Choosing a Title

A book by any other name...

The first thing a potential agent will notice about your email submission is the subject line, which will often read: Query <Insert Your Title Here>.  I would hope that most agents will, in fact, OPEN your email before deciding whether or not to hit the delete key, but as I mentioned in my earlier post on Querying Truths, sometimes all an agent wants to do is blast through their inbox as quickly as possible.  So if your title lacks interest, you're not doing yourself any favors.

That’s not to say that your title has to be perfect right off the bat. In fact, it’s fairly common for an agent or editor to recommend a new title (if your manuscript is actually accepted).  But personally, if I’m up against an agent’s over-used delete key, I want to do everything I can to ensure my submission has a fighting chance.

Scott Berkun, a bestselling author out of New York, has a fantastic article called The Truth About Picking Book Titles that points out how unbelievably subjective choosing a title can be.  You’ll always find someone who thinks you’ve got it all wrong, and there will always be a long list of successful books whose titles shouldn’t logically work at all.

But those exceptions aside, there are some practical points to consider when picking the title of your book. As per Scott's article, your title should be:

Short.  Fits anywhere.  Easy to type, write, make into a URL, tweet, and text.
Memorable.  The more specific, original and short the title, the easier it is to remember.  Or write down.  Or type into Amazon. 
Easy and fast to say.  At parties, on TV, on Radio, the name should be easy to say and enunciate.  The fewer the syllables, the better.
Something the author won’t get sick of saying it 1000 times.  You want something you’ll be excited about each and every time you say it.
A match for the soul of the book.  Only people who have read the book can help here. Many novels make the title pay off after you’ve read it and in some ways make the title more potent than other kinds of titles. 

With the manuscript I’m circulating now, I’ve had the same title in mind since very early in the writing process. I think it marries well with the theme of the book, and I like the cadence and vocalic alliteration of it.  (Full transparency: I had to Google the hell out of that particular literary device to find the right label for it.)  But just because I’ve stuck with the same title since the beginning doesn’t guarantee that it's my best option, so I made a Google survey of as many viable titles as I could dream up. 

I included the cover blurb of the book at the start of the survey so the participants would have some understanding of what the story was about, but beyond that, I let the title options speak for themselves.  Respondents could provide feedback on as many or as few of the titles as they wanted, and they could also suggest titles that I hadn’t yet thought of.  

People were given the option to rate the titles in one of six ways:

• Hate it (-5)
• Doesn’t do much for me (-2.5)
• Indifferent (0)
• It’s okay, I guess (+1)
• That interests me (+3)
• Love it! (+5)

Behind the scenes, I assigned the number values in brackets to each of the options, but the respondents didn’t see those values, just the words. 

I polled my group of early readers, friends, family, and complete strangers.  After a few days, I had 62 replies, including a few new title suggestions that I liked which I added into the survey as we went along.   

Just as Scott predicted, opinions were varied on the subject.  But even so, a pattern emerged with two titles rising to the top: Eve Unknown and Clean Slate.

Chart of Title Survey Results

NOTE: Tabula Rasa (which is the latin equivalent to "blank slate") had been suggested by a few of the participants as another title option. But the philosophy that this term relates to is somewhat at odds with the theme of the book so I left it out of the survey.

I evaluated the results in two ways. First, I tallied up the values for each of the responses (both positive and negative). This way, if there was an even balance of people who loved and hated the title then it's total would be close to zero. And, for those that opted to not rate a given title, their lack of response was considered to equate to "Indifferent" or a zero value (which I think is fair). I've added the resulting totals as labels along the top of the graph.  

In comparison, I also totalled only the values for the Love it! and That Interests Me answers, ignoring the negative and not-so-favorable responses. In this case, I was looking to see how many people felt that the title might contribute to them wanting to purchase the book. I put those totals in brackets above the green and blue bars of the graph for each title. 

So, it turns out the title I’d had since the beginning was the overall winner, which is handy since I already own the corresponding web address.  :) It may not be perfect – in fact, there were two who gave it a rating of “Hate it” – but this served as a great sanity check for me, and I’m feeling more confident in continuing to query with it as the first thing an agent will see in the subject line. And, as it turns out, I now have a strong alternative to fall back on if an agent or publisher wants the title to go in another direction.  (But that particular web address appears to already be taken.)

Image of a typewriter typing "Insert Title Here"



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