If I could go back in time, I would change the title of my first book, The Madness of Art: Short Stories. At the time, I had my heart set on the title because it’s from Henry James, a writer very important to me, and because I felt the title fit the book perfectly, as all of the stories are about the artistic process. What I didn’t know at the time was that there was already a BBC TV show called The Madness of Art. The other thing is, if you look around your home library, you’ll see that most fiction has two to three word titles. If you use more words, I think people assume your book is nonfiction.
You’d think after making that mistake, I’d think it through and research my title thoroughly before writing my second book. During the writing process, I had decided to name my second book In the Lyon’s Den: A Christmas Comedy. Once again, the title has way too many words, and the colon throws some people off. Then, what I discovered as I finished my book, the phrase the “Lyons’ Den” had been used as a movie title, a name of a coffee shop, and a short-lived sitcom featuring Rob Lowe. Had I simply googled my working title earlier, the heartache could’ve been avoided.
The thing you want to remember is that a lot of book purchases are made online,and if you’re self-published, most stores won’t carry your book. You need to come up with a title that’s unique so that when people type the title into a search engine, your book shows up. With The Madness of Art: Short Stories, originally if you typed that in you’d find fan sites about the British show or academic texts involving the terms madness and art. You want your book to be the first thing that shows up on a Google search.
When I found out In The Lyons’ Den was taken–several times over–I started the process of picking a new title. This actually delayed the release of my second book a whole two days. First I read through the story of Daniel in the lions’ den hoping to find a phrase that could serve as a title. In the King James Bible I found the phrase “he worketh signs and wonders.” Signs and Wonders sounded like a good title. Then I found out that had already been used as the title of a documentary, plus by some sort of religious cult, so that was out.
Another thing my second book mentions is Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, so I combed through the play for a phrase to use as my title, and came across the phrase “Like Patience sitting on a monument, smiling at grief” (I might be misquoting that, I don’t have the book on me right now). So I thought I’d name my book “Smiling at Grief,” which fits the tone of my novel rather nicely. Smiling at Grief was also taken.
The next thing I did was read through my book for a phrase that stood out. This was a rather ridiculous process. I was desperate by this time. I needed to get my book online and couldn’t keep dallying with the title. I considered the following: “Lions and Geese” (two symbols that run through the book) “Doors and Windows” (two other motifs in my book) and even “Lions, Geese, Doors and Windows.” All ridiculous, and all seemed like non-fiction titles.
Finally, I decided to start thinking in obvious terms. My book involves a middle aged couple who believe the Apocalypse is right around the corner, so they decide their last Christmas on Earth has to be special. It’s essentially a comedy of errors, so the title had to seem funny or like a pun. I came up with some idiotic ideas first, “The Happy Apocalypse,” “Letters from the Rapture,” “The Day After The End of Time” and other titles so absurd I don’t want to mention them.
Then I found my title. What’s the clearest pun based on the situation? A Rapturous Occasion! To my surprise, A Rapturous Occasion wasn’t yet the name of a movie or a book. My one complaint is that the title, to some, will sound Hallmark-y, but if you read the book and understand the premise, the title is funny in a way. Also, the title’s nice and short–three words. If you search for it on Amazon, my book is the first thing that shows up (for the first month after its publication, my book The Madness of Art: Short Stories wouldn’t show up even on the first page of an Amazon search for its exact title).
So please learn from my own comedy of errors. As soon as you think of a title you like, google it, and look it up on Amazon before you set your heart on it. Unless you’re already a popular writer, you should keep your title short. Writers who are already recognized can use atrociously long titles, like Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Iris Murdoch’s The Sacred and Profane Love Machine, or Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. If people don’t yet know your name, try to think of a title short enough for them to easily remember. Two or three words should be your goal. Apart from search engine optimization, the other thing you want to keep in mind is that your title should match the tone of your book. If your book’s a comedy, consider using some sort of pun as your title, or if it’s a mystery, choose something vague and ominous (consider Paul Auster’s City of Glass–the title is intriguing, mysterious, and also when you read the book, it turns out one of the character’s surnames is Glass).
The other thing is, if you’re self-publishing, keep in mind you’ll be doing a lot of your own advertising, so whatever you choose for a title, you’ll have to write down a thousand times on blogs or Facebook pages.