Writers dream of winning titles for their books, dreams that can turn into obsessions and nightmares. What makes for a winning title?

There are, according to the pundits, some obvious rules that cannot be broken and should be followed – rules that flag out to readers what kind of read they’re in for:

Rule # 1: A title should be relevant to the book’s content; it should symbolize the book, sum it up, focus on the main point or character, render the thrust of the plot: at one glance the reader should know what the book is about.

Rule # 2: A title should be in line with the genre/category of the book; just like a sci-fi book should not have a nude male torso on the cover suggesting romantic suspense, its title should not allude to steamy love but hint to future worlds and/or outer space: this again is all in the name of reassuring the reader he’s got in his hands the genre he’s looking for.

Rule # 3: A title should be attractive/arresting.

The first two are pretty self-evident and I won’t discuss them here. But Rule # 3 is the toughest rule to follow and this is the one I’d like to investigate a little further.

Come to think of it, making a title attractive or arresting implies that you the author know who your readers are. So, for your title to work, you need to know who you’re writing for. You have to keep in mind who your readers are. Actually, this is a fundamental rule of good marketing no matter what product you sell…

All right, I can hear you say this is terribly obvious, we can all accept that we work for a particular, well-defined market. But what is it that makes the difference between a title that works (and will make your readers buy your book) and one that doesn’t? How do you jazz it up?

To sort this out, let’s work with one easy example: Fear of Flying, Erica Jong’s famous debut novel that turned into a worldwide bestseller with more than 18 million copies in print since it was published in 1973. Compare that with my own Fear of the Past, a coming of age novel about a young man searching for his roots and encountering all his ancestors in a magic place where they all await Judgment Day. That was published in February this year and I can honestly tell you it isn’t anywhere near its first million in print or otherwise (chuckle!). Indeed not.

Something wrong with the title?

You bet! My title, while not bad (it’s relatively unusual and stands on its own in the Amazon book lists), doesn’t really work. Compared to Erica Jong’s title, it’s flat. Yep, it’s not flying! They both have the word “fear” to start off, but the fear refers to two very different things: the past vs. flying.

Consider “fear of flying”: there’s an interesting contrast, even an ambiguity between the two terms, fear and flying. One can be afraid of flying. But one can also be excited about flying. In short, flying per se is a highly emotional activity that evokes widely varying reactions in people. It’s emotionally laden.

Now, keeping in mind the importance of having an emotionally laden title, take a look at my “fear of the past”. There’s the word “fear” to start with, that’s okay. Unfortunately it’s put together with “past”, a very broad, generic term that doesn’t evoke anything in particular, beyond a time indication – not to mention the fact that, on the level of pure sound, “fear of flying” has a repeat of the “f” sound that is very pleasing and “fear of the past” does not. The “past” per se is not particularly scary, unless you’re going to use this title for a book packed with vengeful ghosts and blood-sucking vampires (and make that clear on the cover). But this is not at all the case of my novel (the ancestors are normal people, they’re just stuck in the Circolo di Conversazione in Syracuse, Sicily and the only thing they can do is talk and watch plays they put up to amuse each other while trying to figure out what went wrong with their lives – all lessons for our young Tony to draw conclusions from…)

So my title doesn’t work for two reasons: (1) it doesn’t echo the contents of the book, and (2) it’s not attractive, it doesn’t evoke or provoke emotions. Moreover consider the cover, a lion’s head. It doesn’t give away anything about the book’s content, no hint, nothing: there’s no matching with the title. Because there ought to be a relationship between covers and titles that similarly follows the three rules for titles…

Before closing, let’s take our analysis one step further. Recently, Rob Eagor, author of Sell Your Book Like Wildfire (published in June 2012) and a marketing expert who has worked with over 400 authors to help them launch their books, has been promoting an interesting theory: he argues that it’s not content as such that will sell a book to readers but whether one can successfully answer the reader’s (unconscious) question when he looks at a book title and cover: “what’s in it for me?” If your reader is looking to be entertained, you need to sell him emotions (make him laugh, cry, feel thrills through suspense/fear etc) and that’s what your title will do for you. Or should do for you (and your book cover too).

So yes, emotionally laden titles are the number one trick in book promotion. And they don’t need to be complicated or multi-word. Consider Stephen King’s The Shining. One word, it’s cool and mysterious, it works wonders! The upshot of all this? I’m going to change the title of my Fear of the Past and…I won’t tell you, not until it’s up there, on the Amazon platform. Then I’ll let you know the new title, promise!
What will you do with the titles of your books? If you plan to change them, on what basis will you do it?


Born in Brussels, brought up on three continents (Europe, Africa, America), Claude Nougat is a Columbia University graduate (economics). In her busy working life, she followed in Jack London’s footsteps and dabbled at a wide variety jobs from banking to publishing, journalism, marketing and teaching until she started working for the United Nations (FAO). She stayed there 25 years, ending her career as Director for Europe and Central Asia.
Now happily retired, she dedicates herself to her two lifelong passions, writing and painting. So far she has published two books in Italian and three books in English (a novel, a collection of short stories and an essay on development aid). She lives in Italy with her Sicilian husband.
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