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Brainstorming a Better Book Title: How Not to Decide on Your Title

This lesson is a part of an audio course Brainstorming a Better Book Title by Marcia Yudkin

The first thing not to do is to fall in love with a title that you come up with early on in your book project and hold onto it tightly no matter what. When experienced authors come up with a title early on, they consider it a working title and revisit it with a clear mind after they've finished or almost finished the book. Why? Because it's very common for the purpose, the tone, the audience, the focus, or even the point of view argued in the book to have shifted during the writing.

In addition, during the early stages of writing, you're usually thinking more about the content of the book and less about marketing. In the next lesson, I summarize a thorough process for thinking wisely and strategically about your book title. And near the end of the course, I give you a cornucopia of examples of famous authors who had flawed working titles and fortunately were persuaded to improve them. For now, I'm advising you to come up with a working title and stay open to other options, rather than cling to your original title idea, come what may.

Second, you may have heard of a cool method of getting creative tasks done called crowdsourcing, which involves offering a monetary prize for the winning idea and challenging online users to come up with titles for your book. I think this is a very weak, full-of-holes method for naming your book. For one thing, it's not practical to ask the people in your challenge to read the book, so they're usually operating with insufficient information.

Also, even if you provide a decent briefing about the audience, the competition, the contents, and so on about your book, from my observation, most people suggesting titles ignore your guidelines. They rarely look at the whole picture of what you're trying to do with (or in) your book; they're just trying to be cute, have some creative fun, and maybe win the prize.

In addition, the people who decide to take up your challenge may not understand the genre you're writing in, such as science fiction or memoir, and may know little or nothing about your topic, such as recovery from alcoholism or raising healthy horses.

Some crowdsourcing sites incorporate voting into their process, and the input from casual passersby can mislead you gravely about the suitability and appeal of particular titles. What's popular among the people who happen to see your book title challenge isn't that relevant to whether or not a title can work well for you. You'll understand this point better as the course proceeds.

Third, either on or off crowdsourcing sites, do not put book titles out for a vote. I have seen this on several marketing forums I belong to, where people ask others on the forum to vote for the best title, or the one they like the most, and as a naming professional and a book coach, I can see at a glance that all the titles on their list are lousy. The saying "Garbage in, garbage out" comes to mind.

Some people who live and breathe the Internet believe that if you run little ads against each other to see which title gets the most clicks, it's an objective and fail-safe method of determining the title that is going to get you the most sales. Unfortunately, this has the same weaknesses as the other methods I've discussed in this lesson.

In 2009, author John Graham-Cumming used Google Adwords to test three book titles against each other, A Voyaging Mind, A Mind Forever Voyaging, and A World of Discovery, and the clear winner was the first option, A Voyaging Mind. His publisher, O'Reilly, however, came up for the final title with The Geek Atlas: 128 Places Where Science and Technology Come Alive. That has so much more spark and specificity than the other possibilities. Note that A Voyaging Mind, A Mind Forever Voyaging, and A World of Discovery are all suggestive and intriguing, but all of these options fail to tell you what the book is really about – it is a travel guidebook for people interested in science and engineering.

The same goes for any sort of contest to come up with the best title for your book. You do not want to be obligated to give out money and tie up the title of your book if all the suggestions are off the mark.

Getting suggestions and feedback from others can certainly be part of the process for naming your book. Indeed, people I know have gotten terrific name suggestions from young children, janitors, colleagues, and friends in a completely different line of work. Just make sure you solicit suggestions informally and in a situation where you're not obligated to use any of what you get.

Enough about don'ts! In the next lesson, let's move on to the do's.

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Written by

Marcia Yudkin