Coming up with a good title for your book is one of the most important publishing tasks you’ll undertake.
A great title needs to sell your story, communicate your genre, and get readers to read your preview.
In this post, we’ll cover the five steps I use to research, brainstorm, and ultimately select the title of my upcoming book.
A little background
Last week I announced my upcoming novella, but for the sake of this post, let’s back up a moment and forget what it’s title is. It’ll help the narrative structure of this post.
If you know it, time to put on your imagination hat, go to the control center in your gooey gray matter, and hit delete.
Three, two, one… zaap! There we go.
If you don’t know it… I guess that’s a good thing (oh boy, I need to do a better job of marketing).
Ok, let’s get to it.
A book’s only as good as its title
Writing the greatest novel of all time isn’t enough if no one opens the damn thing up.
So I put a lot of pressure on myself to come up with a winning title for my supernatural slow-burn thriller.
These days, there are three standout elements that will either encourage a reader to pick up your book or to ignore it like it never even existed.
There are somewhere around 2 3/4 billion new books published every day—true facts—so you gotta nail these elements if you want eyes on pages.
Title. Cover art. And blurb.
Screw any of these up, and your chance of getting discovered gets flushed down the toilet. Not a fun place to be.
So let’s avoid the toilet and get to work.
What follows is a problem-solving methodology directly inspired by The Creative Thinker’s Toolkit which I’ve applied to research, brainstorm, and ultimately choose a novel title. If you enjoy the process, take the course. It’s great.
Quick tip. The video version of The Creative Thinker’s Toolkit costs more than $200! But if you have audible, you can get the audio version for free with your monthly credit. I listened to it on auidble and don’t feel that I missed out on anything by not having video.
What makes a killer book title
Ask ten authors what makes a title work, you’re probably gonna get ten answers. Here’s mine. A great title needs to…
- …attract the right audience.
- …signal genre right off the bat.
- …be phonetically fun to say.
- …get readers to either read the back of the book or flip to the first page.
It doesn’t need to be unique. It should make sense within its genre. It doesn’t need to attract every reader, just the right readers, the ones that will love your book.
The five steps to discovering your book title
Before we dive deep, let’s overview. To create our killer novel title, we’re going to:
- Correctly identify your genre – Seems straight forward but you need to get granular with this shit.
- Study the best sellers – Learn from the people doing it right in your sub-genre. Each one has it’s own rules, so study up to learn what they are.
- Create a list of your favorite best-selling titles – Write down 5-10 of your favorite best selling titles in your sub-genre. Keep them in front of you and refer to them often.
- Brainstorm – You’ve researched, you have references, now it’s time to come up with 50-100 of your own.
- Narrow down your list until you arrive at the one – Whittle it down one by one til you have 5. Sleep on those. Share them with your friends and fans. And ultimately choose the perfect title.
Step 1: Identify your book
Before you can develop an effective title, you need to nail down the identity of your book.
At first, I thought I had a dark fantasy or even light horror on my hands. But as I skimmed the titles in these genres, everything looked so different than what I was working with.
It wasn’t until I came across the supernatural thriller subgenre that I realized this was my home.
Explore the Amazon bestsellers lists and make sure you’re labeling your novel correctly.
If you place it in an adjacent subgenre it will change the look, feel, and title of your book to something that doesn’t correctly signal the audience it needs.
Step 2: Study best sellers in your genre
We’re here to write books that sell, right?
So once you’ve identified exactly what kind of book you’ve written, it’s time to get to work.
If you’re on the fence about what genre you’re dealing with, that’s fine. As you research, you’ll likely get clarity.
Amazon is our best resource. Lucky for us, they share their bestseller lists in hundreds of genres.
That’s exactly where we’re gonna start. Here’s the top-level list for best selling books.
Top-level doesn’t do us much good though because it’s too broad, so begin by drilling down the categories on the left.
If you find two that you’re book fits in, that’s totally fine. Take some time to drill down each until you know which one fits best.
For me, I started with horror and dark fantasy. I didn’t have my genre quite nailed down, and once I started exploring these genres, I realized that my book is actually quite different than either of these.
With that in mind, I perused related genres until I came across a category that mine actually fits in quite nicely: supernatural thriller.
I know, I know. I should’ve picked a genre and written it specifically. But that’s not how I roll. I like to mash genre’s a bit. By the end, one will stand out more clearly than the others, and that’s the genre I choose. Is it right? Probably not. But that’s the way it goes.
Step 3: Create a list of best selling titles
Now that you’ve found the best list for your book, it’s time to start gathering inspiration.
Each genre follows its own set of conventions when it comes to titles, covers, blurbs, and just about everything else.
We need to tap into this language in order to signal to our readers that what we’ve written is something they want to read.
So scroll through the 100 best sellers and write down every title you like. We’re looking for inspiration here. If you notice a title trend, be sure to note that too.
This list will serve as inspiration during your brainstorming phase.
Step 4: Brainstorming time
Now comes the fun part. Time to think of every single freaking book title you possibly can.
List it out no matter if it works or how silly or great it sounds. Use the list we built in the last step for inspiration.
Write down different takes on titles you like. If you find a word you like, try to create as many different title combinations as you can think of with that word before moving on to a new theme.
Don’t let yourself get hung up on whether anything you’re writing is good or not. Likely a lot of it isn’t great, but that’s fine. We’re going for quantity, not quality.
What you’ll find in this process is, if you don’t filter yourself at all, ideas will appear in this list you might’ve never entertained before.
While brainstorming, I liked the word “blue”, so my list had several titles such as:
- Ethereal Blue
- Midnight in Blue
- A Study in Blue
- Blinding Blue
Then I played around with scenes from the novel with titles like:
- Burn it With Fire
- They Twist
- Eye Candy
Not all of these are great title ideas, but that’s ok. Because, without Midnight in Blue and Night of Ruin, I wouldn’t have come up with my final title.
This is called divergent thinking, and The Creative Thinker’s Toolkit goes into great detail about using divergent thinking while brainstorming.
I did several brainstorming sessions over about two weeks. By the time I was finished, I had 80 title ideas to choose from. I think 50-100 is a good goal, but the more you do, the more options and inspiration you have.
Now it’s time to narrow down out list of titles.
Step 5: Narrow down the list to the top 5
So you have a very long list.
Chances are, a lot of them are bad and you know it. That’s fine. On your first pass through the list, move all the titles you just don’t like to the bottom.
You’ll probably want to save them for Patreon content (like points to the 50 titles from my first brainstorming session)
Hopefully, you have several titles that made the first round of cuts. In my first pass, I was able to narrow it down from 80 to about 6. With the remaining titles, it’s kind of wild west over here.
You can feel free to play with them, massage them into something better if you can. Let them stew in your mind for several days.
Look over the bestseller list once again to make sure all of these titles fit on that page. If any don’t, cut them.
Here’s how I picked the final title. I created a mockup of the book cover I eventually want a designer to create for me and I put each title on it.
It’s interesting how some titles work with your cover design and others don’t. In this setting, it was very clear to me which title was the winner.
Want to learn how I created a cover mockup in less than an hour and what I use it for? Come back next week and I’ll share with you why a mock up is useful and the process to create one that works for you.
And the winning title is…
When the process was complete, when I saw it on my cover mockup, the winning title was clear. My next book is going to be called A Night in Ruin. So goodbye to The Peculiar Case of the Luminous Eye. This working title served me well, but it is now officially retired.
If you want to read A Night in Ruin, you can read it right now in early access on Patreon. Or sign up for my mailing list at the top right of this site and get notified when it’s officially released.