Think of a book. Any book. Chances are that the first thing that’s come to mind wasn’t the plot or the cover or even the author: instead, it was the title. As a writer, you may have thought of a title for your book before you even started writing the actual book. Or you may have a complete manuscript and have no idea what to call it. Stephanie Feger has some insights and advice on book titles and how to choose them.
Stephanie is the founder and chief strategist of empower PR Group, where she helps authors with their marketing strategies. She is also the author of Color Today Pretty: An Inspirational Guide to Living a Life in Perspective and its companion, Color Today Pretty Guided Journal.
On the podcast, we talked with Stephanie about book titles and how to choose a good one. Take a listen to the episode. (Please share and review!)
Why is a book title so important?
Your book title is the first thing potential readers will see. It’s your first opportunity to draw them in. It gives them a glimpse of what the book is about and what the tone of the book is: serious, light-hearted, scary. It can even give them an idea of the genre.
In other words, the book title gives people an idea of whether this is a book they’d like to read. It’s one of the most powerful marketing tools you have.
Does your book title have to be unique?
Generally, copyright law doesn’t extend to book titles. This means that two different books can have the same title. If your book has the same title as another book, it’s not necessarily a tragedy. Take, for instance, the case of Joyland: in 2006, Canadian author Emily Schultz published her debut novel, a coming-of-age story set in Ontario. In 2013, she suddenly saw a spike in her sales on Amazon. Readers bought her ebook, thinking it was Stephen King’s latest mystery/horror, set in North Carolina and also named Joyland. King fans were perplexed at his change in style but Schultz raised her profile by starting a blog on Tumblr called Spending the Stephen King Money. She even gained a high-profile fan in Stephen King himself.
This doesn’t mean you should deliberately name your book the same as another author’s. The loss of sales and the negative reviews didn’t really hurt Stephen King: he is Stephen King, after all. If you’re not in his league, however, people buying someone else’s book – thinking it’s yours – can really hurt your pocket and your reputation as an author.
What If My Book Title Is Already In Use?
If you really want your book to have the same title as one that already exists, you need to find clear differentiators. Make sure your cover looks completely different and that you also use different keywords and metadata on sites like Amazon. In nonfiction, you can also differentiate your book with the use of a subtitle.
Even with clear differentiators, though, people may still buy the wrong book. Another Canadian author who can attest to this is political science professor Randall Hansen, who in 2009 published Fire and Fury: The Allied Bombing of Germany, 1942-1945, complete with a picture of WWII bombers on the cover. In 2018, the book made it onto the bestseller lists when people accidentally bought it instead of the one they wanted: Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, which featured a picture of Donald Trump on the cover. Michael Wolff still sold several million copies of his book but the outcome could have been very different for him.
How do you choose a great title for your book?
You only have one millisecond to get a potential reader to invest in your book among all the millions they’re scrolling through or see displayed on the shelves. A good book title hooks the potential reader by evoking an emotional response. The right cover design can strengthen that response.
For nonfiction, you should focus on the key takeaway you want your readers to have: the solution to a problem. This can be in the main title: Less Stress Life by Jamie Sussel Turner, for instance, already tells you that the book is about what it says in the subtitle: How I Went from Crazed to Calm and You Can Too. You can also choose a catchy-but-obscure main title and clarify the takeaway in the subtitle: Color Today Pretty is not a coloring book or a book about art but is, as the subtitle says, An Inspirational Guide to Living a Life in Perspective. The main title can even be one that you only understand once you start reading. Yvonne Caputo’s Flying with Dad: A Daughter. A Father. And the Hidden Gifts in His Stories from World War II is not about a daughter literally in the plane with her dad but you only find that out once you read the book.
With fiction – and to an extent also with memoir – you can be more obscure but your title still needs to be relevant. Think about the genre, for instance. Terry Pratchett’s Equal Rites is clearly about equal rights but the use of the pun tells the reader that it’s also about magic, so it’s a fantasy novel. Other sources of inspiration include:
- Characters, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale
- Settings, like Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast
- Time or season, like Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera or The Autumn of the Patriarch
- The main event or theme, like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart
- Part of a saying, a lyric or a poem, like Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
It’s a good idea to get the help of publishing and marketing experts because they know how to tap into a reader’s subconscious simply with the use of one keyword or one colour. As a bonus, they also know how to choose a title using key words for search engine optimization.