What makes a good book title?
This is something I’ve been giving thought to, as the first book of the Al Andalus series moves towards publication. So far it’s been called ‘On the Frontier’, the title I gave to the story I wrote for my nephew many years ago. It has changed, significantly, since then, so I think the title should change too. Both my editor and my husband concur (their reasoning is, however, more commercial than mine – ‘On the Frontier’ doesn’t really grab the attention).
An ongoing Goodreads poll to find the ‘best’ book title of all time placed ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ (Philip K Dick) and ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ (Ray Bradbury, after Shakespeare) at one and two, closely followed by ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ (Douglas Adams). The list runs to 2,375 titles and it includes classics as well as modern, general as well as genre fiction (though ‘clever’ modern titles predominate). Incidentally, I have always liked ‘Brother of the More Famous Jack’ by Barbara Trapido.
So, a good title has to be arresting and, if possible, intriguing. A good ‘hook’.
It also has to be relevant to the story. If ‘Gunfight at the OK Corral’ turns out to be a modern romance, more than a few readers might feel cheated, regardless of any ‘post-modern irony’ claims.
What do I want my title to convey? A sense of adventure and excitement, maybe, the location or the period and/or the main subject. But that’s rather a lot and, all the advice suggests, short is better than long. In part because a very long title doesn’t have the same punchy impact and can turn readers off. If I was choosing a title for ‘The Village; A Year in Twelve Tales’ now, it would be much shorter. Length also becomes material when one considers technology – how search engines operate, for example, or how many characters of a Tweet might be consumed by a long title. But, also, beware the single word title. Many will have been used already – try looking up ‘Haunted’ on Amazon books.
Amazon is a useful place for research. In the ‘Young adult’ books section, many carry series names, like ‘Cherub’, ‘Legend’, ‘Magisterium’ in bold type, the actual title almost takes second billing ( these are fantasy series, see dragon, left ). This is a form of brand recognition. My book is the first of a series, but, as the series is as yet unknown, I’m not sure what’s to be gained by putting the series name up front.
Given the frequency with which they are used, it also obviously helps to have any of the following in the title – throne, shadow, fire, hunger, midnight or demon. I will certainly be doing some word analysis. There are some really rather scary titles too – ‘Now You See Me’ and ‘Better Left Buried’ are two good examples by former journalist, Emma Haughton.
To narrow down the search criteria, I look at the sub-head ‘Historical fiction’ and it’s ‘Medieval’ category. A couple of the most popular medieval books also feature high up in the larger category, which is heartening – setting a story in medieval times isn’t necessarily the kiss of death. From reading the reviews it is also obvious that it’s not just young adults who read these books ( that’s good, I want adults to read the Al Andalus books too ). Popular words in titles include – bow, prince, lady, king, sword.
The title also has to read well when spoken out loud. It’s not just going to be written, but, one hopes, talked about. So, avoid the mondegreen – a term new to me, but which means the mis-hearing of a phrase, leading to the creation of different, homophonic phrase. It derives from the folk song ‘The Bonnie Earl O’ Moray’, which includes the words ‘They have slain the Earl of Moray and laid him on the green’. Misheard, this becomes ‘Lady Mondegreen’ and we have two corpses. This is quite a common mistake, apparently.
Finally, I have to be as sure as I can be that the title will travel to the rest of the English speaking world. No embarrassing misunderstanding of the ‘knocked up’ variety – though the globalisation of English should preclude most of these.
So, now I’ve run through all that, I just have to find a good title. Easy then…..! Watch this space.