One of the most important things you can do to help sell your book is to pick a decent title. Yet, over and over I see authors and publishers picking titles that don’t describe the contents, are misleading, too long, or just flat uninteresting.
Here are a few rules to help guide you to a better title:
1. Watch the length of your title
Books in Print only allows for 30 characters (that includes spaces). So if you are just getting around to describing your book by character 27, you are in a heap of trouble. Short is your friend. I’m not demanding that you have one-word titles (Dune), but do try to come up with something short and punchy. One of my favorite recent titles is Nickled and Dimed. It makes you want to know more, even if you think you might know what the book is about.
A very famous rule-breaker is Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex* *But Were Afraid to Ask. But then, it was about sex in the 70s and no cared if it broke the rules.
2. Avoid passive voice titles
Especially with today’s audience, you want something that’s going to make them pay attention right away. An old standard written in passive voice was Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Today it might be titled Shriek: Lies that Panic Crowds.
3. Avoid punctuation
Commas don’t look great graphically on a book cover. If they’re necessary, work them in with attention to appearance, but try to avoid. The same with semi-colons and periods.
A title with a question mark begs the query from the would-be buyer, “Well, if the author doesn’t know, why should I buy the book?”
An exclamation mark should be avoided. I bump into this mostly in children’s book submissions (note: we do not take children’s book submissions). It’s meant to be cute and reflects that the main character is exuberant or in trouble all the time. Better to illustrate this with the cover art. A great rule-breaker is “Oklahoma!” But then, it wasn’t a book, either.
4. Don’t run the title and subtitle together on the cover
The title should be separated from the subtitle by space on a book cover. The subtitle should appear in a smaller font than the title. Some book designers change the font—but be careful not to put more than 3 fonts on the cover. On the title page, the full title (main title and subtitle) should be used; a colon should separate the two.
5. Avoid “How To” titles
Always remember that your title will appear in lists alphabetically. How to is such a common title beginner, it is abbreviated “H/T” in the trade – and the list of H/T titles is really, really long. It’s also passive. Think about it for a moment. If your proposed title is How to Crochet Tea Cozies for Every Occasion, wouldn’t it be better as Crochet Tea Cozies for Every Occasion?
Our book How to Love the Job You Hate was a reprint of an older title. But I should have gone with my gut and shortened it to Love Your Job (which is both active and positive). Someone else put out a book shortly thereafter with that title.
6. Don’t steal famous titles
I had an almost-client with a book bearing the same title as a very famous book in its genre. I advised him not to do this, even though there is no copyright on titles. He stuck to his guns, and we parted ways. A person picking up a book bearing a famous title will become incensed that they were “tricked” into buying the wrong book. In my opinion, if you use a famous title knowingly, it’s a kind of fraud.
Are these rules carved in stone? Absolutely not.”
7. There are no copyrights on titles
Really. No one can “steal” your title, and you can’t steal anyone else’s. You can trademark your titles for a series. For example, the For Dummies™ books are trademarked.
8. Who else has that title?
Check Amazon to see how many other books have your title or something similar. You may think your title quite cunning or spot-on, but then discover that there are 10 books out with the same title (and maybe you inadvertently chose a famous title you weren’t aware of). Be flexible enough to change your title. It would hurt your sales if you had a common title—how would anyone find YOUR book?
A quick story: I’d heard about a book and wanted to get it. At the bookstore, I asked for Possession. The bookseller looked it up. “There are 50 current books with that title, Miss.” I couldn’t recall the author’s name. It took the bookseller 20 minutes to sort out that I was looking for Possession by A.S. Byatt. That was before internet searches. But if you don’t know the author’s name, how will you find a common-titled book?
9. Tell your Reader/Buyer what the book is about
Clever titles are all very nice, but if the random buyer at the store sees your book and doesn’t know what it’s about by the title, you are not making a sale. Don’t mistake verbal legerdemain for sales ability. The point of a book is communication. If your title doesn’t resonate with your Buyer/Reader about the subject-matter, you’ve failed in your objectives.
10. Create series titles with care
If you are doing a series, make the series title the subtitle and the main title the subject. I know a publisher who put out three books with the series name as the title. Because of the 30 character limit, booksellers and librarians cannot differentiate between the three books in the databases. Disaster!
Are these rules carved in stone? Absolutely not. But one thing I tell my clients is: “Know the rules, then when you break them, you’ll have a reason why.” Breaking the guidelines in business is a tried and true format to success. But do so knowing what the ramifications are, not out of ignorance.