bruce Forsyth manages to slip one or two into his shows, in fact we’re waiting for them. A good title is something we don’t mind hearing over and over again, like:
as opposed to:
which does nothing for me frankly. I’ve not read either book. I have had a copy of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time in my hand, a couple of times. I think Carrie may have a copy and I’ve heard it’s readable so I may get to it someday. It will be a cold day in hell when I go looking for a Single White Vampire. It may well be a decent book. The first two must have made a profit or we wouldn’t be onto a third book but the title is so off-putting.
There are other things a title should be if you have any chance of getting a total stranger to check it out. It should be compelling, intriguing and different. I think all of the three books I mentioned above meet those criteria but they don’t have short titles. I’m not against short titles but it’s like dot-coms, all the cool ones have been snapped up.
Some people think that a good title should suggest what the content of the book will be. Now, that’s fine with non-fiction books like:
but I think that can work against a work of fiction. There are things you can do that will make the title click with your reader and that’s use expressions that suggest theme or genre. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time does that. It evokes the Sherlock Holmes stories of Conan Doyle which is where we also get:
sadly only available in an edition for the Kindle. So we know it’s a mystery in just the same way as we know that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is going to be a mystery even though neither tells us anything of significance about the books; there’s probably a dog in the first one and someone called Benjamin Button in the second. Not very helpful.
I’ve just watched a delightful little film called Cashback. What do you think it’s about? It’s actually about an art student who one day discovers he can stop time. The words “cash back” only appear a couple of times in the film, once, when he talking about getting paid, you work and you get cash back; the second is when a girl at the till asks a customer if, after paying with a debit card, he wants any cash back. Other than that that’s it. Not a very good title but a most watchable little film, a “real film” as my wife calls them. Why didn’t he call it The Boy Who Could Stop Time? There are plenty of books and films that have The Boy Who... as a title:
The Boy Who...
Harnessed the Wind, Knew Too Much, Invented Christmas, Invented Skiing, Cried Wolf, Cried Horse, Cried Fabulous, Cried Bigfoot, Grew Flowers, Saw True, Could Fly, Flew, Could Fly Without a Motor, Flew Through Windows, Fell Out of the Sky, Dared, Listened, Would Live Forever, Loved Windows, Loved Tornadoes, Had (Nearly) Everything, Was Always Late, Changed the World, Would be Shakespeare, Would be a Helicopter, Fell into a Book, Became a Legend, Sued the Pope, Followed Ripley, Saved Baseball, Saved the World, Who Didn’t Want to Save the World, Loved Books, Taught the Beekeeper to Read, Could Make Himself Disappear, Loved Anne Frank, Was 84, Dared to Rock, Climbed into the Moon, Lost His Face, Would Never Grow Up, Would be King (Who Was), Was Wanted Dead or Alive – or Both, Got Caught Up in a War, Shot Down an Airship, Haunted Himself, Couldn’t Stop Washing, Built the Boat, Would Not Go to Sea, Sailed with Blake, Set Sail on a Questionable Quest, Went to Sea and Came Back a Man, Returned from the Sea, Was Raised as a Dog, Spoke Dog, Went Ape, Was a Bear, Kicked Pigs, Didn’t Give In, Didn’t Believe in Spring, Dreamed of Cars, Made a Dragonfly, Loved to Draw, Wouldn’t go to Bed, Did Not Like Television, Wouldn’t Share, Drank too Much, Made His Way, Had His own Way, Lost His Birthday, Ran to the Woods, Lost his Bellybutton...
You get the idea.
Many authors go for plays on words, expressions that make you do a double take: The Sprouts of Wrath, A History of the World in 10½ Chapters or The Toyminator. The other popular trick is to pick an expression that will ring a bell but change the context. Loads of authors have pinched titles from Shakespeare for example. I had Agatha Christie pencilled in at the worst offender but Aldous Huxley pips her to post with seven titles purloined from the Bard’s work, Brave New World (from The Tempest – Miranda: O brave new world, That has such people in't!) but these days who would associate it first with Shakespeare; it has become its own thing and who is to say who the authors of the following were thinking of when they wrote:
Knits, Tomorrows, Heart, Rap, Words, Girl, Family, Families, West, Citizen, War, Films, Universe, York, Works, Quest, Town, Houses, Church, Voices, What?, Wanda, You, Judaism, Seeds, Brain, Schools, Classrooms, Sexual Frontier, Bioethics, Science, Baby, Babies, Workplace, TV, Politics, Bride, Victuals, Causes, Ballot, People, Millennium...
That last one was from Garfield Predicts: Fearless Forecasts for a Brave New Millennium incidentally. I would suggest that the words ‘Brave New’ have lost pretty much all their power which is sad because Brave New World is an excellent title on several counts which is probably why Iron Maiden used it as an album title.
Although Shakespeare’s plays have been pilfered of all their best lines (you can find a list of titles of works based on Shakespearean phrases in Wikipedia) he’s not the only source writers use: three of Ian Rankin’s novels borrow their titles from Rolling Stones albums (Black and Blue, Let it Bleed and Beggars Banquet); James Patterson uses nursery rhymes: Roses are Red, Jack and Jill, Four Blind Mice, Along Came a Spider; Martha Grimes used names of English pubs: The Old Silent, The Dirty Duck, The Old Contemptibles, The Anodyne Necklace. Needless to say the Bible is hugely popular.
Although Huxley denied it, it’s obvious that he must have been influenced in writing Brave New World by coming across the book We by the Russian Yevgeny Zamyatin; Orwell couldn’t deny it since he reviewed the book in 1946 and Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949. We, of course, takes the idea of a punchy title to its extreme one would think, the one word (in fact the one syllable) title. Again there have been many of these and all the good ones have been used up:
One, We, They, She, Who? Rent, Lost, Loot, Bite, Sleuth, Cell, It, Once, Ur, Them, Skin, Truth, Gone, , Caught, Sail, Switch, Crime, Cuts, Fire, Ark, Flood, Thud! Dune, Spin, Spiral, Knife...
Not only one word but single letter titles have almost all been used and most of them more than once, titles being free of copyright:
A (poetry book) B (newspaper) D (film, magazine), E (novel, film), G (2 albums), H (film, TV series, 2 songs, album), I (6 songs, EP, 7 albums), J (song), K (book, song, album), L (novel, 2 albums), M (comic strip, 3 films, magazine, book, 3 songs), N (video game, 2 albums, song), O (film, 4 albums, magazine), P (song), Q (film, radio show, TV series, song, album, magazine), R (album), T (2 albums), U (film, 3 songs, album), V (TV franchise, album, poem, magazine, novel), W (2 films, magazine, novel, album), X (2 films, 3 comics, 2 video games, 10 albums, 3 songs), Y (2 albums, board game), Z (album, film, play, video game, novel)
I have no doubt that I’ll have missed a few but I think my point has been made.
One of the things you want is a title that’s easy to remember. It’s one thing having a title that’s not dull but finding one that’s appropriate to the content and satisfies all the other criteria I’ve listed is not going to be easy. Probably the hardest single criterion though has to be be original. When it comes to titles that is never going to be easy especially if you write in a subgenre like vampire stories. Seriously, how many books do you think have ‘blood’ in the title?
Blood, Blood Brother, Blood Brothers, Blood Sisters, Blood Promise, Blood Pact, Blood of the Fold, Blood Rites, Blood Bound, Blood Noir, Blood Magic (film), Blood of Beasts, Blood: The Last Vampire, True Blood, Blood Ties, Blood Diamond, Blood and Bone, Blood Simple, Blood Work, Blood and Chocolate, Blood In Blood Out, Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, Blood Feast, Blood Trails, Blood+, Blood Rain, Blood on the Sun, Blood of the Vampires, Blood and Sand, Blood Dolls, Blood and Black Lace, Blood Alley, Blood Sabbath, Blood for Dracula, Blood and Oil, Blood on Satan’s Claw, Blood and Sex Nightmare, Blood Work, Blood River, Blood Surf, Blood Money, Blood Simple, Blood on the Floor, Blood of Fu Manchu, Blood Ranch, Blood of the Werewolf, Blood Thirsty, Blood Feast, Blood and Wine, Blood of Dragon Peril, Blood Moon, Blood Bath, Blood of a Hero, Blood Meridian, Blood Promise, Blood Beast, Blood Pact, Blood Red Snow, Blood Born, Blood Rivals, Blood Line, Blood Noir, Blood of the Mantis, Blood of the Fold, Blood Fever, Blood Bound, Blood of Elves, Blood Atonement, Blood over Water, Blood Red, Blood Trail, Blood in the Glens, Blood Wedding, Blood of the Isles, Blood Hunt, Blood Music, Blood Debt, Blood in the Cotswolds; Blood Red, Snow White; Blood Feud, Blood Rock, Blood Money, Blood and Fire, Blood Hunters, Blood of Angels; Blood, Sweat and Tea; Blood Eagle, Blood on the Tracks, Blood from Stone, Blood Honey, Blood Song, Blood Vines, Blood of Honour, Blood of Victory, Blood from the Skies, Blood Orange Brewing, Blood Fever, Blood Memory, Blood Game, Blood Royal,
Cold Blood, In Cold Blood, The Coldest Blood, Hot Blood, There Will be Blood, Wire in the Blood, Book of Blood, Throne of Blood, Theatre of Blood, First Blood, Ebony Blood, Streets of Blood, Flesh and Blood, Blue Blood, Innocent Blood, Wise Blood, Brotherhood of Blood, Captain Blood, Baron Blood, Cauldron of Blood, The House that Dripped Blood, A Bucket of Blood, Castle of Blood, Bay of Blood, Satan’s Blood, I Drink Your Blood, Corridors of Blood, Camp Blood, Illusion of Blood, Baby Blood, Mixed Blood, Wise Blood, Bad Blood, Lips of Blood, Queen of Blood, Kiss My Blood, Brain of Blood, Dark Blood, Divine by Blood, Traitor’s Blood, Dog Blood, Tunnels of Blood, Cadian Blood, A Taint in the Blood, A Question of Blood, Precious Blood, In the Blood, Heart’s Blood, Summer of Blood, Roman Blood, Brotherhood of Blood, Blood and Mistletoe, Fire in the Blood, Dragon Blood, Distant Blood, Vienna Blood, Field of Blood, The Sweet Scent of Blood, April Blood, The Parliament of Blood, The Field of Blood, Written in Blood, One Blood,
Just a thought: what happens if a vampire turns a guy who’s already a werewolf? Does he become a werevamp? Do you realise there’s no book out there called The Werevamp or The Vampwolf? Get scribbling right now why don’t you?
Okay, okay, not all books above are about vampires, they’re not even all horror novels, but once a title’s gone it’s gone. Only it’s not. If you want to call your next book The Dark Side of the Moon you can (although it’s already been done – twice, not counting the non-fiction) but what would be the point? The same goes for all the Brave New... books – what does the title really tell you about the content? Now, Anthony Burgess’s 1985 was a touch of genius as far as I’m concerned. I can’t imagine anyone not picking it up if only to see who had the nerve to write a sequel (not that it is) but then it’s job has been done – the book is in your hand and it’s time for the blurb to start and earn its keep.
My question is: Is that last question important? The purpose of a title is to make you investigate further. Usually it’s sitting on an attractive cover that should do the rest of the work but not all cover art is worth much. Take When I Was Five I Killed Myself as an example. My copy has a red cover with the title on it and the author’s name and that is it and yet my review of the book is one of my most read posts. I investigated it – I first heard of it in someone’s list in Amazon – purely based on the title which, to be honest, although the words do appear in the book, has little to do with the main story and if you didn’t read the entire first chapter you’d cope just fine. But it reels readers in.
The title here may be a bit on the long side (if you’re going to stick by the rules) but it has something else: sound appeal. Would The Great Gatsby have done as well had F. Scott Fitzgerald stuck with his original title of: Trimalchio in West Egg? How about The Eyre Affair or The Wee Free Men? I think titles like that have a much greater chance of being remembered than say, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. My wife and I went to see that when it came out and every time we went to tell someone about it we couldn’t get the name right, my wife especially. (Side note: in her perversity I asked her just now and she got it first time.) She couldn’t remember The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover; this time she suggested The Boy, The Cook, His Knife and His Mother. Not bad.
I think names make rotten titles. And yet people insist on using them, Jilly Cooper being at the top of that list of offenders with:
Octavia, Harriet, Bella, Prudence, Imogen, Pandora, Emily, Lisa & Co
Then, of course, we have the made-up names, for example:
These aren’t titles, they’re labels. And if you look at the covers all you’ll see is a picture of a beautiful woman. But, you see, what sells these books are not the titles but the author’s name. The same goes for anyone who has made the bestseller list. J. K. Rowling could call her next book Smrvkinstroudnvest’s Pink Borgulshart and it would sell millions. It wouldn’t even matter if Smrvkinstroudnvest never even appeared in the book. The rest of us don’t have that luxury. We have to consider our titles carefully.
All Rowling’s Harry Potter books begin with Harry Potter and the... – it’s become her trademark. That’s another thing you have to think about when you know you have a series of books in you (or already written). My first novel is called Living with the Truth. I could’ve called it The Old Man and the Truth (I mean The Old Man and the Sea was good enough for Hemingway) but I didn’t. I didn’t have a title right away when I started the sequel but I could’ve chosen something like Nothing but the Truth or Dead to the Truth to try and keep the character’s name in the title. Instead I went with Stranger than Fiction with its implied “The Truth is...” at the beginning; the expression is so well known that I could get away with it. There’s built in familiarity. As it is, there are books (and a film) using all four titles now in existence. My titles have a lot to do with the content but I wonder when Sue Grafton wrote A is for Alibi she already had B is for Burglar in mind? And since she’s just published U is for Undertow I also wonder if she’s starting to worry about where’s she’s going after Z? Since Hitchcock had already done Dial M for Murder I was curious to see what her choice was. It was actually M is for Malice which left Neil Gaiman free to use M is for Magic.
Personally I like titles that mislead you a bit, that you have to read the book to fully understand, titles like The Catcher in the Rye or The Dead Zone. I actually don’t think that The Catcher in the Rye is that great a title even after having read the book. He could’ve called it Holden Caulfield, and joined the lines of books like Tom Jones, Thérèse Raquin, Dolores Claiborne, Rose Blanche, Mary Poppins and Jane Eyre to name just a few.
In recent years there’s been a trend to inventing new words:
Californication, Weaveworld, Ringworld, Dreamcatcher, Neverwhere, Pandorum, Pandaemonium, Kisscut, Retromancer, Cryptonomicon, Necrophenia, Chainfire, Xenocide, Neuromancer, Timequake, Halfhead, Mechanicum, Traumascape
I have to say I like titles like this. Every time I see a new one I think: Damn! I wish I’d thought of that. I do have a poem called ‘Armageddonitis’. It’s not a very good poem but it is a good title.
One thing I never use is a working title. I try titles out but I’ve never struggled giving my books titles; they all seemed quite obvious to me. Whether they’re the best titles I could have chosen is another thing but they do meet many of the criteria I’ve mentioned above.
In my researches I did run across a few titles where the author describes exactly what’s in the tin like Alien (it’s a film about an alien) or Ghost or Soldier or Detective (you see where this is going) or Peter Straub’s novels Ghost Story and Mystery.
The good thing – really the amazing thing – is that authors are still coming up with unique and interesting titles. Considering all the ones that have been used already – and we’re talking millions – I’m not sure even ‘amazing’ covers it. Let me leave you with a few titles that would (or have) stopped me in my tracks. You will doubtless have a few of your own.
Needless to say some of these books may be truly awful. All I’m recommending are the titles. There’s a list of 100 Best Book Titles over at Goodreads if you’re interested.