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How to Title a Book: Fiction & Nonfiction

Written by

Hannah Lee Kidder

https://selfpublishing.com/author/hannah/

Published on

2021-10-09

If you polled every writer and asked them the worst part of writing a book, they’d almost universally say titling it. I’ve never heard a writer say they’re good at titles. Titling a book is hard! If you’re among the majority that struggle to title your stories, let’s talk about how to title a book.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Do titles of books matter that much?

In short: Absolutely they do!

Your book’s title and cover are your biggest marketing elements. People skim titles. If your book title doesn’t reach out and slap a reader in the face, they might miss it. A good title is memorable, accurate, and intriguing. You want a potential reader to see your book while they’re browsing and pause. Your title should scream: “Hey! I’m interesting!” to your target demographic.

The title is the first thing you reader sees—or hears—about your book. They’ll make a snap judgment about what your book is about. They might even judge its quality on the title alone. Imagine you’re looking for an intriguing, mature fantasy novel, and your friend recommends something called Fulfilling the Epic Prophecy of Yeuwliene. Maybe it’s a great book, but the title is a little cliche, not very interesting, and has a made up word—presumably in a language from the story—that means nothing to you. To me, that title reads as a book that didn’t have an editor, written by an inexperienced author. I wouldn’t buy it.

An absolutely stellar title won’t necessarily make your book sell. But a lack of such a title can definitely hurt sales.

Let’s dig into how to title our books effectively.

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How to title a nonfiction book

You’ve likely noticed that nonfiction and fiction books are titled pretty differently. That’s because they serve different purposes, and they are attracting different audiences for unique reasons.

When you’re titling a nonfiction book, you’ll want to be pretty upfront. While fiction books can get more creative and appeal to the storytelling part of a person’s brain, nonfiction typically wants to be much clearer about their purpose. A common titling format for nonfiction is a creative but relevant title, then a much more specific subtitle. Let’s look at some tips for titling nonfiction books.

1. Think about how people will search for your book. For example, if I searched “How to make friends” on Amazon, we get titles like:

By utilizing obvious search terms for that content, the authors are taking advantage of the way people search for titles. Be sure to consider the way people look for the information you’re providing when you title your book.

2. Don’t forget subtitles. Like the example above shows, you can get a lot of mileage out of your subtitles. Here to Make Friends: How to Make Friends as an Adult: Advice to Help You Expand Your Social Circle, Nurture Meaningful Relationships, and Build a Healthier, Happier Social Life is a long one, but the way it’s formatted on the cover makes it an attractive title, while still utilizing every term as a marketing tool for search engines to show the book to potential readers.

3. Categories and genres. Know your book’s subgenres and categories to keep those in mind while titling. Look at other books in that genre to see the standards for titles.

How to title a fiction book

Fiction titles can be less specific and more creative, but they also follow certain formats. For example, you won’t see as many subtitles in fiction, unless they’re doing something stylistic, like spoofing another genre. So what do you need to keep in mind when titling a novel?

1. Genre. Even though fiction titles don’t describe their content the way you’ll see in nonfiction, the genre is still important. There are tropes and expectations in different fiction genres, even for titles. This is a handy guide for title examples and ideas based on novel type.

2. Target demographic. There are ways to title a book to attract different reader demographics. To see this illustrated, let’s look at some adult fantasy genre titles versus children’s fantasy titles.

For adults:

  • Outlander
  • Circe
  • Children of Blood and Bone
  • Ninth House

For children:

  • The Magician’s Nephew
  • A Wrinkle in Time
  • The Wizard of Oz
  • James and the Giant Peach

Keep your target demographic in mind when titling your book.

3. Being representative and interesting. I remember the first time I heard the title The Hunger Games. It was odd! I was intrigued to learn more, but at the same time, I knew it was dystopian. I think that’s a great example of a well-done title. It appealed to me (I was 15, right in the target demographic), held an appropriate level of intrigue, but also allowed a potential reader to make several assumptions if they were familiar with the genre of dystopian YA.

How to get ideas for book titles

1. Look at other books in your genre. It’s great to be original and creative with titles, but shooting blind with no idea of the norms in your genre might be a bad idea for a few reasons. For one, you might hit a cringey trope! If you don’t know the cool things people are doing, you also won’t know the icky things people are doing. To avoid horrendous embarrassment, be in the know before you set a title in stone. Another reason to know what’s going on with titles in your genre is that there are trends in titles, just like there are in cover designs. Hitting a title that people associate with that genre, subgenre, and featured tropes can help your book find its readership.

2. Make a list. Of what? Everything! List your characters’ names, important places in the story, lines you liked, important imagery, genres and subgenres, titles of other books you enjoy in the genre, and anything else you can think of. If you hit on a possible title and you like the meaning but the verbiage or vibes aren’t quite hitting, you can take that word or phrase and brainstorm different versions of it, swap the order of words, and hit up a thesaurus to see if any synonyms might work better. Seeing all of your title material in one place makes it easier to build one.

3. Ask around. Run your title ideas past lots of people. Ask them what your titles evoke for them, without any context. Leave an open answer format at the end of your beta reader interview forms for them to suggest names. Sometimes it’s hard to title something you’re so close to, so definitely keep an open ear to what your friends and readers think.

On a personal note, I’ll share how I titled my own books. Little Birds is a collection of contemporary short fiction. Since it was my debut collection, I was thinking about it for what it was—a collection of these tiny beings that I created and let loose into the world in hopes someone would see one and be affected by it. They were little birds to me. Little Birds is also the title of one of the stories, so it was on my mind.

Starlight was my second collection, and I think I was more intentional with the way I named it. It’s a collection of horror, sci-fi, and generally much darker stories. But each story is really about the light you find in the darkness, like stars in a night sky. I felt like the vibe of the word itself fit the collection, as well as holding a deeper meaning if you stop and give it some thought. In my opinion, those two factors are what make the perfect title.

Examples of great book titles

Great fiction titles

As we discussed, a great fiction title is interesting and intriguing for your target demographic. These are some fiction titles that stand out to me as particularly good.

1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. It’s a memorable, iconic title with literal and metaphorical meaning in the book. It essentially means the death of innocence. A good title should catch attention, be memorable, and ideally have a deeper meaning once the reader has finished the book.

2. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury is another example of a memorable and interesting title that holds a deeper meaning once the book is read.

3. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. A reference to the Shakespeare play, Julius Caesar; the full quote reads: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars/But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” This title is interpreted in many ways, but one of the most popular is that it’s in reference to how Hazel and Augustus’ fates are out of their own control.

4. Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko is a great example of a unique title. Even though it’s one word, if you Google it, you’ll only find Ifueko’s books. That’s an iconic use of an original term as a title.

5. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. A simple title, but it takes on meaning once you read the book and realize Rebecca is not the main character, nor is the main character ever referred to by her first name. In the story, the narrator is so obsessed with the dead woman, Rebecca, that she loses her own identity. The title displays that concept.

6. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Like we discussed earlier, this is a great example of a title catered to its genre.

7. This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. The title is quirky and descriptive of the story. It’s one that gets cleverer post-read.

Great nonfiction book titles

Like fiction titles, nonfiction should be intriguing for your target demographic. They should also make it clear what your book content is about. Nonfiction genres like self-help are usually straight to the point, while memoirs and biographies can be more creative. Let’s look at some examples of each.

1. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling is a very funny title for a very funny book.

2. Obviously: Stories from My Timeline by Akilah Hughes. Hughes is an online personality, and she got her start with a YouTube channel called AkilahObviously. This works as a reference and nod to her early work and original fans, while also conveying the tone of the book–snarky, sassy, and hilarious.

3. How To Ruin Everything by George Watsky is an attention-grabbing title that sums up the essay collection pretty well.

4. 1 Dead in Attic: After Katrina by Chris Rose is about the challenges New Orleans faced after Hurricane Katrina. The title imitates the way bodies were reported directly after the flood, and it’s a format most people will remember, pricking at those emotional memories of the tragedy. The subtitle clarifies what the book is about.

5. Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser outlines the life of author Laura Ingalls Wilder, detailing the hardships she faced in the Great Plains.

7. Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us: A (Sort of) Compassionate Guide to Why Your Writing is Being Rejected by Jessica Page Morrell. This title sets the tone for the book while telling us exactly what it’s about.

Your book’s title is one of the biggest marketing elements, so take some time with it! The title can’t make your book’s success, but it can certainly break it.

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Hannah Lee Kidder