Titles have always been important. Everyone knows that. The problem is deciding just what constitutes a “good” title – keeping in mind that fashions for titles change at least as frequently as fashion for shoes.
Furthermore, a good title must fulfill multiple functions. It must have some relationship to the content of the book it designates. It must be notable. It must be comparatively unique. It must attract the right readers. And, nowadays, it must also work-well for on-line search engines. Fulfilling all these functions can be difficult, to say the least.
Authors of non-fiction rarely have difficulty finding a title that describes the content of their book (“Accounting Fundamentals” or “American Gardening ”) are both good solid titles, for example, that tell the reader what the book is about and will therefore attract the right readers – those interested in accounting or gardening respectively. Such titles also work well for search engines because the key words that a reader would use to search for books about accounting or gardening are built directly into the title.
The problem for non-fiction writers is more often coming up with a title that is comparatively unique and notable. Without even looking it up, I’ll bet there are a lot of books that are called “The Fundamentals of Accounting,” or “Accounting Basics” or “Basic Accounting” etc. The same is true for gardening. To be notable, therefore, non-fiction authors need to look for some means of spicing up their titles, e.g. “Accounting for Dummies” or “Sexy Accounting,” for example. The risk here is the author, who names his/her book “Sexy Accounting” and delivers a very dry book will soon get bad reviews from disappointed readers. Alternatively, a non-fiction author can try to make the topic more unique by being more specific: “Granit Gardening on the Maine Coast,” for example.
An increasingly popular alternative to trying to find the perfect “catchy” but informative title is to use subtitles. Let me use an example from my own books. My comparative study of women pilots in the U.S. and the U.K. during WWII needed a better title than: “Women Pilots in the U.S. and U.K during WWII.” I played with “Winged Auxiliaries” and the publisher chose “Sisters in Arms.” The later titles are short, notable, and “catchy,” but alone they might have attracted the wrong readers. Readers of non-fiction want to know what a book is about before they even pick it up because they are only going to buy it, if it is about a subject that interests them. Thus, my book became: “Sisters in Arms: British and American Women Pilots in World War Two.” Another example is my book on the Berlin Airlift. “The Berlin Airlift” is a short, notable title – that has been used scores of times already. Titling the book “The Blockade Breakers” gave it a unique identity, but on its own would have been insufficiently informative; there have been too many blockades in the course of history to tell a prospective reader what period of history and what part of the globe the book was about. So the title became: “The Blockade Breakers: The Berlin Airlift.”
Fiction, of course, has totally different rules. Traditionally, the titles of fiction books needed to be catchy, intriguing, poetic, or evocative – but not necessarily informative. Nothing about “Gates of Fire” tells us this is a novel set in ancient Greece. Yet not being informative is not the same as having nothing to do with the inside. Anyone who reads “Gates of Fire” quickly learns that Thermopylae means “hot gates” in Greek and understands that “Gate of Fire” refers to the battle at Thermopylae.
For my novel about the German Resistance, I initially chose the title “An Obsolete Honor,” because the main character in the book, a German aristocrat, feels that opposing Hitler is the only way he can retain his personal honor as an honest and upright man, yet also recognizes that his sense of honor is completely obsolete in the 20th Century.
But there is a problem. In 2010 (I don’t have the figures for 2011 yet) roughly 67,500 novels were published in the United States. That’s a lot of titles. To get a reader to take an interest in your particular title and want to read the book is difficult among competition like that. Furthermore, even the best novels are not universally appealing. There are a lot of readers who like mystery novels – and probably just as many who don’t. The same is true for historical fiction, romance, science fiction, fantasy and all the other genres. Even “literary” novels that allegedly have a universal appeal do not really appeal to readers who don’t like that kind of “literary junk.” This suggests that a title is more likely to succeed if it can flag something about at least its genre in order to attract readers of that genre. Murder mysteries like to have the word “murder” or “blood” or something that evokes crime and thrills in the title, for example.
And then there is the issue of search engines. People looking online for a book to read are most likely to type in key words having to do with the subject of a book because if they type in “novel” they’re going to get millions of entries – 67,000 from last year plus all the books from previous years! If they type in “historical novel” the field might be reduced to just a couple 100,000 – but that’s still too many. If they type in “historical novel, WWII” the field narrows again etc. etc. If an author wants to increase the probability of his/her title landing on the first page of a search, he/she needs to have a title that puts the book in a searchable category. This is the main reason I decided to change the title of “An Obsolete Honor” to “Hitler’s Demons.” A book with Hitler in the title immediately tells the reader it is about WWII.
Furthermore, because of search engines, it is also becoming increasingly common – though by no means standard – to add subtitles to novels. If nothing else, books often have “A Novel” prominently placed on the cover near the title to help readers know what they are getting. (People like to know if they are getting facts or fiction right from the start.) The subtitle, furthermore, enables an author to retain a catchy, non-specific title while still providing information. For example, based on the poem “High Flight” written by an American Spitfire pilot early in WWII, I selected the title “Chasing the Wind” for my novel about the Battle of Britain, and added the subtitle: “A Novel about British and German Pilots During the Battle of Britain.”
Here, however, I ran into another problem. “Chasing the Wind” was just too good a title. Within just a couple of years my “Chasing the Wind” had been displaced by a half dozen others with topics ranging from sailing around the world to wind power. I needed a new title to move my title up in search engine results, and my publisher and I came up with the title “Where Eagles Never Flew.” Nobody likes this title as much as “Chasing the Wind” but it evokes flying, is based on the same poem (“High Flight”) and with the more concise subtitle “A Battle of Britain Novel” is selling significantly better than its predecessor. We shortened the subtitle, by the way, based on what key words were most commonly used for searching. “Battle of Britain” was such a popular search phrase that the rest of the sub-title was just getting in the way.
By the time I was ready to publish my novels on Leonidas, online sales of my books had become so important that I decided to give the key search engine phrase “Leonidas of Sparta” prominence as the title, and make the individual titles of the three part biographical novel the sub-titles. While somewhat awkward, sales suggest it was the right strategy.
Finding the “right” title for a book is, however, always tricky and I have often considered dozens of possible titles before settling on one. As the examples above illustrate, I have made mistakes and needed to “re-brand” a novel entirely in two cases already. Readers of this blog know that I look for reader in-put as well as I struggle to find titles for new works.