Practical Considerations for Your Book Title
Saul Bottcher, IndieBookLauncher.com
If you've read our article How to Pick a Title for Your Book, you should have no problem coming up with some good ideas for your book title. Before you make your final choice, there are a few practical considerations you may want to think about.
It can be tempting to use a one-word title to give your book a sense of grandness, or to make the title extremely easy to remember. However, there are some very good reasons to avoid one-word titles.
First of all, there's a very good chance that you'll run into duplicate titles. Even if nobody is using the same one-word title today, there's nothing to prevent it from happening in the future. The problem with a one-word title is that it can apply to a lot of books, because it's not very specific.
Let's take a real-life example. If you search for “haunted” on Amazon.com, you'll find six novels with the exact title Haunted. And that's only on the first page! I scanned the first six pages and found a total of twelve duplicates. That doesn't exactly make those books seem original, does it?
However, duplicates aren't the only problem. Here are some other results from the first page:
- Haunted House
- Haunted Ground
- The Haunted Breadbox
- The Haunted
- Haunted House (another one, unrelated to the first)
Using a one-word title means sharing the stage with any other book that has that word in its title! If those other books are more popular than yours, they'll be listed first, possibly pushing your book to the second or third page of results, which will decrease the number of people who browse it.
Returning to our example on Amazon.com, some of the novels titled Haunted appeared on the second and third page, and one of them was buried all the way down on page six!
The problem gets even worse when you search on Google, because you're competing for space with movies, music, websites, personal blogs, dictionary definitions, and products for sale. Just about anything might be using your one-word title as part of its name.
You want (need!) your website and sales page to be a top result on Google. You'll find this to be nearly impossible with a one-word title.
Fixing a One-Word Title
It's unlikely that a single word was an appropriate title for your book in the first place. For example, let's look at the first six novels titled Haunted. Based on their Amazon.com book descriptions, here's how I'd summarize the premise for each book:
- A collection of the author's personal supernatural experiences
- A thriller about several individuals living together and experiencing a strange psychological breakdown
- A group of writers conned into a Survivor-like reality show where they must write to survive
- A supernatural murder mystery about a long-past murder
- A horror writer and his daughter staying at a mansion with a malevolent spirit that begins to corrupt them
- An undead mother tasked with hunting down an evil spirit
These premises are all very different. Though it's possible to see how the word “haunted” might apply to each of them, it's also obvious that it doesn't really capture the essence of any one of these books.
Sometimes, you can fix a one-word title by adding words to make it more specific to your book. For example, the first book might be retitled My Haunted Life.
However, even My Haunted Life is a near-match with two other books on Amazon.com titled Haunted Life and Surviving My Haunted Life, which suggests that the word “haunted” is overused and should be avoided entirely.
In cases like this, you have no choice but to bite the bullet and come up with an entirely new title. However, the chances are you'll be better off for doing so, because you'll end up with a more unique title that's tied more closely to your book.
There are some rare times when a one-word title really is the best choice, but you should be aware of the significant extra challenges you'll be up against if you choose a one-word title.
Dealing with Duplicates
Even if you don't use a one-word title, you might still discover that you've duplicate the title of another book.
If the other book is obscure and out-of-print, you're probably fine having the same title. Otherwise—that is, in most cases—it's worth changing it.
You can check for duplicate titles by searching for your title on the websites where your book will be sold, as well as on Google and Wikipedia.
If you find a duplicate, here's some advice on resolving the situation:
- Re-ordering the words of your title won't help, because most search engines don't care very much about the order of words. (If you want to test this, try searching for a title on Amazon.com with the words in reverse order.)
- If your title already contains several words, adding a word is usually not a good idea. Clearly, you thought the title already said what it needed to say, so adding a word would only make it flabby. (However, if the title is a single word, see my advice above.)
- You could try substituting a synonym for one of the words of your title, but people might get confused between the two synonyms.
- In other words, you should probably just bite the bullet and come up with a new title.
If you do decide to keep a duplicate or near-duplicate title (e.g., because the other book is obscure), make sure you let your cover designer know that the other book exists, so you don't accidentally end up with a similar cover as well as a similar title. You should also make a point of mentioning your name alongside the title whenever possible, to reduce confusion with the duplicate.
It's a good idea to browse your genre on a book-selling website and see if the titles follow any kind of pattern or style.
Some people will advise you to imitate these patterns, so that your title makes it clear which genre your book belongs to.
However, that reasoning is wrong. You should do the opposite! You want to get noticed. If you imitate other titles, your book will blend into the crowd and you'll be handicapping your sales.
If you're concerned that people will be confused about the genre of your book, you can include it as a subtitle: The Fourteen Steps (A Mystery). This probably isn't necessary, since most book-selling websites already categorize books by genre when browsing, but it doesn't hurt.
Punctuation and Web Addresses
This is a small point, but a crucial one: web addresses can only contain a limited set of punctuation. If you plan on using a website to market your book (and you definitely should!), it's much better if your web address is identical or very close to your title.
Domain names (the first part of a web address, the bit that usually ends in “.com”) can only contain the following characters:
The hyphen is all you get in the way of punctuation! So, if your title contains any other punctuation whatsoever, you'll have to adapt it for your web address.
If the title of your book was Cry, My Soul, your web address would end up as www.crymysoul.com, which is passable.
However, if the title of your book was Who the @!#$ Ate the Cornflakes, there would be no way to directly translate it to a web address, and you'd have to use a substitute like www.whoatethecornflakes.com instead.
Long or Complicated Titles
Yes, these are two separate considerations. An idea isn't the same thing as a word, and you need to be careful of your title's "idea count" as well as its word count.
Too Many Words
Here are some bad things that can happen if your title has too many words:
- Your cover design ends up being dominated by your title, crowding out the visual elements and weakening its impact.
- Your domain name is too long and annoying to type and people keep getting it wrong.
- People assume your book will be long-winded and boring.
- You dilute the impact of the title and the satisfaction of saying it.
- People who use twitter won't be able to say much about your book because of the 140-character limit on tweets.
- You can't register your title as a domain mame (website address) because it's more than 63 characters long
Too Many Ideas
If your title contains too many unrelated ideas, it will be too difficult to remember. You should limit your title to one or two ideas; three at the absolute most.
As I said above, an idea isn't the same thing as a word. For example, the title How I Learned to Be Famous is six words long, but only really contains two concepts (learning and fame), and is easy to remember.
Meanwhile, the shorter title Rocks, Fleas, Trees, Docks has no obvious pattern or connection between the words, and it's not very easy to remember.
If your title contains more than two or three concepts, you're probably trying to use the title to summarize the book, which is not the job of your title. You don't need to incorporate every important concept from your book into the title, you just need to create curiosity and set a mood.
To fix a complicated title, you should either eliminate the concept that is the least unique to your book, or eliminate the words that are the least exciting or evocative.
How to Use Subtitles
Subtitles should be reserved for providing information, such as a book's place in a series, or a hint as to the type or genre of book.
A subtitle that attempts to “complete” or carry on the main title is a bad idea. You're essentially giving your book two tiles (or one incredibly long one). This comes across as fussy and wordy, which doesn't give a good omen for the writing style to be found inside the book!
Usually, these double titles arise because the author is worried that the main title doesn't “fully describe” the book. Don't get caught up in this type of fretting. Remember that the purpose of your title is to generate curiosity and set a mood. Your book description will communicate the essential details of premise, characters, and plot.
If you find yourself with a double title, the easiest way to fix it is to pick either the main title or the subtitle, and drop the other half.
For example, Blood on the Lace: A Vampire in the Parlour is a long, fussy double title. Either A Vampire in the Parlour on its own or Blood on the Lace on its own would be a fine title.
Typesetting your Subtitle
People often set their subtitle after a colon, but informational subtitles look much better when set in brackets. For example: Wasteland Eulogy (Survival or Honour Book 3) or The Fourteen Steps (A Mystery).
For a series, be sure to include the book number to help indicate that the subtitle is a series name. For some reason, some authors omit the book number.
Here's an example of a very confusing title from Amazon.com:
Can you figure out what's going on here?
It turns out this is book nine of a series called The Lost Fleet. The next bit, Beyond the Frontier, refers to a stretch of several books within that series. And finally, all the way there at the end, Guardian is the title of the actual book. What a mess!
It would be best to drop the Beyond the Frontier sub-sub-title entirely, but if it has to stay, a better way to set this title would be:
This new setting makes it perfectly clear that the book is called Guardian. (Incidentally, this one-word title is shared by at least four other books on Amazon.com, not including two more named The Guardian.) The setting also makes clear that the book is part of a series, and puts the most important information—the book title and series number—at the start of the line.
(Typesetting aside, this should also be a lesson to never give your book a sub-sub-title.)
It's always good to check Wikipedia and Google to make sure your title isn't also the name of something controversial, such as a sensitive historical event or hot political issue. This doesn't happen very often, but when it does it can be embarassing to you and offensive to others, so it's best to check.
Saying it Out Loud
Finally, it's always good to make sure your title works in the oldest medium, speech. Here are a couple of tests you can try:
- Find someone who hasn't heard your title before. Say a phrase containing your title and ask them to write down the title they heard. Did they get it right? Or have you accidentally created a mondegreen? (This is also a good opportunity to spot hard-to-spell words.)
- Now do the reverse—give somebody a few written sentences containing your title, and ask them to say the sentences out loud. Does the title roll off their tongue, or have you created a tongue-twister? Does the sound of the title create the same mood as the meaning of the words? Or is the sound clashing with the meaning?
Keep in mind that even in the digital age, word-of-mouth is mostly still—well, word-of-mouth! So make sure your title works when spoken.
If Your Title Doesn't Cut It
If you've discovered a problem with your title and have to go back to the drawing board, take a look at our companion article How to Pick a Title for Your Book for some advice on creating a new title that expresses the essence of your book.