The number one requirement of a book title

Yesterday I spent at least an hour on the phone with my parents, working on a replacement title for what used to be called Telling Lies, a book I’m going to self-publish real soon now. This book has had that title for probably 7 years, but in the middle of last year, someone came out with a mystery of the same name. I was about to say, “Eh, screw it,” and use that title anyway (they’re not copyrightable) when I got an email from the author (whom I’ve never met) asking me to nominate her book for an Agatha. It was just too much, you know? The hunt was on.

What makes a good book title?

It makes people buy the book. That is the number one requirement of a book title. Do not get this aspect confused with how well a title fits a book after it’s read. I don’t care how much someone appreciates your clever wordplay when they’re done with the book. “See, not only was she telling lies, but the lies she told were telling – about her!” Great, but remember, the book is already paid for at that point. P.S. My dad says that if a title really doesn’t fit a book, he might find that annoying enough to shun a second book by the author, even if he really enjoyed her writing. But Daddy fits no one’s idea of the average person, so let’s move on.

How does a title sell a book?

1) The title has tension, asks a question the reader wants answered, or piques the reader’s interest so much that he buys the book. Everyone knows that telling lies is bad, but it’s also sometimes necessary. One word can convey tension, which is why there are about a million romances with reckless in them. If you don’t mind a long title, you can create a whole scenario with tension. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Sometimes tension comes from words that seem to war with each other. The Accidental Tourist. How is that possible? (Oh, look, it asks a question, too.) Try piquing their interest: Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. WTF?

2) The title tells the reader the tone of the book. This works particularly well with books of a specific flavor, especially one that isn’t widely available but has hardcore fans. Southern lit used to be rare enough that putting Sweet Potato Queens in the title was enough to make the right reader snatch it off the shelf. I don’t know if that’s the case anymore. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Speculative fic readers LOVE that title, and for good reason. It’s frickin’ brilliant on so many levels. (In case you don’t know, that book became Bladerunner.) How ’bout The Da Vinci Code? Sounds kind of like an art-themed thriller, doesn’t it? (Btw, Da Vinci Code would also make a great self-help book title, a la The Seven Habits of Highly Lengthy Titles.)

3) No one else has used the title, at least not recently, or famously, or in a book that’s really similar. Yes, Telling Lies was a great title. I’m trying to get over it, okay?

Let’s talk about stuff to avoid.

1) Clichés. My book deals with a reluctant Tarot reader, so all kinds of card-related sayings suggested themselves. Wild Card. Full Deck. In the Cards. Meh. Clichés pass through the mind with barely a trace. You want a title that rattles around in the ear canal like a moth with fangs. 

2) Insulting potential readers. We briefly considered Mystic Lies, then realized that title would piss off every Tarot reader out there, and they might be expected to buy the book because there isn’t much fiction with Tarot in it. (Note to Tarot readers: This book is not anti-Tarot. You can safely buy it.)

3) Titles that make no damn sense. There may have been books with nonsensical titles that made it big, but I’m pretty sure they became famous because they had a publicity machine behind them. Case in point – I can’t remember any of them.

All right, so what title did we come up with? I’m not going to claim it’s great. I did use some card imagery, although I think I dodged the cliché bullet. I think it has tension. It works well with the cover art I picked, and also with the blurb. Here’s my very preliminary mock-up of the cover. Because it requires some photo manipulation (putting the card in the model’s hand), Angel Joe is going to clean it up this weekend. It will change in other ways.

And here’s the blurb.

LeeLee Moldovar’s mother is dead, leaving her debts, her angry Chihuahua, and her abandoned Tarot clients. After losing her job, LeeLee decides to read Tarot for a living. Her first client is a very attractive man, and there’s definite chemistry. The cards say Adrian should dump his newest girlfriend – or is that what LeeLee wants? It’s only after Adrian leaves that LeeLee discovers he’s dating her best friend. When the next client arrives, she’s afraid to say anything and risk another Tarot disaster. But something inside LeeLee speaks out, giving advice she doesn’t anticipate and can’t control. To silence this unwanted voice and regain her sanity, LeeLee must discover her true self, despite attractive men, best friends, and the specter of her mother’s loving wishes for her.

Oh, look, I’ve already changed the cover.

Comments? Suggestions? Lay ’em on me.

9 thoughts on “The number one requirement of a book title

  1. The story sounds COOL.

    But… there’s no joker in the Tarot deck so that jumped out at me. I realize that might be intentional on your part though. Also, since it’s “fools” plural, that kind of jumped out at me, too. What does fools refer to? The clients? I kind of wonder if people who are defensive of Tarot might assume you don’t know anything about it since there’s no joker, and also assume you’re calling the clients fools since it’s plural… Or I could be reading WAAY too much into it. 🙂

    I like stuff about Tarot to revolve around the fool because the deck tells his journey. So maybe, if you’re interested in pushing it more toward purist Tarot, you might pick a card or suit that represents your book specifically, or represents journey or goals, (assuming your protagonist is the fool). Like Pentacles and the Fool or Pentacles and Fools might represent her using Tarot to make money. Just some thoughts. Anyway, can’t wait to check it out when it’s released. 🙂

    1. Hi, Betsy! It’s not primarily a Tarot book. That’s just one aspect of it, and I didn’t want to pick a title (like a certain card or suit) that would go over the head of the average reader. I’m actually a fairly accomplished Tarot reader, so am aware of the various concerns you raise. But I don’t feel it the title has to scan exactly with the facts of Tarot. It just has to sell the book, and the first step in that might be to get the reader curious enough to read the back cover blurb. Keep it up — this is the kind of thought-provoking discussion I love!

    2. P.S. The Joker arose from the Fool in all likelihood. There’s some tension that comes from the fact that both these terms are often used as pejoratives. My current concern is that the title makes it sound like a book where she’s trying to find a man and doesn’t like any of them. On the other hand, Amazon lists no other books with this title, and I think it’s catchy. I like saying it. But I might keep working on it.

  2. I also had a working title of The Voice for this book, but I think that’s really clumsy and overt. I like more finesse in a title. The Voice (LeeLee’s alternate personality is always capitalized in the book) is definitely a joker, both in that it’s funny, and it’s a wild card. I thought about changing the blurb to say, “But something inside LeeLee speaks out, giving wisecracking advice she doesn’t anticipate and can’t control,” but decided not to.

  3. I don’t know about the title but after reading the blurp I’m anxious to read it. Actually, I like the title since it sounds like it’s going to fit the book very well. Got to find out about this Voice…cool

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