Fiction Titles: Choose the Perfect Novel Title

Two of my writer-clients recently had the same problem: they chose the perfect title for your book, only to discover that it already graces the cover of a published book. To do?

Editor’s Choice: First, the chances of the proposed title being changed are excellent if a commercial publisher accepts it. Your own marketing people know what sells and what doesn’t sell in titles. They often also have inside information on new titles that are coming soon. So it makes sense that the editors have the last word on the title. Sure, you could fight them, but would you like to? Assuming a decent contract and a big check were waved in my face, I’d certainly let them title it. Remember, they also want the book to sell quickly, so I bow to their marketing department on this point. In the meantime, he’s back to the puzzle: what to name his book while shipping it.

The name is the same: Second, unique is nice, but don’t strain yourself on a literary pretzel in search of a never-before-used title. Many books have come out with the same name. A great title, like “Fear” is so great, in fact, that I stopped counting half the books listed by that name on an online book list and had already counted 16 of them! Which makes one wonder: how horrible is it to title your book the same as another one that’s already in print? Not bad, it seems. So if the perfect fit for your book has already been used, don’t despair. You may still use it if it doesn’t fit the “Avoid” list below. Any title you use will be your sole proposed title anyway, not necessarily the one the publisher will use. (I have seen estimates of 50% to 80% of author titles changed by publishers!)


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

* Avoid a title if it has been published recently.

* And of course, avoid highly recognizable titles. (gone With the Wind may fit your drama of the Kansas farm family who lost their home in a tornado, but resist the temptation of this title!)

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

1. The Obvious: If headlines aren’t your thing, go for the obvious with a little more. For a mystery book set on the Oregon coast, try Oregon Coast Mystery. It fits and, even if it’s not terribly intriguing, it will keep you focused on writing your book (much more important than the title!) and getting the message across.

2. Expand on the obvious: Take a single word that works, like Fear, and expand on it. fatal fear. The fury of fear. Flight of fear (Obviously I like the alliteration!) Again, even the expanded title may have already been used, so check that out too.

3. Let’s be clear: adapt to the genre. Not surprisingly, mystery books often include the word mystery or murder in the title. Make the genre of the book clear from the beginning for everyone. If yours is a genre (rather than mainstream) book, look for a word that hints at that genre. Then add something about the place, like Fear on the Nile. Got a mystery with a fantasy setting? Try The Murder of the Dragon or The Mystery of the Unicorn. It hints at fantasy and mystery, as well as keeping you on track as you write that fascinating story.

4. Sequels in the Air: Could your book ever be part of a series? If so, consider other books on the same main character or premise. Since most books in a series have some similarities in titles, think of it that way. What titles could fit across multiple books for, say, a series about a drifter with a penchant for finding and solving mysteries? How about: The Bum Motive, Bum’s Rush to Murder, The Mystery Bummer. (Obviously I’m having a lot of fun with words today!) The point isn’t to solidify perfect titles for books that aren’t even written, but to free your mind for puns while maintaining genre, place, character, and/or stories. in mind.

5. Mainstreams: Isn’t yours a genre book? So you have more leeway in the title, but you’ll still want something that reflects the tone or mood of the book. A “Dark Soul” title instead of “Kiss of Angels” helps the agent, publisher, and reader understand the desired mood.

6. When Unique is Too Unique: I see it all the time. A title that is perfect for the author but no one else has any idea what it means. Sure, you can explain it to me and then I’ll understand it too. But a title sits alone on the shelf. The author is not standing around to clue potential readers into the meaning of the title. So he avoids cryptic phrases, quotes or excerpts from the story, etc. if they require an explanation to make sense of the genre, tone, or mood of his book.

Conclusion: Free yourself! Find a title that you feel fits this book and put it on. Then move on to the most important task: writing, or revising, the story that goes perfectly with it!

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