February 22, 2024

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

Publisher’s Choice: First, the chances are excellent your proposed title will be changed if a commercial publisher accepts it. Their own marketing people know what does and doesn’t sell in titles. They also often have some inside feed on what new titles are in the pipeline to be published soon. So it makes sense that usually publishers have the final word on the title. Sure, you might fight them on it, but would you want to? Assuming a decent contract and a fat check were waved in my face, I’d certainly let them title it. Remember, they want the book to sell briskly too, so I’d bow to their marketing department on this point. In the meantime, you are back to the puzzle: what to name your book while you submit it.

The Name’s The Same: Second, unique is nice, but don’t stretch yourself into some literary pretzel looking for a never-before-used title. Lots of books are out with the same name. A great title, like “Fear” is so great, in fact, that I quit counting halfway through books listed by that name on an online book list and I’d already counted 16 of them! Which makes one wonder: how horrible is it to title your book the same as another one already in print? Not too bad, it seems. So if the perfect fit for your book has already been used, don’t despair. You might still use it it it doesn’t fit the “Avoid” list below. Whatever title you use will be only your proposed title anyway, not necessarily the one the publisher will use. (I’ve seen estimates from 50% to 80% of author titles are changed by publishers!)

Avoid:

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

* Avoid a title if it has been recently published.

* And certainly avoid highly recognizable titles. (Gone with the Wind may fit your drama of the Kansas farm family who lost their home to a tornado, but resist the urge for this title!)

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

1. The Obvious: If titles just aren’t your thing, go for the obvious with just a bit more. For a mystery book set on the Oregon coast, try Oregon Coast Mystery. It fits and, even if not dreadfully intriguing, will keep you focused on writing your book (much more important than the title!) and get the point across.

2. Expand on the Obvious: Take a single word that would work, like Fear, and expand on it. Fatal Fear. Fear’s Fury. Flight of Fear. (Obviously, I like alliteration!) Again, even the expanded title might have already been used, so check that out too.

3. Make It Clear: Suit the genre. It isn’t surprising that mystery books often include the word mystery or murder in the title. It clarifies the book’s genre from the outset for everyone. If yours is a genre book (instead of mainstream), find a word that will hint at that genre. Then add in something about the locale, like Fear on the Nile. Have a mystery with a fantasy setting? Try the Murder of the Dragon or The Unicorn’s Mystery. Either hint at fantasy and mystery, plus keeps you on track as you write that fascinating tale.

4. Sequels in the Air: Might your book ever become part of a series? If so, consider other books about that same main character or premise. Since most books in a series have some similarities in titles, think along those lines. What titles might fit several books for, say, a series about a bum 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 WAY too much fun with words today!) The point is not to solidify perfect titles for books not even written but to free your mind to word play, keeping the genre, locale, character, and/or stories all in mind.

5. Mainstreams: Yours isn’t a genre book? Then you have more leeway in the title, but you will still want something that reflects the tone or mood of the book. A title of “Dark Soul” as opposed to “Kiss of Angels” helps clue in the agent, publisher and reader into the mood you intend.

6. When Unique is Too Unique: I see it all the time. A title that is perfect to the author but no one else has a clue what it means. Sure, you can explain it to me and then I’ll understand too. But a title sits by itself on the bookshelf. The author isn’t standing nearby to clue would-be readers in on the title’s meaning. So avoid cryptic phrases, quotes or excerpts from the story, etc. if they require an explanation to make sense of the genre, tone or mood for your book.

Conclusion: Break free! Find a title that feels like it fits this book and slap it on. Then get on with the more important task: writing-or revising-the story it goes with to perfection!