How to Choose Your Novel’s Title: Let Me Count 5 Ways

An article By: Chuck Sambuchino | April 14, 2015

Would you buy a book called Trimalchio in West Egg? Scribner didn’t—the publisher asked F. Scott Fitzgerald to change the title of his novel, which we all know as The Great Gatsby. Readers judge a book not only by its cover but its title. I thought I knew that already from the famous Fitzgerald anecdote, until my publisher asked me to change my book title.

My debut romance book is about an Olympic gold-medalist boxer known as the Juggernaut, who’s as potent inside the ring as his name implies. For all of his determination and self-discipline, he gets knocked out at first sight by the beautiful doctor who stitches up his cut.

My book’s original title was Taming the Juggernaut, which came from a dialogue in the manuscript. It refers not only to the hero but also the heroine, who’s doing the “taming.” I thought it was the perfect title…

My publisher, Lyrical Press, an imprint of Kensington Publishing Corp., disagreed. Even before my manuscript was edited, Kensington asked me to change my title. After I got over the disappointment, I submitted 17 alternative titles, including the cheesy Paramour Fighter and the vague Tough Love.

Editors’ Perspectives

Martin Biro, Kensington Publishing associate editor, chose In His Corner as the new title of my book. I admit it’s the best choice.

He had two problems with the original title. First, he said, “While ‘juggernaut’ is certainly a memorable word, it doesn’t have a strong romance connotation.” Second, the original title didn’t refer to boxing at all.

“Titles can be very tricky, as they need to be memorable, easily understood, and can’t have been used to death,” Biro said. “The title obviously has to help convey the genre and tone for the book—is it sexy, scary, or sweet? In this case we felt that the sports theme was a definite selling point, so we really wanted to get that across with the title.”

Corinne DeMaagd, who edited my book, emphasized the importance of the title in an overcrowded market. “You get that small window of opportunity to catch the reader’s eye. In those seconds, with your cover and title, you need to be able to distinguish the genre and grab that readership,” she said.

Choosing the Best Title

I compared my experience with that of other authors and came up with these five tips to help you choose the best title for your novel.

(1) Titles Based on Theme: Some of the most popular novels of all time have theme-based titles, including Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. It’s true in my boxing-themed book as well. “In His Corner suggests sports—especially when paired with the cover image—romance and emotional depth all in one,” explained Biro. The image of a male boxer on my book cover makes a strong statement, said DeMaagd, who is not only an editor but also the author of the Love Where You Roam series published under her pen name CD Brennan. “With the new title that implies a bit of intrigue, we hope that the story will sell,” she added.

(2) Protagonist’s Name: There are countless best-sellers bearing their protagonists’ names, from the classics, such asEmma by Jane Austen and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, to contemporary hits like Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones trilogy.

(3) Protagonist’s Occupation or Other Qualities: Instead of using your protagonist’s name, you could title your book based on his or her occupation or other qualities. We see this a lot in the romance genre. Barbara Cartland’s titles include The Poor Governess, The Wicked Marquis, and The Duke and the Preacher’s Daughter. Nora Roberts has a book called The Witness, while Danielle Steel has a novel titled A Perfect Stranger.

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(4) Titles Inspired by Songs and Poems: Many authors have used classic poems or popular songs as book titles. J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye came straight out of the poem “Comin’ Thro the Rye” by Robert Burns. In the mystery and suspense genre, Mary Higgins Clark is famous for titles inspired by songs, such as I’ve Got You Under My Skin(Frank Sinatra) and Let Me Call You Sweetheart (Bing Crosby).

(5) Titles Lifted from the Manuscript: The title of E.M. Forster’s classic romantic story, A Room with a View, came from the novel’s first page when Charlotte Bartlett and Lucy Honeychurch complained about not having a room with a view of the Arno river.

In The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris, FBI Agent Clarice Starling was traumatized as a child by the slaughter of “screaming” lambs. The lambs symbolize the victims she wants to save from a serial killer. The title comes from a dialogue between Clarice and Hannibal Lecter; it refers to her ability to solve the case.

These are just a few ways to help you choose the perfect book title that matches the genre, tone, and essence of your story. The right title takes you one step closer to capturing your target readers.

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