Whether a writer wants to become rich and famous, or simply wants people to enjoy their work, every person to publish a novel has the same thing in common: they want that novel to sell.
A novel’s sales involve many factors, ranging from audience, to content, to cover art, to timing and world events. You can never control every factor, and depending on agents, publishers, expectations, and all that, you might not be able to control more than the words you’ve written.
Some of the most important words in any book are on the front cover. A good title will make or break the sales, for an array of reasons. First impressions are everything, so you want to make sure the title, whether it’s one word or nearly its own sentence, has a lasting impact that cultivates both short and long term interest.
Here are a few ways writers ensure their titles have a punch, assuming the publisher doesn’t want to change it:
Short and Sweet
A title that’s only a few words has to work hard. If it generates intrigue, the potential reader will check out the back cover or inside flaps for more information, which means there’s a strong chance of making the sale.
Consider, for instance, Divergent. There’s absolutely no way to know what this means, but it evokes an image of someone going against the grain. Perfect for all the rebellious literary types, or people who just want a hero(in) going against their society’s norms.
There are a lot of these titles in speculative fiction. Stephen King’s Carrie, for instance, which made him famous. Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas. Dathan Auerbach’s Penpal. K. C. Alexander’s Necrotech. All pretty straight-forward, minimalist titles that sold very well. When in doubt, just go with the main character’s name.
The Esoteric Title
A title no one quite understands can also be an excellent way to get readers interests going. Consider Cameron Barnett’s The Drowning Boy’s Guide to Water. There’s no way at all to know what the book is about, but it’s interesting enough to reel in a lot of readers.
Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts is another great example. Catchy, interesting, and you need to know more. This particular book earned him a Bram Stoker and established him as a major name, so this was clearly a good title.
The Whole Story
Sometimes, you have a book that just sells better with a longer title. Long titles can serve any number of purposes, and are usually best served with a few colons to break things up.
Consider, for instance, Christofer Nigro’s Megadrak: Beast of the Apocalypse. Longer than most, it has a colon, and, most importantly, it follows the naming conventions of other kaiju work. Fans of Godzilla can read that title and say, “Oh, this is probably about a giant monster destroying a city.” In fact, it is.
Another example is Mark Sheldon’s Sarah Killian: Serial Killer (For Hire!). You can’t fit much more punctuation into this title, but it conveys the mix of horror and comedy that fuels the actual story. The ‘For Hire!’ part adds in that extra satiric punch that draws in the on-the-fence readers.
From the non-fiction world, consider the following: Writing Movies for Fun and Profit: How We Made a Billion Dollars at the Box Office and You Can, Too! That’s all one title, but it tells you everything you need to know.
There are other ways to write a great title, and a title alone won’t result in NYT best seller status, but the first step in making sure you reel in as many readers as you can is grabbing their interest.
Those picking books up from a library, or using brick-and-mortar stores, usually only see the spines, so that title has to work hard if you don’t have name recognition yet. Amazon involves more cover art and other factors, of course.
Regardless, a great title can be the difference between a good book that sells, and a good book that nets the writer about $32.50, so put that space to good use. It’s the first impression a reader gets of a book, and if the title doesn’t measure up, it’ll be the last impression, too.