How to Name Your Book: Insights on Titling Strategies From a Corporate Namer
In a world where Bookstagram and “best of” lists influence print runs, it’s understandable that so much attention is given to the way that a book looks. But with over a decade in the corporate naming industry, I’m here to tell you that it’s more important what a book is called.
Your book’s title is a crucial selling tool. Supported by the cover art, it is a potential reader’s first impression of what your book is about, and — more importantly to the reader — how the book will make them feel. A title like On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous immediately suggests a lyrical, lush read waiting inside, while Go the F**k to Sleep cues straight talk from exhausted caretakers to exhausted caretakers.
It’s essential when we consider what to call our books that we privilege the reader’s emotional experience over what we think sounds bold and cool. In a perfect world, a book is around for a long time (possibly forever!) so its title shouldn’t be trend-dependent. (Trend-dependent naming strategies are how we ended up with every book in America starting with the definite article “The” for a few years. Not that this strategy can’t work—it can! But you need to be able to defend it. For example, The Vacationers succeeds because it’s about people who are terrible at vacationing. A title like The Trees wouldn’t work, because it gives us no insight into what the book’s about.)
When I first auditioned for the role of corporate namer back in 2009, I was given a mock creative brief for a made-up product. The assignment was a new line of adult diapers that celebrated (instead of shamed) the desire of incontinent people to stay mobile. “We want to let people know that incontinence and spontaneity can go together; that they can literally go with the flow regardless of bladder concerns,” said my potential boss.
I named the product “Sail Away” and I got the job. In addition to working with some of the smartest and funniest people I’ve ever known, corporate naming has showed me the potential of good storytelling, but it has also shown me how names fail when the storytelling element isn’t there.
An example. I recently read a fantastic story collection that had a very funny, provocative title taken from a story in the collection that I’m going to call: WANKER. Ha ha ha! So saucy! Probably contains stories about dumb men doing dumber things, right?! Well, I read and loved the collection, but was surprised to see that — while funny — the stories were deeply regional (in this case, set in the south) and the menfolk in the stories were really good people, with interesting, risky, and outdoorsy jobs. I’m guessing that this book’s naming strategy was to have an attention-grabbing title on the collection that would look good in “best of” line-ups. But I shudder to think how many people missed out on the tender, thoughtful stories in this collection because they walked past it in a bookshop, or saw it on the web and thought, Oh wow, that title is a LOT. A phrasal, regional title might have been a better fit for this collection — something that illustrated the book’s sense of humor and its deep southern identity. Something along the lines of “If a Creek Don’t Rise,” or even “Cattywampus.”
Because friends don’t let bad book titles happen to writer friends, I wanted to share some of the considerations I take into account when I’m coaching people on their titles.
- Is your manuscript or book proposal funny? Then the title should show humor. Humor can be dark or light but if one of the characteristics of your book is its comic timing, the title needs to reflect that. For example, “The Road” would never be the title of a David Sedaris book just like “Me Talk Pretty One Day” would never be the title of a Cormac McCarthy novel. (This being said, I would certainly read “Me Talk Purty One Day” by Cormac McCarthy.)
- Is your work regional? The entirety of the manuscript doesn’t have to take place in just one setting, but if there is a geographic anchor in the work, then the title should reflect that. “Boats on Land” by Janice Pariat does this well, as does a little book you might have heard of: “Where the Crawdads Sing.” If you’re going to be nail-on-the-head about it and cite where the story actually takes place, make sure that the place name has either a double meaning, or an evocative or vulgar sound. Examples: Colson Whitehead’s “Sag Harbor,” Christopher Bollen’s “Orient” and Alisa Nutting’s “Tampa.”
- Is your writing uncanny, strange, a little odd? Show this in your title. The newest story collection by Laura van den Berg is called “I Hold a Wolf by Its Ears.” One of my favorite Miranda July novels is “The First Bad Man.” While it would be hard to argue that either of these titles gives an idea of what, exactly, waits inside, it certainly makes you want to find out, right?
- Is your offering (somewhat) gender specific? Celebrate that. Even if your manuscript is written with a certain audience in mind, it doesn’t mean that that only that audience will find and appreciate your book. But if the stories celebrate a certain gender or a gender-related milestone (for example, motherhood), that preoccupation should shine through in your title. Courtney Zoffness’ just released “Spilt Milk” does this, so does Carmen Maria Machado’s groundbreaking “Her Body and Other Parties.”
- Writing a short story collection? Avoid the “single song” approach. There is a temptation with short story collections to name the book by one of the story titles, and while this can work (see the Laura van den Berg example above), this naming strategy often results in a collection title that is limiting or simply doesn’t show off what is unique about all the stories in the book. This is what frustrated me about the collection “Wanker.” The title isn’t reflective of the majority of the collection’s content. It’s the equivalent of calling a Kaiseki establishment “Hot Wings.” Maybe fancy-ass hot wings are one of the dishes you will experience during the multi-course Japanese dinner that this tradition espouses, but “Hot Wings” misrepresents the nuance and sophistication of the larger experience in the restaurant I have made up, and would very much like to eat in, now.
If you read this article and discern that your book title isn’t doing all it could for you, take heart. While it can be painful (even mournful) to change the name of something you’ve been calling one way for a long time, name-changes can positively impact your book’s trajectory. I’ll say it again- naming considerations need to come from someplace deeper than what you think is bold or cool. Naming strategies that come from sentimentality or in-jokes also rarely work. What this means is that if there are only three people in the universe who understand the in-joke behind “Turkey Ball,” then you shouldn’t name your book that. Unless it is a cookbook. Then “Turkey Ball” might work.