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3 Guidelines for Creating a Title with Shelf Appeal

Erin Reel logo-ishby Erin Reel, The Lit Coach

Think back to the last time you cruised your bookseller’s shelves in the grand search for something just right.

Maybe you’re there to pick up a specific book you’ve been meaning to get, but instead you find your book then are lured to the one sitting next to it...and the one next to that.

Maybe it’s the cover that captures your attention first – then you take a look at the title – and right in that split second you decide  whether or not the book speaks to you, whether or not the author’s message is clear, whether or not you should buy it.

Publishing houses have entire sales and marketing teams in place to help create those titles that speak to you, to make you consider if the book is right for you, persuading you to buy.

Despite the picture I just shared with you, picking the right title doesn’t begin at the publishing house. It’s not an agent’s job to craft an attention grabbing title, either, although the two entities certainly have their say in the matter.

Before the agent can attract the attention of an editor and that editor capture the attention of their entire publishing team, that agent (or publisher if you choose to go sans agent) must be presented with a title that piques their interest and begs them to consider the proposal.

The perfect title begins with you.

What came first, the concept or the title?

Some writers think of the concept first and the title after they’ve had an opportunity to give flesh to the work. Others have the title firmly planted in mind and have gone so far as buying the domain names and printing it on business cards before they even begin to put pen to page, ahem, so to speak.

I personally don’t feel you MUST have a title on the onset of your proposal crafting, but you MUST eventually craft one that creatively and originally captures the spirit of your book – one that will compel your target market to buy your book - before you approach those you hope will consider your book for representation.

Here are three guidelines for choosing the right title for your book

#1 Be Specific!

Agents don’t have time to guess what your title means or how it’s relevant to the message of your book.

Despite the popularity of books with frustratingly vague titles like Seth Godin’s Poke The Box or the very popular book, What Color is Your Parachute? it’s important to remember these authors come to their publisher’s table with highly developed and elevated platforms and very sophisticated branding and marketing strategies informing how they communicate.

They have already been selling this message to their large audience for some time – and their audience is familiar with their quirky catch phrases. These titles are the exception to the rule.

Let’s take a look at some examples where the author’s message and goal are clear in the title:

100 Recipes Every Woman Should Know: Engagement Chicken and 99 Other Fabulous Dishes to Get You Everything You Want in Life100 Recipes Every Woman Should Know: Engagement Chicken and 99 Other Fabulous Dishes to Get You Everything You Want in Life by Cindi Leive (Hyperion, April 2011)

It’s pretty clear to me what the author is trying to communicate – there are 100 delish dishes every woman should know how to make and in doing so, life will become that much easier. I’m hooked! I love to cook and I love that someone has compiled 100 accessible recipes (not a doorstop) for me to try out in my kitchen. Of course, I can’t wait to see how they bring me everything I want!

Product DetailsThe Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed, by Adam Bryant (Times Books, April 2011)

The “corner office” has earned its place in America’s collective corporate intelligence since the near middle of the 2oth century when sky scrapers were erected faster than superman raced locomotives. It’s a status symbol indicating success – every executive wants that coveted corner office with the view.

We know right away this book is all about that valuable and hard won office space – hooked – and in reading the subtitle the author promises to share important lessons that will lead us to that glorious success, too. I’m in! Clear title? Crystal.

#2 Be Concise!

Agents and editors dislike long titles – and frankly, you lose your audience with a lengthy explanation.

Think about it – do you waste your time reading every word in a title if they trail on and on? Not when there are thousands of other books screaming for attention.

In choosing the right title for your book, think like a poet and use the words that convey exactly what you mean. In general no title should be longer than 5-7 words. If you feel you need to keep explaining, you always have the option to attach a catchy subtitle, which I’m seeing a lot more of these days.

Here are some excellent examples:

Product DetailsWhat to Expect When You’re Expecting, by Heidi Murkoff and Sharon Mazel (4th Edition, Workman Publishing, 2008)

I’m willing to bet my morning cup of French roast, most women who have given birth to children in the last 15 years have read this book and given it as a gift to other expecting mothers – the title succinctly promises in just 6 words a wealth of need to know info new moms and now dads (included in their later editions) will eagerly read and heed in preparation for their 9 month journey. Sold! Three times!

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective PeopleThe 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey (revised edition, Free Press, November 2004)

In seven words Covey hooks me with his promise that his 7 habits proven successful by effective people will help me become more effective in my life. Sure, I’d love to read more.

Notice how both these titles didn’t need subtitles? Every word served a clear purpose.


#3 Be Visual!

In an effort to lure your agent, editor and readers, if you have an opportunity to help them visualize your story – do so. We see authors doing this more in Memoir and it’s working.

Some vivid examples:

The Motion of the Ocean: 1 Small Boat, 2 Average Lovers, and a Woman's Search for the Meaning of WifeThe Motion of The Ocean: 1 Small Boat, 2 Average Lovers and a Woman’s Search for the Meaning of Wife, by Janna Cawrse Esarey (Touchstone, June 2009)

Ah, the deep blue sea! It never sounded so…crowded, normal and yet, well, enlightening? This title gives me a mental image of what I might expect on board this small vessel in the middle of the ocean. I can immediately see it as a movie…which gets this former agent thinking…film cross-over potential? Hook, line and sinker!

Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant ChefBlood, Bones and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, by Gabrielle Hamilton (Random House, 2011)

I recently read about this book in the last issue of Bon Appetit and I was instantly compelled to put it on my list of “Must Read NOW!” books. This title draws me into a hot, bustling kitchen where all my five senses are fully utilized. I can practically see the chef masterfully crafting her dish while composing her kitchen symphony with gusto. She had me at butter.

When Publishers Change Your Title

Sometimes your best attempts to carefully craft the perfect title will get you an agent and get you the book deal, but there’s just something about it that’s not quite right.

The editor will work on the manuscript and when the time comes to submit the book to print, the editor or the marketing team may decide the title needs a little reshaping. If this happens, don’t take it personally.

Just as your editing team will make sure your book is perfect, they want to make sure your readers will clearly understand what your book is about – and you want that because when people know what your book is about that means they are more apt to buy it and book sales are good and you want to keep writing books! Remember, when you sign a contract with a traditional publisher, your material is now their material; you’re business partners.

However, you should always feel free to discuss any concerns you have about the title your publisher suggests with your agent before you consider discussing it with your editor.

I wish you success in crafting a title that will attract an agent, hook an editor and convince me to put it down on my “must read NOW!” list.

Happy crafting!


Erin Reel, The Lit Coach, is a former Los Angeles based literary agent turned publishing and editorial consultant, writer’s life coach and host of the blog, The Lit Coach’s Guide to The Writer’s Life.


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Reader Comments (3)

Terrific post!
I've struggled long and hard with my title. It's a romantic thriller set in Malaysia and I want to call it The Devil's Obsession because that is the thrust of the book. The bad guy is even called a devil in the opening pages when he kills his partner in the jungle and his obsession is the heroine. I've had a mixed bag of reviews with everything from cheesy to really great. How do you know when you've got a good working title in fiction?

April 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterStacey Purcell

I love thinking of titles for my works--especially fond of puns or dual-meaning titles. The YA that I've pitched on this site, currently titled Spirits from the Vasty Deep (which is a quote from Shakespeare, tying in to the Shakespearean quotes that appear throughout the book as well as the ghostly ship's crew characters), has had quite a few titles. One previous title was Those Lost at Sea and Drowned, which I liked but after some revisions it wasn't quite such a good match to the themes. Disappointing, because I had the perfect title for the sequel: Those Voiceless and Bound.

I haven't had an editor ask to change the title yet, but I'd be willing to work with them. But I imagine it's like cover art, where you have input to a certain extent, but you may just have to come to peace with what the publisher decided.

April 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAngelica R. Jackson

You have a bit more freedom coming up with titles for fiction - but whatever you decide, you must ignite emotion in your potential reader. Genre fiction titles get to the point quickly, while the more upmarket and literary novels tend toward broad sweeping (but not too), elevated and evocative titles. Some good examples:

Genre Fiction:
THE FIFTH WITNESS, by Michael Connelly
EVIL AT HEART, by Chelsea Cain
THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL, by Philippa Gregory

Upmarket Fiction (some refer to this as smart book club fiction)
THE OTHER LIFE, by Ellen Meister

and Literary
BLACK WATER, by Joyce Carol Oates

April 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterErin Reel

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