What’s In a Name?

To answer my own question – a lot.

I’m a big fan of titles. A clever or evocative title is what makes a reader – myself included – pick up a book off the shelves. In fact, its title first drew me to The Perks of Being a Wallflower and the rest, as they say, was history.

Titles, like books themselves, can have trends, which I’ve spoken about before. Right now, for example, one-word titles or thought-provoking “The [something] of the [something]” seem to be the hot new things in marketing. These things change, but what never changes is the importance of a title that will grab a reader’s attention.

It’s very hard to come up with a good title. I’ve heard writers say they don’t bother coming up with anything too creative because “the publisher is going to change it anyway.” Honestly, this is sort of true. Depending on the way the market is going by the time your book comes out, or what hip new trends are popular, the publisher will input their expertise based on what will make your book more eye-catching to a buyer. No one is out to stifle your creativity or make you think it’s unappreciated. But sometimes that’s just the way it is. It’s about selling your book.

Publishers don’t always change your title on you though. And what’s more, from an agent’s point of view, seeing an unimaginative title, or one that doesn’t capture the spirit of the book, makes me think you’re not trying hard enough. If you slap a lame title on your book, who’s to say your writing isn’t unimaginative too? Is that a fair statement? No. Is a good or bad title a deal breaker? Absolutely not! But I’d be lying if I said it didn’t run through my head, even if just momentarily.

So, what do I mean by “bad” title?

– Ambiguous verbs that can be the title of any book
– Titles that evoke no emotion, image, or intrigue
– Titles that have been done before. (It’s true, titles are not protected by copyright law, but use your best judgment. You can’t name your book after a bestseller or popular film. Song titles are also a bit cringe-worthy, but there’s more wiggle room there.)
– Unnecessarily long or hard to say out loud. (See “Rural Juror” episode of 30 Rock – it’s very important to read things aloud before committing to any kind of phrasing or word choice)

Conversely, a “good” title is one that grabs a reader’s attention without giving too much away. It should encapsulate the book in a way the reader doesn’t understand yet.

Sure, your story is what matters most, but those little things can add up in your favor too. Titles are hard, but don’t shy away from them because you think they’re not important or will get changed. You know what else is hard? Writing. And we all know that gets changed in the editing process all the time.

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17 thoughts on “What’s In a Name?

  1. I love coming up with titles. Mine change sometimes as the project changes, but I love trying to come up with a title that really captures the spirit of the book. It's a challenge sometimes, but that's what makes it fun!

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  2. I admit it.

    I'm a title freak. I make them up all the time.

    That and names for imaginary bands.

    Also, good art direction with a cool typeface will make me pick up any kind of book, no matter the subject.

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  3. This post's timing was perfect for me, Sarah. Thank you for writing it. πŸ™‚ I was debating on whether or not to change my manuscript's title and now I'm surer than ever that I probably should. It's back to the drawing board for me.

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  4. Sarah, I am struggling with a title right now. The editor (for the publisher) didn't like the title I submitted. I'm fine with changing it. But I have been through thirty titles and nothing is grabbing me. I want a good title, a zippy, catchy one. I'm struggling to find it.

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  5. I'm not that good at coming up with great titles, so I often enlist the help of my beta readers – and even perfect online strangers – to generate a list of ideas. Sometimes, I just get stuck thinking in the same title rut that I always have with a manuscript, and I need someone to break me out of it.

    Other people might not come up with the best titles for your book (because they don't know it as well as you do, of course), but they just might get you thinking along a different train of thought. And that can make all the difference.

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  6. This is an interesting post, and I've actually been wondering recently how often publishers change a book's title instead of going with the author's original one. Would you happen to know that, Sarah? And do authors have any say in whether or not they get to keep their titles as is? Thanks! πŸ™‚

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  7. So, should I use “Wizardbiker” or “Shadow on the Road”?

    And good points you make – titles are really something that draws me in. “The stars my destination” is one book that is really intriguing. It's also interesting that sometimes the translated title is better than the original one. Joanne Harris' “Coastliners” is called, in Swedish, a word that is directly translated to “under/sub currents”. The whole novel is very much about everything that moves under the surface in people and in the ocean, so the Swedish title is spot on.

    That said, bad titles don't put me off in any way. They just don't draw me in as effectively. So I don't think people need to stress too much about them.

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  8. I was just thinking about this. So far my manuscript has been called 'untitled' because I can not for the life of me come up with one for it! I've had a few ideas, but after reading this I know some of them just won't cut it, so I can cross them off now. πŸ™‚

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