This article is the 11th in my publishing series. If you want to read regular content, check back in February.
What’s in a name? William Shakespeare famously wrote “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other word, would still smell as sweet” (Romeo & Juliet, Act II, Scene II). In that sense, the philosophical sense, he’s right. You can call your book whatever you’d like and it doesn’t change the content of the story, at all. However, when it comes to actually marketing your book as a product for consumers, then a name is everything.
What is probably simultaneously the best and worst title for any book in history goes to a book that was published in 1719, written by Daniel Defoe. The title is:
“The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates.”
What’s great about this title? Well, it’s accurate, so there’s that. It also holds the record for being the longest title of any published work, but I’m not sure that is a good thing. This title is really more “marketing blurb” than title – and even in that capacity, it doesn’t do a good job. Even publishers in Defoe’s time realized this and eventually shortened the title to “Robinson Crusoe”.
So what makes a good title? Less is more. It’s easier to remember. It’s easier to fit on the cover. But, mostly it’s easier to remember (I know I said that already, it’s important enough to mention twice).
Ideally, titles to books should be memorable and relevant. Aside from the cover, the title is the thing that potential new readers see first. You could title your book “The most amazing and best book that you will ever read because it’s the best book ever written in the history of man.” But that doesn’t give readers any clue whatsoever what the book is about.
Another thing to keep in mind, you don’t want to the title to be so complicated that people don’t understand it. For example, maybe you wrote a fantasy book. Maybe wizards are called sormagee in your universe. And maybe there’s an elderly sormagee who is in charge of his order of sormagee and he lives in a city called Xeroth. Maybe the plot is that he has to help a young boy with a magic quest to defeat the ultimate evil. You decide to call your book The Sormagee of Xeroth. Ask yourself. Will the readers remember that? Will they remember how to spell it? If they ask local bookstore sales clerk to order it, will they know? When the customer describes the book, how many of those sales people will direct them to Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings by mistake? So, the point here is that your title shouldn’t contain unusual words.
If possible, your title should be a short description of the story or a concept. As an example, my debut crime fiction book comes out next month. It’s called The Fall. This title is actually a double entendre. It refers to both the crime that is being investigated (which the reader learns early on), and a philosophical idea that the readers discover later. (Trying to be deliberate vague here because spoilers). My point is that it’s short, it’s memorable, and it’s relevant.
My scifi-mystery-horror book is called Skin Deep. Why? It’s a play on the phrase “Beauty is only skin deep”. It’s very relevant, but you’ll have to read the book to understand why. But, like The Fall, it’s a memorable title because it’s one that people are already familiar with.
I’m sort of breaking the rules a little bit with Exodus, which is the first book in an epic space opera series. Exodus in and of itself meets all of those criteria, but I haven’t been marketing it that way. I’ve been calling it: Starsong Chronicles: Exodus on most of my communications and advertising. I’m doing this on purpose because I’m also trying to build familiarity with Starsong Chronicles brand as a whole. I’ve got 30 books planned for this setting (at least), so it’s important to build that future-familiarity.
Looking at other works; Star Trek, because originally that’s exactly what it was. Star Wars for exactly the same reason – a war in the stars. Dune, a reference to a sand dune because the setting is a desert planet. They could have just as easily called it Arrakis, but remember what I sad about being easy to remember. Dune is much easier to remember.
One other thing to remember, something I’ve seen a lot with Indie authors – it’s not a good idea to change the name of your book (I’m talking after you’ve hit “publish” and book is out in the wild). For one thing, your IBSN is tied to that original title, so you’d have to get entirely new ISBNs. That could be a cost, depending on how you do it. For another thing, your official copyright registration is also tied to that ISBN and title. Not to mention it can create confusion for your readers. They’ll think you’ve released a new book, and then will be dismayed to learn that it’s the same book.