Thursday, September 10, 2015

What Goes into Choosing a Book Title?

by Warren Adler @WarrenAdler

You can’t judge a book by its title.

You’ve heard the saying forever, mostly in reference to book covers. But the real issue concerns the title that cleverly describes the contents that lie within the covers.
To be authentic it must have the ring of truth, but the ring should be so piercing and articulate that it makes a serious reader take notice.

Creating book titles for novels is like naming your children. It creates a special individual identity and requires intense reflection. A great title must convey an image that synthesizes the story, convey its meaning and connect with the most casual book searcher who may or may not remember the name of the author or, in the case, of serial novels, the name of the principal character who will be embarking on another fictional journey.
In the case of an authorial name whose past stories have created a kind of brand addiction in the reader’s mind, this might not apply. In such cases, the writer’s name trumps the title. In such cases time is the enemy of the brand and keeping one’s authorial name alive is a challenge to be dealt with elsewhere.

Book Titles That Hit the Mark  
Although I have numerous favorite titles, especially among special authors that have entered my individual canon, some are to my mind standouts. My most compelling list includes Hemingway’s “Farewell to Arms” and “The Sun Also Rises” which marvelously captures the heart and soul of the author’s story.
Another favorite title is from Charles Dickens who was prone to name, because of his brand name popularity, the majority of his great novels after his main character. But in “Great Expectations” and “A Christmas Carol,” he is right on target. Scott FitzGerald, too, also scored a bulls-eye with “This Side of Paradise” and “Tender is the Night.” I could go on and on.

A History of Naming My Novels
My own experiences with titling my many novels and numerous short stories has convinced me that coming up with exactly the right title is an art form unto itself. There is no way beforehand to know if a title resonates for the book searcher. But in all modesty, I believe I got most of my titles right. I am still fond of “The War of the Roses” which is somewhat of a rip-off of the famous 15th century dynastic wars for the throne of England.
Another title which became a movie “Random Hearts,” was, in my mind, the best rendition of the novel’s content and an obsessive theme in most of my fifty odd novels and short stories, the mysterious and yes, random, nature of love. Believe me, I have agonized for days, weeks and months over some of my titles. Some have been battles that I lost with publishers.
One in particular stands out and still pains me deeply. I wrote a story about a Washington newspaper in which the owner and editors became so obsessed with power having brought down a President that they assumed they could also promote one of their choice.
I knew the inner workings of the news business from my own experience working on a New York newspaper and had titled my novel “Ink” which I thought made perfect sense. The publisher insisted on the title “The Henderson Equation,” a rip-off of the kind of titling that was hitting the best-seller lists in those days. I tried my best to dissuade the publisher, but finally and cowardly surrendered. I still hate the title and with the new technology and now that the rights have been reversed to me I intend to change it back to “Ink.” 
My first novel whose story was about how a married Senator used his cunning and fortune to recover his political footing after a scandal in which his clandestine lover drowned was titled “Options.” I was the culprit on that one. It sounded more financial than suspenseful.  The paperback version was subsequently renamed “Waters of Decision.” Years later when I got the rights back I renamed it “Undertow,” which, from my perspective, hit the mark.
I also might have hurt the novel which I named “Blood Ties” about a family of arms dealers who have trouble resolving a problem when they are suddenly confronted with a cornucopia of nuclear material used to make atomic bombs. Unfortunately, although the title was descriptive of the contents, it had been used so many times by other authors that it is has become a cliché. One cannot copyright a title.
Torture Man,” the new novel coming out in November, deals with the inner turmoil and moral dilemma of those on both ends of the torture controversy.

Make Every Word Count
Of course, there is a deep kinship between advertising logos, catchy headlines, slogan creation and book titling and I spent half my life performing the former and the other half performing the latter. For nearly twenty years, I ran my own advertising agency in Washington that specialized in real estate promotion and politics. For the record, my only ambition which began as a teenage dream, was to write novels and it required many years of pursuit and rejection before that dream was realized.
In the real estate area I was hired to name housing and apartment projects and create promotional and advertising campaigns to attract people to the sites. Whole areas of the Washington metropolitan area and places in Maryland and Virginia are scattered with my creations. King Park in Virginia, is just one example. I named a motel in Maryland “Colony Seven,” since Maryland was the seventh colony. I named an apartment project on Massachusetts Avenue “Foxhall” because it was the road that led to Georgetown, one of the toniest areas in Washington.
Counties in Britain were a favorite source of creative names, not only for the project but for the styles of each home being offered. My least challenging creation was naming a complex on the shores of the Potomac “Watergate.” It was just a vast wasteland on the edge of what was a little restaurant of the same name. When I acquired the account as its first advertising agency I thought it was good enough to use and the clients agreed. Who knew what history would make of the name? Many of my friends think it was my greatest career achievement.
Sometimes my alleged cleverness got me in hot water. One of my clients was selling lots in Virginia and my headline for its sale was “The Greatest Earth on Show” a rip-off of the Ringling Bros Barnum and Bailey Circus slogan.  I was threatened with legal action and quickly capitulated.
On the balance in my efforts of book titling, I give myself generally good grades. In the past I allowed my foreign publishers to change the titles to fit with what they believed would be more attractive to their home country audiences. My new policy as the interest in my books are resurrecting is under no circumstances will I allow any title changes, a policy that goes with all adaptations of my books to movies, television and live theater.

What Goes into Choosing a Book Title - thoughts from Great American Novelist, @WarrenAdler (Click to Tweet)

Choosing exactly the right title for your book is an art form unto itself - @WarrenAdler (Click to Tweet)


  1. Thank you so much for this. I have my first book written and 4 others in various stages of completion. I spent many hours contemplating the title of my completed book. I checked Amazon to make sure the title was not taken(many were). I am not convinced I will keep the title I have. I created a list of 20 alternate titles. Once I get a publisher I know they will help me find the perfect title. I still have to do this for the other 4 books. A difficult task indeed, but a necessary one.

  2. Wow! I loved reading the insights of such an accomplished writer. Though I confess I was a bit confused when I mistook Random Hearts for Random Harvest (a b/w classic movie). I realized my mistake when Harrison Ford was mentioned. LOL!