Creating the Perfect Novel Title–or Not

Two of my writer-clients recently had the same problem: They chose the perfect title for their book, only to discover it already graces the cover of a published book. Others are agonizing over finding ANY title! What to do?

 And how big of a deal is this anyway?

Commercial Publishers: The chances are excellent your proposed title will be changed if a commercial publisher accepts it. Their own marketing people know what does and doesn’t sell in titles. They also often have some inside feed on what new titles are in the pipeline to be published soon. So it makes sense that usually publishers have the final word on the title. Okay, you might fight them on it, but would you want to? Assuming a decent contract and a fat (or even skinny) check were waved in my face, I might  let them title it. Remember, they want the book to sell briskly too, so consider bowing to their marketing department on this point.

Self-Publishing: Yeah! You can pick any title you want and it won’t be changed! But wait … that means no marketing department behind you with expertise on the subject. Don’t sweat it–I have great ways to pick something that will work for you.

Work-In-Progress: I have a dozen books in my files from writers whose book title is WIP. Nothing wrong with that. That is until you hit “The End.” Because eventually you need a title, so why not get a handle on that early on. A fringe benefit of having a working title early on is that it gives you, the author, the sense that this pile of words really equates to a real, live book.

Just Do It: So, no matter your stage of writing or route to publishing, you are back to the puzzle: what to name your book.

 Whatever title you use will be only your proposed title anyway, not necessarily the one a commercial publisher will use. (I’ve seen estimates from 50% to 80% of author titles are changed by publishers!)

 It might not even be the one you prefer when you are ready to self-publish. Just get close enough for a working title–and the best fit title will come to you as you complete the book. And that is the whole point: you should be concentrating on the book itself, so let’s get you a title and you can get back to writing the book!

The Name’s The Same: Unique is nice, but don’t stretch yourself into some literary pretzel looking for a never-before-used title. Lots of books are out with the same name. A great title, like “Fear” is so great, in fact, that I quit counting halfway through books listed by that name on an online book list and I’d already counted 16 of them! Which makes one wonder: how horrible is it to title your book the same as another one already in print? Not too bad, it seems. So if the perfect fit for your book has already been used, don’t despair. You might still use it, if the title doesn’t fit the “Avoid” list below.


* Do avoid the title if it has been used by a book of the same genre.

* Avoid a title if it has been recently published.

* And certainly avoid highly recognizable titles. (Gone with the Wind may fit your drama of the Kansas farm family who lost their home to a tornado, but resist the urge for this title!)

Perfect Fit: The perfect title hints at the genre, the tone or some other aspect of the book. The purpose of the title  is to intrigue a publisher or agent or reader. And, hey, it just might end up being the final title too! So enjoy the process of finding one you like. Try these techniques:

1. The Obvious: If titles just aren’t your thing, go for the obvious with just a bit more. For a mystery book set on the Oregon coast, try Oregon Coast Mystery. It fits and, even if not dreadfully intriguing, will keep you focused on writing your book (much more important than the title!) and get the point across.

2. Expand on the Obvious: Take a single word that would work, like Fear, and expand on it. Fatal Fear. Fear’s Fury. Flight of Fear. (Obviously, I like alliteration!) Again, even the expanded title might have already been used, so check that out too.

3. Make It Clear: Suit the genre. It isn’t surprising that mystery books often include the word mystery or murder in the title. It clarifies the book’s genre from the outset for everyone. If yours is a genre book (instead of mainstream), find a word that will hint at that genre. Then add in something about the locale, like Fear on the Nile. Have a mystery with a fantasy setting? Mix a mystery word and fantasy word. Try the Murder of the Dragon or The Unicorn’s Mystery or Detective McCurdy’s Time Travel. These titles  demonstrate fantasy combined with mystery (and hints at a critter or character), plus keeps you on track as you write that fascinating tale.

4. Sequels in the Air: Might your book ever become part of a series? If so, look at other books already published that revolve around a single main character or premise. See how the titles have similarities? Since most books in a series have some similarities in titles, think along those lines. Look at the titles of any series and see the similarities. What titles might fit several books for, say, a series about a bum with a penchant for finding and solving mysteries? How about: The Bum Motive, Bum’s Rush to Murder, The Mystery Bummer. (What great fun you can have!) The point is not to solidify perfect titles for books not even written but to free your mind to word play, keeping the genre, locale, character, and/or stories all in mind.

5. Mainstream: Yours isn’t a genre book? Then you have more leeway in the title, but you will still want something that reflects the tone or mood of the book. A title like “Dark Soul” helps clue in the agent, publisher and reader into the mood you are offering.

6. When Unique is Too Unique: I see it all the time. A title that is perfect to the author but no one else has a clue what it means. Sure, you can explain it to me and then I’ll understand too. But a title sits by itself on the bookshelf. The author isn’t standing nearby to clue would-be readers in on the title’s meaning. So avoid cryptic phrases, quotes or excerpts from the story, etc. if they require an explanation to make sense of the genre, tone or mood for your book.

Conclusion: Break free! Find a title that feels like it fits this book and slap it on. Then get on with the more important task: writing—or revising—the story it goes with to perfection!

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