Choosing A Title For Your Novel, by Phillipa Fioretti
Coming up with a book title is often as hard as cutting firewood with your tongue.
With an artwork title you can come at it from any angle – descriptive, complementary, undermining, explaining or just plain keep-the-punters-guessing ‘Untitled’. The best titles, of course, have a conceptual connection to the work, however obscure. It doesn’t matter if the viewer doesn’t get it, because it’s not about them, is it? It’s about the artist and the need to remain true to the rigorous imperatives that drive them. And the viewer can just shove off and buy the catalogue if they really want to know, and even then the obfuscation level will be so high nobody knows what the hell it’s all about, so let’s go have a coffee.
But a title for a work of fiction? Now there’s a challenge. Whatever you come up with, if you publish commercially, the publisher has the last say. The marketing department will have a list of words that they swear will stimulate the prospective buyer to a must-have frenzy. Aren’t they clever? I don’t think it always works. I don’t think anyone truly knows what sells one book and not another, but the title has a role in getting that all important book browser to stop and pick up your book. Then the blurb and cover go to work with their seductive skills and soon we have that book browser morphing into a customer at the cash register. So the title is a first impression and, as such, very important.
I want a title to mean something. I want it to speak about the book. I want it to be neat, taut and concise. My first book was titled The Book of Love. I wasn’t a hundred percent on that title when I was offered a contract, but I knew it wouldn’t be down to me alone. And both my publisher and I had a problem with the word ‘love.’ It’s a beautiful experience, but on a book cover the word can send many book browsers running in the opposite direction. However, as the book in the story has as its subject erotica (ie. physical love) from Pompeii, and the characters fall in love, it was a good fit.
A good fit for a book published in English is not necessarily a good fit for a translation and for a different market. Publishers who buy the translations rights to a book can change the title to what they deem to be more suitable for their market – rightly or wrongly. In Germany The Book of Love was published as (loosely translated) Please Don’t Let This Be Love, Norway chose Lily’s Book, Poland came up with The Italian Secret, I haven’t heard what the Serbians have decided on. It’s not something I have any control over, so there is no point in getting upset if I don’t like these new titles.
However, I think it’s important to get a title as close to what you, the writer, would like before the book gets near a publisher. Be very familiar with titles in your genre, understand some of the conventions and play around with them. Make lists of words associated with the characters, story or themes, lines from songs, place names and poems. Shuffle associations and colours, feelings and places, and constantly return to the book’s content for ideas. Book titles are not subject to copyright, so witty play with other titles is an avenue to investigate.
What you want is a title that conveys a sense of what is within the pages. You want to generate an emotional response in the book browser – intrigue, outrage, curiosity, amusement, or anything other than indifference. A title works with the cover, blurb and tag line to grab the browser and pull them in. A title is at the front line of your marketing offensive – arm it well.
I love the titles that slip into my mind so smoothly I barely notice the entry point. But they can’t all be like that. Blood must be shed and sleep must be lost until the right words are extracted and finally secured with heavy nails to the book cover with accompanying satisfied grunts.
Phillipa Fioretti’s author website: www.phillipafioretti.com.au
Writing Novels in Australia