You already know that people judge books by their covers.
But they also judge them by their titles. If the cover image piques a reader’s interest, the next thing they will look at is going to be the title. You want your title to perk your reader’s ears (or eyes) long enough to earn a serious look at your product description, where you will make the decisive Buy It Now happen thanks to your brilliant copy.
The three most important marketing materials for your book are the cover, the title, and description. If their level of interest rises from cover to title to description you have a powerful trifecta that will get your book in their cart and move them closer to hitting that buy button.
So, how do you pick a powerful title that will help entice your ideal reader to buy?
Fiction vs Non-Fiction
Of course, choosing titles for fiction and non-fiction are different. Non-fiction titles need to be no-nonsense and immediately inform the reader about the problem you are solving for and exactly what kind of solution they can expect after reading your book.
Fiction, on the other hand, is a bit trickier. Fiction titles are far more nuanced. Since we are mainly fiction focused here at Sterling and Stone, I’ll start this party out there.
Fiction titles should evoke a pleasantly intriguing reaction. Along with your cover, you want the title to give your potential reader an idea of what your book is about. This is where you can set the tone and broadcast the reading experience they can expect.
Different genres have slightly different naming conventions. Think about a few of your favorite titles in your genre and adjacent genres. There are the single word titles like Misery, Twilight, Beloved, Neuromancer, Neverwhere, Emma, It. Yes, there are two Stephen King titles there. He actually uses the one-word-title trick a lot. Carrie. Cujo. Christine. Dreamcatcher. Elevation. For certain kinds of books the one-word title works particularly well.
Then there are the long names like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, The Curious Incident of The Dog In The Night, From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler, The Shawshank Redemption, One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, and So Long and Thanks For All The Fish.
How different does that first set of titles feel from the second group? How different does it feel to have a single stark word, or a long phrase full of multi-syllable words? What tone do you get from each one?
Take a moment to look up the covers of a few of those books to look at the way the combination of cover and title work together to create entirely different expectations for what kind of book you are about to read.
A lot of choosing your title comes down to feeling and musicality. You want to evoke a “feel” and that’s not exactly easy to put your finger on. However, with practice, you’ll know it when you see it or hear it. For example, our comedy Everyone Gets Divorced has a somewhat playful title. It implies a light take on divorce rather than a heavy and depressing one. By contrast, The Beam and Namaste, two of our dead-serious titles, have stark, almost ominous-sounding single word titles. Here’s another example: The Future of Sex. Hard to mistake what that one is about. When each of those titles is paired with their respective covers, readers get an excellent idea what kind of book they’re looking at. If they are the right kind of reader for that kind of book, they’ll know it immediately.
Now here’s an example of a less clear title from our back catalog, The Bialy Pimps. This was Johnny’s very first book and he’s learned a lot about titles and cover selection since then. The cover of this book featured a picture of a bagel, (which for those in the know, is not actually a bialy) wearing a pair of rhinestone-studded shuttered glasses. Most people don’t know what a bialy is, but hardly matters. Most people know what a pimp is and when you put a strange word like bialy in front of it, that means your describing a particular (and probably odd) kind of pimp. What this title lacks in clarity, it makes up for in curiosity. Enough people saw that title and wondered, what is a Bialy Pimp anyway, that they took a look at the description and some of them bought. The title is cute and makes people wonder. It fits with the plot and along with the tagline, “A Tale of Fame and Baked Goods” it ended up working well enough. Were Johnny to do the whole thing over now, he might change a few things. But onwards and upwards.
Not everyone agrees on what makes a good title. But here’s a story of one we think we got right. We had a series that was originally titled, Chupacabra Outlaw. However, a few months after we finished the pilot, we decided to change the name to Cursed. Now Chupacabra Outlaw may not have been a bad title per se, the word chupacabra has a certain musicality and a definite tone all its own. The issue was more that the project we originally conceived turned out to be very different once on the page. We thought the story would be something light at first. A campy werewolf story with chupacabras as our monster of choice. But then the story went dark and sparse. The camp no longer fit. So, we went with Cursed as our title, and that fit the actual story much better.
Another example of a title that we’ve been told is both genius and idiotic, sometimes by the same people in the same breath, is Unicorn Western. This is a sprawling and complex 9-book fantasy epic. Some people have told us that the name turns readers off and is hampering its growth, but we disagree. We could have named it something in more of the Western tradition, like Guns of the Fast Hands or something more Fantasy sounding like Realm and Sands, but it’s neither a true western nor a true fantasy. It is its own thing. A weird and wild amalgamation of the two. If a reader went into the series expecting a Western, they’d be annoyed as soon as they realized their gunslinger was riding a unicorn. And if a reader expected a straight-up fantasy, they’d be bothered by the gunslinger on the unicorn’s back. The odd name Unicorn Western makes a promise that the story fulfills with Clint and his guns riding Edward with his surly demeanor and rainbow-colored blood. The reader goes in knowing what they’re getting and by the end, they’re rooting for those two misfit heroes to save all the worlds. Maybe a western-sounding or fantasy-sounding title would have worked better for certain books of the series in the short-term, but we aren’t short-term thinkers. For our long-term readers, the title Unicorn Western was just right.
Finding the title for your book
So, how do you find the right title for your book?
You know your own story better than anyone. If you’ve already picked out a cover image and design, that will help too. Think about the tone of your story, the mood that arches over the whole thing, and look hard at the image you’ve picked out.
If you can think of a song that has a similar feeling, go ahead and play that song. What word or words best evoke the feelings you want to convey?
Coming up with one brilliant idea is hard. Much more so than asking your brain to come up with 50, knowing that most of them won’t be the one. Set a timer for 10 minutes or write numbers down the side of a legal pad until you get to 50. Write without stopping for 10 minutes or until you get 50 ideas down. Write and think as fast as you can, enough that you get and stay ahead of your internal editor. Don’t hold yourself back from writing anything down, no matter how outlandish or absurd it seems. Record every idea that crosses your mind.
Take a breather when you’re done, before reading back through them. Go on a walk. Drink some water. Clear your mind, then come back. If something catches your eye but doesn’t quite seem right, put it at the top of another page and do the exercise again. Still not quite there? Pull up a thesaurus. Find synonyms for the words that get closest to the feeling you want. Look at books you admire in your genre.
What is it about those titles that really stood out and made you decide to buy the book? Don’t parrot their titles or do something derivative, but think about what makes those titles great, then go back to your list(s).
Start narrowing it down and keep playing with the words. This may seem like a lot of work for just a word or short phrase, but you want your title to hit right. It’s worth spending a couple of hours on. If none of the titles hit you like a blinding bolt of light as being just right, you might want to get some feedback from someone who has read your book for insight.
Do you have a friend or beta reader who you trust to give you honest and thoughtful feedback? Give them a list of your top five titles and see what they think. As authors, we can sometimes get too far down in the weeds of our own work to get the overview we need. A trusted reader might see something you’re too close to see. But in the end, it’s your job to choose the right title for your book.
Good luck. Choose well.
A great deal of non-fiction marketing is accomplished simply by choosing the right title and subtitle for your book. Here you need to choose the title/subtitle combination that most clearly communicates what the book is about and conveys the obvious benefit it offers. You want potential buyers to read your title and think “Wow, that’s exactly the answer to my problem!”
Do some basic keyword research to most closely align your title with what people are actually searching for. A “keyword” or “keyword phrase” is what people type into the search field when they’re looking for information. There are a lot of different tools you can use to help you do keyword searches, but a great place to start is to think about your book, and the person who needs the information you offer, then write a list of all the things you think they could possibly search for to solve their problem.
It’s a good idea to do this on Google or your search engine of choice, but be sure to execute this strategy on Amazon as well. See what titles other authors in your niche have already used. Don’t use any of those, of course, but see what ranks highly.
What words did they use in their title and subtitle? You want your title to come up on both Google and Amazon, of course, but the biggest difference between the two is that when someone searches on Amazon, they are usually there with the intent to buy. And there is that handy “Buy It Now” button right there on the side of the product page, tempting every reader to instantly buy. On Google, not so much.
Once you have gathered your own list of keywords you think may work, now you can explore a few of the keyword search tools to get more in-depth. Don’t spend money on this step. There are, of course, people who want to charge you money for this. And once upon a time, this was hard information to get, but now in our modern age of information glut, all of this is readily available for free. How do you find such tools? Try doing a search for keyword research tools.
My first non-fiction book was called Writing Online. I played with a number of titles but then realized that clarity always trumps cleverness when it comes to non-fiction titles. (Don’t ever sacrifice clarity for a cute turn of phrase. Someone won’t get it and you’ll lose that sale.) When I finished my manuscript of Writing Online, I did a few basic keyword searches using Google’s free keyword tool and found that over 50,000 people per month were consistently searching for the exact term writing online. Using those exact words for my title meant a lot of free marketing and high search rankings for free, putting it directly in front of the exact people who wanted the information.
Another good example of the simple genius of keyword titling is the “For Dummies” book series. Want a basic ab work out? They have a Basic Ab Workout for Dummies. Want advice on quitting smoking and vaping? They literally have a Quitting Smoking and Vaping for Dummies. Not sure how to buy a car? Try Buying A Car For Dummies. Need help getting Grandma on the internet? For Dummies have a book for that: The Internet for Dummies. Having an existential crisis? Try the Existentialism For Dummies book. Thinking about leaving your spouse but not sure exactly what’s involved? Yes, there is even a Divorce For Dummies book. Hard to get more keyword focused than that.
Let’s sum it up
To sum up, use your ear for fiction. Then for nonfiction, use your brain and keyword tools to get inside the minds of people asking the question that your book answers. In both cases, the purpose of the title is to make your book’s benefit clear to the ideal readers who want to read it most, while also making your book look and sound really cool. Because, let’s face it, who doesn’t want their book to look and sound really cool?
Now get out there and change the world with your stories!
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