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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

What’s in a Book Title? As It Turns Out, Everything

As a reporter and editor, one of the things I struggle with the most is a headline. Even with a story I write myself, the headline is usually the last piece of the puzzle to put in place. Yet it is also the most important. A good headline can sell even a mediocre story. And a bad one will kill off any chance that readers see your work, no matter how good it is.

The same is true for books. Just like cover art, it’s an aspect that new writers, particularly indies, can overlook. It’s tempting to assume that people don’t pay much attention to a title—or will look past it if they find your premise interesting. But the title is probably the most important aspect in catching a reader’s eye. Great cover art will attract attention, but without the right title, it’s unlikely to net a sale.

By now, most anyone reading this blog knows that I worked on A Soul to Steal for 10 years. The novel had several different working titles during that period.

Originally, the book was called The Lords of Halloween. I liked it because it seemed dramatic and it evoked the serial killer in the novel named Lord Halloween. But as time wore on, it also felt wrong. For starters, I was always a little embarrassed that my book had a serial killer in it. And even though the title wasn’t exactly the same as his name, most people would assume it was referring to him. In truth, the book was never really meant to be about Lord Halloween. He was simply the catalyst for something else to happen.

I tried to work on a title that evoked the theme of the novel, but I couldn’t nail it. One of the original tag-lines for the book was: You Are What You Fear. So I tried for a while to base the title around that idea. Eventually I settled on Fear’s Rider. I was somewhat pleased with it, but it never really spoke to me. It was relevant to the novel, but would that title grab people if they saw it in a book store? Did it resonate? I was unsure.

And then I had a dream.

I have a lot of weird dreams and I pay arguably too much attention to them. I’ve recounted my strangest experience with one in this blog here, but it’s hardly the only one. For this particular dream, I only remember a couple things. I had published a book called A Soul to Steal and it was successful. When I woke up, I told my wife that morning that I was renaming the book A Soul to Steal.

It immediately spoke to me. There’s something instinctive about a title—either it works or it doesn’t, and it’s no use trying to sort out why. I look at a ton of books on Amazon and I’m surprised how many bad titles are out there. We all react to things differently, so others may like these same titles. While I don’t think Fear’s Rider was a bad title, it didn’t grab me. But A Soul to Steal definitely did.

It references the Charlie Daniels Band’s song, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” (Listen to the first verse and you’ll figure out why.) It worked with the deeper themes of the book. I added some specific references in the text to make sure it was clear, but the nature of soul and identity was in there from the very beginning. It also conveys the right amount of mystery and a hint of danger. In short, it spoke to me.

As an added benefit, it also made naming the sequel much easier. Although I played around with a couple of alternatives, in the end Band of Demons was the natural choice. Like the first book, it is drawn from “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” but it is also intimately connected with the theme of the novel. Additionally, it conveyed a sense of menace and a darker storyline. Though I liked some of the other ideas, it was never a close call.

As for the third—and final—book in The Sanheim Chronicles, I already have the title picked out and it may be the best of the lot. Unless I find something better in my dreams.

Other Titles I Love:

What about you? Name some of your favorite titles in the comments below.


  1. You mentioned one of my favorite titles - Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. I also enjoy the Jonathan Maberry zombie titles - Rot and Ruin, Dust and Decay, Flesh and Bone. And finally, Morris Gleitzman's YA books Once, Then and Now. (one word titles - short and sweet.)

  2. Those are all good titles, though I'm a little torn on the single-word ones. The cover would really have to sell it.