How to pick the right title for a book?


If I knew the answer to that, I’d save myself a lot of angst.  Picking a title is easy.  Picking the right one, not necessarily so.

Who picks the title?  Sometimes it’s me.  From my initial conception, Flirting with Pete was Flirting with Pete.  Same with Lake News, Heart of the Night, Not My Daughter, and The Vineyard.  My publisher picked other titles, like Coast Road and Family Tree.  My agent came up with others, like An Accidental Woman and A Woman’s Place.  Any title has to be vetted; while titles cannot be copyrighted, if a title has been recently used on another book, I avoid it.  That said, way back when I was writing category romance, my editor called with a title suggestion that I vetoed, to which, undeterred, she said, “Oh, okay, no problem, we’ll use it for another writer.”

Once I start the actual writing of a book, I like to have a working title.  It gives me focus.  If my publisher hates the title I’ve chosen, I feel adrift until we agree on a new one – ‘agree’ being the operable word.  I do have a say in the decision.  Unfortunately, like cover art, a title is a marketing tool.  If the sales force doesn’t like a title, they may not sell the book as aggressively.  I’ve had this experience, and it isn’t fun.  For that reason, I’ve occasionally settled for a title that I may not love, but that those in positions of power did.  Is this selling out?  No.  I’ve learned through experience – think Twilight Whispers, a book I adore that was given a title I gag on to this day – that I don’t settle on something I can’t live with.  But I’m a practical person.  In book publishing – as in government, but let’s not go there – compromise is a good and positive and necessary thing if you want to move ahead.

What factors play into the best title?

First, a title has to say something about what’s inside.  It needs to fit the book in both content and feel.  My books are about women, families, friends, marriages – all matters of the heart.  Sweet Salt Air worked far better than titles like Betrayal or Transplant or, even Growing Up would have, though the book certainly deals with those issues.  Its content is heavy with herbs, scents, sensuality, and the ocean.  Sweet Salt Air as a title captures a sense of that.  Moreover, it is a positive phrase.  My books are positive.  QED.

Second, it has to fit current style.  Years ago, I wrote a book about a woman who had a husband, family, and career – until her husband’s ego balked at her success, at which point he sued for divorce and custody of the kids.  I wanted to call it, When Being Everything Wasn’t Enough.  My publisher said that was too long and came up with A Woman’s Place.  Times have changed.  Today, many titles are far longer.  Likewise, I agonize over whether to use the first person in a title, as in When He Finds Me or The Hand I Held, both of which are possibilities for the book I’m writing now.  I worry that these titles will be passé by the time the book is published.

Some authors consistently use one-word titles.  That’s their shtick.  It’s not mine.  Oh, I’ve done it with books like Commitments and Escape.  Generally, though, my titles run the gamut, so I’m not bound by a single style (which can be good or bad, but that’s for a whole other blog).

Third, since the cover art of a book is often the first thing that draws the reader, for the sake of a cohesive package, the title should work with the kind of art the publisher has in mind.  My publisher wanted artwork that evoked the senses.  Sweet Salt Air did that.  Blueprints was more of a challenge – so let’s talk about this one.

As I wrote the proposal and then the opening chapters, I gathered a dozen possible titles.  My favorites among them were Vintage Modern, A House Called Home, and What We Build.  My publisher wasn’t wild about any of those and came up with Feels Like Home.  I felt that was too limiting, too over-and-done, too conclusive.  When my editor came up with several titles involving the word Blueprints, I was intrigued.  We finally decided on the single word.  Since much of the book is about plans, both life plans and house plans, Blueprints fit.  But finding a cover image to go with it was hard.  The hardcover art was fitting but was reached only after many false starts.  It was a successful cover; Blueprints sold better in hardcover than Sweet Salt Air did in that format.  The sales force wanted something sweeter for the trade paperback edition of the book, hence the hydrangeas we have now.  I still have my doubts; blueprints and hydrangeas don’t tie in together.  It was only when the art director put the title in a panel with actual blueprints in the background that I was comfortable enough to say yes.

Should we have gone with one of the softer titles for the sake of the cover art?  What kind of titles do you like?  Are you drawn more by the title or the art?  Do you need a title to “speak to you?”  Please share your thoughts.  The title of my next book is still up for grabs, so your feedback is welcome.

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  1. Carolyn Kingsley on July 28, 2016 at 6:32 pm

    I’m drawn a little by both, title and cover. I do however, have one hang up about titles. They should be no longer than four words. Less is better. The worlds most famous books seldom had long titles; Gone With the Wind, Peyton Place, David Copperfield, etc. Just a quirk of mine, but all writers are a little quirky.

  2. Jeanine Cronin on July 28, 2016 at 6:42 pm

    I am also drawn by both. I don’t mind long titles; my big hangup, though, are the titles that use puns and the covers that I can only describe as being crude drawings. I guess you can tell that I don’t read many cozies.

  3. Cindi on July 29, 2016 at 7:52 am

    The title, for sure! If it intrigues me, I then go on to read the storyline on the back cover or inner sleeve.

  4. Natalie Oxman on July 31, 2016 at 11:52 am

    I can be drawn in a little by the title ,but I choose my books by the storyline on the back cover. I must admit that my biggest draw is the author. Once I have read a book that I enjoy , I will go back for others written by that author. Since reading is more difficult as i age, I really enjoy the books in large print

  5. Donna on August 15, 2016 at 9:31 am

    The author draws me. If I see your name on a book I buy it ! I think if it looked like a phone book I would buy it because I know I will get a good story. If I’m looking for a new author, outside of my 8 that I always read, then I guess color on the cover attracts me. I’m a visual person so color grabs me then I read the front flap and decide from there. I tend to like books set in New England or the South so that always helps me choose. Just a quirk of mine I guess.

  6. Earle flynn on September 1, 2016 at 1:25 pm

    I am first draw by the art, then the title, especially when they really speak to each other. The first one I ever read was was Coast Road, which had a beautiful picture. Since we had a beach property, it spoke to me. The book was so good, I bought all I could find afterwards, whether new from stores or at reused book stores & flea markets. Every Barbara Delinsky book is so good, can’t put it down once starting to read! Love them all!

  7. Marcia Richards on February 18, 2017 at 8:33 pm

    The title and cover art need to intrigue me. I may wonder, as I did with Blueprints, what story is behind the two. I think about that before I read the description.
    In the case of your books, I buy them because I love your writing style and your stories. I haven’t read all 80 of your books, but quite a few. Sweet Salt Air was one of my favorites. Loved Coast Road, Lake News, The Vineyard and more. Keep writing. your books are so soul satisfying.

  8. Brenda on April 11, 2017 at 4:43 pm

    Short titles-non busy covers!!!

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