How To Come Up With A Book Title

It is the dream of every author, agent and publisher to create a title so powerful it sells a book without the buyer knowing a thing about what is inside. Or, even better, imagine a title that is so good it even becomes a catch phrase in itself such as: The Power of Positive Thinking, or Catch 22.

How though do you get your book title to interrupt the thought patterns of a would-be reader and get them to choose your book over all the others?


Picture the scenario. You are in an airport, about to be whisked away on a journey somewhere for a week of relaxation. As you kill the last hour until your flight is called you think; I’ll buy a book. Now, you’ve not really got anything in mind. No one has recommended anything to you lately. You don’t even have a vague idea what is on the bestsellers list these days. So, as you browse the shelves of WHSmith or Waterstones, looking at what is on offer, how do you choose?

You will pick a book on the strength of the title of course. The best title will leap out at you, compel you to pick it up and read the back cover. Before you know it, you will be flicking it open to look at the flaps and maybe the table of contents and wham, you’ve got your holiday read.

Yes, while most authors agonise over the 80,000 words that go between the covers of their book, it is usually the dozen or so on the front cover that do all the hard work, at least at the initial selling stage. Even if a reader is not fortunate enough to be about to fly away somewhere sunny, the chances are high that this scenario will play out in some way, shape or form, when many people choose their next read.

I’ll begin by sharing some good news. If an author has a deal with a so-called traditional publisher, it’s the publisher that is usually responsible for the final decision on titles. However, it does no harm for such an author to suggest at least a few strong contenders. It will certainly help at the pitching stage too. Alternatively, if the author is going for the self publishing option, it is more important than ever to focus on a compelling title.

Where, then, should authors begin? Good titles generally fall into one of four groups. They make a promise, create some sort of intrigue, identify a need, or simply say exactly what it does in the tin (well, inbetween the front and back covers, but you get my point.)

An enticing promise to attract immediate attention in the target reader may be something like: I Can Make You Thin or 4 Hour Work Week.

For good examples of creating intrigue think of books like: Who moved my cheese? Or Freakononmics.

Titles that identify a need often use direct language, as in the case of these popular books: Think and Grow Rich or Toddler Taming.

Meanwhile, the final option is to simply state the subject matter tackled by the content. Good examples here are: Complete DIY Manual or Self Sufficiency Guide

To get started in your own title, think carefully about the genre of your book and what it is trying to say. Does it fall naturally into any one of these groups? Now have a browse through Amazon and look at titles in a similar genre. Are there any titles you particularly like? Why do you like them and, equally, why do you dislike others? Start to make a list of words that you are seeing again and again.

The next step is to begin to broaden this list of words. Brainstorm all the words you can think of that might be associated with your book, writing them all down on a piece of paper or a whiteboard. (If a close friend or relative knows about the book, ask them to join you on this exercise on the basis two heads can be better than one). Think about verbs that capture the core argument or story in the book. If you are writing non-fiction, give some thought to the single-most important message you’d like the reader to take away with them.

To begin with, nothing should be off limits during a book name brainstorm. Jot down everything you can think of that connects with your book.

When you’ve reached a list of around 100 words, look carefully at what you’ve written and see if any single word jumps out at you. If not, start experimenting with two or three word combinations. Keep a thesaurus handy to look up words with similar meanings for alliterative impact, or to tweak a combination that is almost, yet not quite, there.

Aim to create a long-list of up to a dozen or so titles you think might work and then take a break from the process for a day or so. Let your subconscious have a say in the matter and come back to it with fresh eyes.

Now whittle the long list down to a short list of just two or three favoured titles. Again, give them time to settle in your mind and, if you feel ready to, try them out on trusted friends or colleagues. If a clear front-runner begins to emerge, test it by comparing it against others on your early list of similar-genre books from Amazon. Would your title stand out? Or is it too similar, or generic?

You may need to go through this process a few times to get the best possible outcome, but, clearly, since the title can make or break a book, it is worth putting in the effort to get it right. Who knows, maybe you will one day have the pleasure of watching someone picking out your book on spec in a crowded bookstore. Now that would be something to celebrate