Choosing the right title for your book is one of the most important steps in the want-to-be-published process. Yes, titles can (and often do!) change, your writing is important, etc… but titles are branding, and good branding can make or break a pitch.
Your title is the first thing an agent sees, whether it is in the subject line of your query email, at the top of a contest entry, or the title of a forum post. An agent skimming may make the decision whether or not to read your query or entry based solely on the title. An eye-catching, titillating title can make a reader immediately curious. Equally, a generic or tacky title can prejudice the agent (or any reader) against your book. A title can convey not only tone, but subject matter and genre. Some titles scream “middle grade!” while others shout “moody YA speculative.”
These are the do’s and don’t’s of book titles, as I see them.
• DO choose a title that fits your genre (YA, MG, NA, Adult, etc.).
In middle grade, it is perfectly OK to have longer, descriptive, even quirky titles. These are sometimes alright for YA, as well, but depending on the type of book. A cutesy, quirky title might be perfect for a funny YA contemporary but ill-fitting for your sci-fi post-apoc tale. Generally, though, cutesy titles are best suited to middle grade. (some great ones are The Strange Case of Origami Yoda, Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow, Sideways Stories from Wayside School (I’M OLD), etc.) The trend in YA tends more toward one-word, evocative, descriptive titles, or pithy, two-or-three word titles (or short phrases). Examples: Divergent, The Fault in Our Stars, Delirium, Catching Jordan, A Darkness Strange & Lovely, Throne of Glass, Ultraviolet, Eleanor & Park etc. etc. etc.
• DO choose a title that reflects the content of your book
This isn’t always easy, but when it is done well, it can market your book easily and powerfully. In a lot of online contests, the only information you get to showcase with your entry is title, genre and first 250 words. An evocative title can sell and entry (especially in combination with your genre), even if your 250 doesn’t dive right into the labeled genre. Coupled with your 250, the title could push an agent to request more. Personal anecdata: I wrote a time travel YA, but there’s no time travel immediately apparent. But my working title–FUTURESHOCK–screamed time travel, and time travel intrigue, in particular. As much confidence as I have in my writing/work, I know my title did a lot of the heavy lifting. I’ve seen other unique titles in contests that told me pretty much everything I needed to know about the book, and made me want to read them immediately.
And outside of contests, again: when you query, the first (and only) thing an agent sees until they open your email is QUERY: TITLE. If your title more-or-less-obviously tells them your genre, it could bump you in the query queue (for those who read out of order), or at least set-up some excitement for their reading your query. “Oh, look, I can tell from the title this is probably a juicy YA horror/contemporary/sci-fi!”
• DON’T use a title that is already out on the market, or coming to market in the next two years, or the same as a popular film/TV show/whatever
Your title shows an agent that you have done your market research, that you are aware of trends in your genre, and what is already available/coming out in the next few years. Before you query, search Google, Amazon, Goodreads and Publisher’s Weekly to see if a) a book is already out or b) a deal announcement/book release announcement has been made for the same title. This is not always perfect: not every upcoming release is Google-able or on Amazon, so you may also want to poll your YA-loving friends who may know additional titles you don’t.
Recently, during WriteOnCon, I noticed several stories using the same titles as YA books that are coming out in 2014. I knew about these titles because I’m a fan of the agents that rep the books, and had already added them to my Goodreads to read. In fairness to those authors, I did a Google search and Amazon search and only found one of the books that way, but it illustrates my point: can you imagine if book #1, which happened to not only have the same title, but be in the *exact same genre* with similar setting, was queried to the agent that repped the book of the same title? That’s egg on your face! If you KNOW another book is using your title, even if it is perfect for your book and painful to change, do it.*
*fun fact! This happened to me! A lovely agent let me know she had just gone on sub with a book using the same title. She told me to keep using my title for querying until her book sold, since it’s a great title. We laughed about it–great minds think alike! Regardless, I was able to start the emotional process of letting go of my title early 🙂 You can do it!
• DO use a title that can soak up the Google spotlight, should it make it all the way to publication
This is kind of optional, as there have been plenty of amazing books that used perfectly-common words or terms that were unique to the book world, if not the rest of the world. So if you Google Divergent or Insurgent or Allegient, you get a mixed Google result (and in the early days, you didn’t get any book results at all unless you amended “book” to your search; now it is better), but those are perfect titles for those books and unique to YA. However, if you *can* strike on something somewhat original, it’s a plus because when people Google your book title (or parts of it), they can find you, even if they don’t know your name, or publisher, or anything else. (this reason is reason #2 not to use a title already used by a film or TV show–Google confusion)
• DON’T use concepts/titles/names from your book that are super obscure/difficult to read/pronounce
If I can’t figure out how to read/pronounce your title, that’s gonna be a pass for me. I can’t be the only one. Even the most epic fantasies generally have accessible titles.
• DO prepare a list of alternate titles
You don’t have to keep anything super formal, but jotting down alternate titles as you write, revise and query is smart, just in case an agent or editor asks you for a change down the line. They’ll want a list of options, and you don’t want to be put on the spot, having to come up with twenty different title options on a 48 hour deadline.
• DO consider whether your book is a standalone or a series
Books that are a series–duology, trilogy, or more–should use a naming convention on the first book that can be replicated for the rest of the books so they “fit” together. You don’t have to have it all figured out ahead of time, but it’s smart to choose a title for the first book that has a construction or pun worked into it that can be played on for further books. Some great examples of series titles: White Cat/Red Glove/Black Heart by Holly Black, the City of Glass/Bone/etc. by Cassandra Clare, the aforementioned Divergent/Insurgent/Allegiant series titles by Veronica Roth, Delirium/Pandemonium/Requiem by Lauren Oliver, The Unbecoming/Evolution/Retribution of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin, etc.
This just a start, from the perspective of an aspiring author that works in marketing. I’ve always had a thing for titles/headlines–my favorite part of writing fanfic was picking titles (sometimes I wrote a fic around a great title!), and as an editor/reporter, I was responsible for brainstorming catchy, quirky headline copy. I’m not a book publishing professional, but I am in the query trenches, so consider the above pretty specific to choosing titles for querying 🙂
Have I missed anything? Comment!