Often when books are being sold online, customers make semi-instantaneous decisions about which books they would like to look at, inquire about, and possibly buy. The time allocated to get to know a book by an online shopper is significantly less than that of an in-store shopper, simply because of the nature of web browsing. A potential reader needs to be able to gauge their interest in your book quickly, and usually makes judgments based on only the title and a quick scan of the supplied summary of the book. Here are some tips to grab customers’ attention and convince them that your book is worth a closer look.
Keywords: Your title should be fairly self-explanatory, and should contain keywords that inform your potential readers. While it’s good to be witty, beware of too-obscure allusions. You and some of your target readers may understand the reference, but when shoppers are browsing for books, they may not know what your book is actually about if the allusion is too obscure. I.e. calling your book “Holding Half the Sky” in reference to a Chinese proverb about women may be effective, but it can also be misleading, because some could think it is about astrology or aviation rather than women. A keyword search for “women” would not bring this book up either.
Subject: Your title should essentially reveal your subject. This strategy differs for nonfiction and fiction, because fiction writers have the opportunity to be a bit more vague and more creative with their titles. Nonfiction has little leeway with this point, however. Subjects should more or less be stated outright in the title of a nonfiction work – there is no need for mystery, because the readers are looking to be informed quickly, not to have to search for the information. In other words, keep your titles interesting but straightforward.
If you want to go for a catchy and intriguing title, but one that doesn’t necessarily lay the subject bare for the reader, you can always add explanation by using a subtitle. E.g. “Quirky Quarters: The History of American Coins” or “Dear Rosemary: The Story of Love Letters Never Sent.” Your reader shouldn’t have to hunt for what your book is about, because frankly, they don’t want to take the time to do so.
Clear and concise: Keep your title short and sweet – but not too short, because you don’t want to risk not supplying enough details. If you think your one word title suffices, ask a friend what they would think upon hearing that title. Chances are, their connotations of that word are not the same as yours. You know your books and stories better than anyone else, so it can be difficult to step back and view a title as an outsider. E.g. “Shadow” can be taken many ways, whereas a reader has a good idea what “Shadow the Loyal Pup” will be about.
At the same time, your title shouldn’t be overly long and explanatory. Avoid wordy titles with too many articles or helping verbs that don’t add to the overall idea. Your title should probably not be a sentence, because it needs to be easy to digest, and still leave something to the imagination. E.g. “Emily and her Family Move to Kansas” is less effective than “Emily’s Big Move.”
Hook: This word is thrown around a lot – so much so that its metaphoric connotations are almost gone and it’s become part of the definition of attracting readers. But the term “to hook” is still applicable and still appropriate – your title must (metaphorically) reach through the computer screen (or off of the store shelf) and grab the reader’s attention, latching on to them and pulling them in. The customer must be “hooked” when they read your title – unable to look at any other book until they find out what yours is about! Before you run to the nearest bait and tackle store, see how you can use words to hook your reader.
The whole act of hooking involves creating curiosity in your reader. You want to provoke thought, and you want to stand out from the rest. That means you need interesting, carefully chosen, unexpected vocabulary. Let’s face it: titles are short, and sometimes we can only say what we want in a lot of words. The length of titles forces the author to come up with a very specific combination of words: You only have a few words to work with, so they’d better be perfect ones.
You also need an active title. A title that is one word, a character’s name, for example, generates interest because the reader wants to know what is significant about that character. But adding a verb to your title makes your book seem dynamic and gives the reader a better idea what your book is about, what your characters are doing, and what you are depicting. A book called “Sheila” makes readers wonder who Sheila is and why you’re writing about her, but doesn’t give them any clues. Instead, a book called “Sheila Runs” or even “Run, Sheila” allows readers to wonder about her significance while also giving them more information so that they can ask further questions – Where/why is Sheila running? What is she running to/from? Will she ever stop? etc. The more questions they ask, the more opportunities you have to hook them into your book.
Reader: Have your ideal reader in mind. Know your reader, explore what they know and don’t know about the subject you are writing about – if you are informing them, how much do they already know? What questions do they have about the subject? If you’re writing fiction, ask yourself what they know about the setting of your book – is it set in a generic or specific place? Is it historical or futuristic, and what assumptions would your reader make for either? Is your book part of a series, and would you expect your readers to know your characters already? These questions are all important, and they are helpful in trying to step out of your own mind, which is all-too familiar with your book, and into the reader’s. Once you get in touch with your ideal reader’s mindset and reasons for reading, you can come up with titles that reach out to them.
A word of caution: you don’t want to alienate any potential readers, and using a title that is too specific to your ideal reader may backfire. So use a title that will attract both your ideal reader and the more general audience that contains him. Ex. “Cracking the Code” may be a better choice than “The Cryptographer’s Dilemma – To Encrypt or to Decrypt?” Using exact, technical language will only draw in a narrow scope of readers, so make your titles exciting and relevant to both your target and a wider audience by using more generic language.
Having trouble thinking of a title? Think of how you would summarize your book to someone who hadn’t read it yet, and limit yourself to only a few sentences. From those sentences, try to pick out the main point, and experiment with synonyms until you find a catchy title. Another tip: use a repeated or meaningful phrase from within your book, or pick a poignant phrase from the climax of your book.
Note: Some publishing contracts allow the editor or publisher to have more of a say in your title than you do. On one hand, they can do the hard titling work for you…but on the other, if you’ve come up with a title you’re attached to, discuss it with your publisher before signing any contracts that allow your title to be changed.
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