Module 4: Editing

Editing and Finalizing Your Manuscript, Part Four: Choosing Your Title

Andrea Levitt from Reader's Digest introduces part four of this webinar on the process of finalizing your manuscript. Then, George Nedeff from Author Solutions breaks down some suggestions for choosing an effective book title. He runs through some key pointers that will help you write a title true to the essence of your book, without confusing potential readers and booksellers.

Video Transcript

Hi, this is Andrea, senior editor at Reader's Digest Select Editions. I'm here to talk to you today about part four of the webinar, "Editing and Finalizing Your Manuscript." In part one, we learned about the value of different types of editing. Part two covered 13 common mistakes that readers always complain about. In part three, we learned how to select the right editor, how to maintain consistency throughout your manuscript and the importance of indexing for a nonfiction book. Today in part four, we're going to talk about how to choose an effective title.

It's said that you can't judge a book by its cover. The truth is, people often do, and a great cover starts with a great title. As an editor, I've found that the longest-running, most contentious, most impassioned debates often revolve around the title of the book. Ideally, your title will be unique, catchy, capture the essence of the book and not be too long. That's a lot to ask for just a few words. You probably already have a title in mind for your book, and it may in fact be the right one. But it's still worth going through the process of brainstorming, researching and getting feedback to make sure it's the best fit. In the final part of this webinar, we'll look at common roadblocks that often prevent writers from completing their manuscript. But first, let's begin with part four.

Hi, this is George Nedeff. I'm the learning instructor at Author Solutions, as well as a former editor from the traditional industry. Your book's title, in the simplest terms, is how you reference your written work. But the title is more than just a reference tool. It's a powerful device – the title must captivate your audience to make your book stand out in the marketplace. It may have a controversy and debate. It may cause readers to smile. It may shock readers to the core.

A good title targets a specific audience and draws them in. Your book's title is your first marketing and selling tool. You'll use it on the book's cover, on your website, in interviews and blog postings, in marketing materials and in agent submissions. The title is what captures a reader's attention. It helps readers decide if they want to learn more about your book, and ultimately, purchase it. The title is also part of what captures the attention of an agent, editor, publisher and book buyer. The title helps your target audience find your book in bookstores, and there are a myriad of books on the shelves – virtual and real. So potential readers quickly scan the vast selections rather than evaluating every book one at a time. They might give your book a few seconds to capture their attention. To do that, your title must elicit an emotional and logical response. Logically, readers decide if the book sounds interesting to them.

Another important aspect of titles is their ability to be found online in search engines. Avoid titles that are too general, especially for nonfiction books. If your title is general, searching for it will turn up too many results. Readers likely will not spend the time to sort through all of the results to find your book. You can also try adding a unique subtitle if your title is slightly general. It will likely take you some time to discover the perfect title for your book. Most authors wait until the manuscript is complete or in draft form before deciding on a final title. Some authors choose the book's title before they even begin writing. There's no right answer, but it's helpful to develop a strong working title as soon as possible, so you have a way to reference your forthcoming book. If you plan to share your working title with potential readers on your website or in social media, make sure you give it the same thought and efforts as you did your final title. Be prepared to research and edit your title. Don't get too attached. You may need to discard it completely if it doesn't fit your book or is ineffective. The title has a purpose, and it should be refined or replaced until it fulfills that purpose to attract and keep a reader's interest.

When it comes to creating a winning title for your book, one of the best places to start is the Bestsellers List. Take a look at the New York Times bestsellers, indie bestsellers and Amazon bestsellers list. Examine the titles. Most titles include a powerful, specific noun. There's usually one modifier, if any. Some titles use alliteration to draw readers in. Many titles are one, two or three words in length. Few are longer. A strong title is one that will be remembered and shared with friends. Avoid obscure or difficult to recall titles. If verbs are used in the title, they are generally forms of active verbs and not "to be" verbs. Nonfiction books often have titles paired with subtitles. A strong title and subtitle will indicate the benefit to the reader. Enthusiasm for your subject is welcome in a title. Many choose a provocative title with an explanatory subtitle. The title whets the reader's appetite, and the subtitle hooks the reader. The title shouldn't be too obscure, and it should offer a clue to the subject matter of the book, even if it's paired with a subtitle. If no clue is offered, the book is unlikely to reach its intended audience.

A good title must be genre-appropriate. What works for a romance novel won't do for a mystery. Take a look at the bestselling book titles in your genre. What are their similarities? How are titles in your book's genre different from another genre? You want your book's title to fit within the guidelines of the genre, yet be unique enough to stand out from books already published.

Now that you have a general idea about popular titles in your genre, it's time to brainstorm some ideas of your own. Start with a mind map of all the key elements you feel stand out in your story. This can simply be an exercise in exploring the "five W's": who, what, when, where and why. Who is this story about? What takes place during the story? What is the moral point to your book? Where does it take place? And is that place unique and central enough to mention? When does your story occur, and could that influence the audience's choice to read it? Why are the characters doing what they do? Why should anyone care about your book?

After your brainstorming session, highlight the elements that could make potential titles, and select the ones you feel have the most promise. Consider your audience. Will it make them want to open the cover? You want your book title to have a sense of mystery coupled with the promise of a payoff. While the title isn't the only thing about your book that will convince someone to read it, a less-than-stellar title makes it harder to capture a potential reader's interest.

Once you have a few options, it's time to do a little market research. Go online and use your favorite search engine to research the availability of your title options. Just enter your potential title and see what comes up in the search results. You don't want to select a title that already exists. You should also make sure that your title isn't associated with a company or another online presence. If you really like a particular title, but it's already taken, ask yourself if there's a way you can change it around to fit your needs without being confused for another book.

You've identified the essence of your book and seen what the competition has done. Now it's time to investigate the amount of web traffic you can expect from your top title contenders. You can use free keyword tools online to find out if your title is search-friendly. A keyword, or search term, is a word or combination of words that someone enters into a search engine such as Google or Bing. It's the exact word, or words, that people use to search for what they want. Free online tools to try include the SEO Book Keyword Tool or Wordstream Keyword Tool. You can also use Bing's keyword tool, which is located within their webmaster tools. However, you need a website for it to work. Enter your title options in the keyword tool to see how much traffic your title returns. Traffic refers to how many times per day or month your keywords are searched. Some tools also show the level of competition for your keywords, as well as some additional suggestions.

Competition refers to the number of advertisers bidding on a keyword. Naturally, it's more difficult to rank high in search results for keywords that are high in competition. Depending on the type of book that you are writing, high-traffic keywords may or may not be that important. For example, if you are writing a thriller with an obscure title such as "Midnight Ferocity," you do not need your title to be a highly-searched keyword. In this case, it would be more beneficial to have a title with low competition than high traffic, because you want your title to rank first when people search for it. On the other hand, if you are writing a nonfiction book on a specific disease, you want your book to pop up in the search results regardless of whether someone is searching specifically for your book. Any time someone searches on the disease, you want your book to appear in the search results.

One of the key ways businesses in general are seeing success these days is through the interaction via social media. Sure, you've come up with a nice, tight list of titles for your latest project, but are they catchy enough to pique the interest of a potential reader in 140 characters or less on Twitter? Is it easy enough for fans to remember and catchy enough to enough to earn a like or share on Facebook? In some instances, you will have developed a self-explanatory title that will work well in the world of tweets and posts, but if you feel you've fallen a little short, then go back through your notes and develop a subtitle or single sentence, using the same process, that can accompany your title on its journey to your newfound readers. After you've connected your research, you're ready to choose the best title for your book. Let your title settle with your work for a while. Test it out on a mock-up title page. Get feedback from colleagues and writers' groups. Once you have made your decision, keep an open mind. Depending on how you plan to publish your book, editors may suggest a different title altogether.

Have you ever picked up a book and had no clue what it was about? Sometimes a title isn't enough to draw in readers. Subtitles clarify, expand on and define titles. A subtitle will help you position your book in the marketplace. The subtitle is a tool of the nonfiction writer and is rarely used in fiction. Some fiction books display the words "a novel" on the cover to clarify that the book is indeed fiction. However, this is typically not an official subtitle. The following three examples will help you decide if your book needs a subtitle.

Some nonfiction books have unusual titles that don't reveal much about the book's subject matter. For example, in "Outliers: The Story of Success," Malcolm Gladwell reveals the uncommon term "outliers" with a simple subtitle. Readers are tantalized with the unfamiliar term, but are drawn in with clarity of the subtitle. Is your title unusual, too? Clarify it with a simplistic subtitle. You interest readers with your oblique title and hook them with the subtitle.

Other nonfiction titles may misdirect some readers and subtitles help position them in the marketplace. Consider the title and subtitle "Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey through Parallel Universes, Time Warps, and the 10th Dimension" by Michio Kaku. Author Kaku offers direction to the readers by expanding on the one-word title. Readers immediately know this is no sci-fi book, but a reader for those interested in theoretical physics. A carefully chosen subtitle will help the right readers find your book.

Some nonfiction titles are provocative in nature but don't really reveal the subject matter of a book at all. A subtitle is absolutely necessary to connect these books with the readers. Think about this title: "Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son's First Son" by Anne Lamott and Sam Lamott. The title could cover a myriad of subjects. It's interesting, but broad in scope. Without a subtitle, this book might be a manual on how to make homemade beer or a book on parenting. The title evokes a feeling in the reader, but the subtitle is the hook. Your provocative title might need a subtitle to target your readers. Consider adding one to more effectively market your book.

Do consider the cover. You may not be an artist, but you should at least give a little thought to your book's cover. How will your title look on the cover? If you are thinking of a simple design, but your title and subtitle is 20 words long, you might reconsider. This also plays into knowing your genre. Some genre covers have a certain look, perhaps using the title as a main part of the design.

Do use a title that's catchy. Can people remember it? Fewer words are typically easier to remember than more words, but you also need something memorable about your title. Give it a hook, a rhythm, a weight. Make it clever, make it pop.

Do collect feedback. Create the best title through collaboration. Survey supportive individuals with a list of possible titles and ask them which one they like best. This not only helps you choose a great title, but you've also begun to engage others in the creation of your book – a good thing when it comes time to market it.

Don't use excessive punctuation. There may be some exceptions to this rule, but in general, you shouldn't need to use any punctuation in your title. Exclamation points, question marks and ellipses all add up to people being confused about how to search for your title. Some retail search engines even have trouble processing certain symbols.

Don't use something too obscure or too general. A good title should have a hint of mystery or cleverness to it, but it shouldn't be so obscure that it has nothing to do with the book. Likewise, in order to have a title that's clever, you can't be too general either. Draw from the essence of your book. Ask yourself: "Does my title convey what the book is about, or pique curiosity to find out?"

Don't use words that are hard to spell. "Mister Obfulicious and Me" might be the perfect title to describe your book, but if no one knows how to spell it, choose something else. Also, make sure to spell-check your own title if you are self-publishing.

Don't neglect research. As you learned in the previous section, research can help you discover all kinds of downfalls to a seemingly wonderful title. Does your title already exist? Does it search well? Is there already a book similar to yours out there? By researching your potential titles, you can avoid making a critical mistake.

Thanks for watching part four of "Editing and Finalizing Your Manuscript." In the next and final part, we'll review some great tips on how to get around common roadblocks that might prevent you from completing your manuscript. For more information about publishing, go to to get a free publishing guide and a free consultation.