HOW TO CHOOSE A BOOK TITLE
Updated: Aug 1, 2020
The biggest mistake you, the writer, can make when selecting your book title is to assume that, from the very limited number of your carefully chosen words, readers will magically get the inference of the entire story in the way you envisage. The purpose of your dream team - that combination of a successful title and interesting cover - is twofold; to convey the content and genre, and to entice the reader to pick up the book, scan the blurb then walk out of the bookstore or library, your novel firmly clasped in hand. It’s imperative, then, to get both spot on as you only have one chance to tempt the browsing reader thirsting for a literary treat. Just don’t make them do the work.
So, how can you be sure your title performs as intended? Remember, having worked on the manuscript for months, possibly years, it’s easy to become so absorbed in the story you make assumptions that the uninformed reader is as immersed and invested as you; that they'll understand every nuance and intention behind those two or three words, expanding the ideas and themes in their minds in the way you have. They won’t. So play around with a number of titles - change it up. Often. Your book title is as much a work in progress as the manuscript. Quiz your friends, solicit opinions and have proper discussions about it. This is what I want to convey. Does that title convey it? No. Then start over!
Let me take you through the three working titles Beyond The Inferno had before it evolved and became exactly that. But first, in a nutshell and merely for context, Beyond The Inferno is a novelisation of Dante’s timeless classic The Divine Comedy. Set in the three realms of the afterlife - Hell, Purgatory and Paradise - it tells the tale of a lowly poet’s quest to save mankind from spiritual destruction. Our very much alive hero, Dante, bravely navigates the apocalyptic Inferno witnessing the barbaric punishment of sin. He scales the colossal Mountain of Purgatory observing penitent souls suffering in order to gain redemption and, finally, spiritually cleansed and prepped for Heaven, he ascends through the celestial spheres to the glory and bliss that is Paradise. Done. So, with a basic understanding of the story line, here we go with those working titles...
I absolutely loved the simplicity of this. It references fire, therefore Hell, ergo Inferno, right? Wrong. It was a natural assumption in the writer’s mind where that title was going but not necessarily the reader’s and, as my book is a novelisation of the three poems that comprise The Divine Comedy, a vague reference to Dante’s Inferno with fingers crossed the browsing reader understood the inference, was possibly not the best tactic. As my editor pointed out, that single word doesn’t encapsulate the story in its entirety - there are two more poems that form the classic and magical text and the title needs to convey that. Burn; denied. Bah. I really liked it.
Where Mercury Plummets
I loved this. It sounds like a thriller set in a frozen tundra doesn’t it? A sinister and intriguing page turner set against a backdrop of ice-hooks and harpoons and other vicious murder weapons protagonists desperately try to dodge as they battle blizzards and deadly frostbite in their white snowsuits. The only problem is my book tells the story of a lover's quest; the protagonist travelling through the afterlife to achieve spiritual salvation and the only battle he has is with himself. Do you get all that from Where Mercury Plummets? Nope.
However, those words do appear in the book and I got a bit carried away with the idea that the reader would enjoy an ‘ah ha’ moment on page 93 as they recognised the three-word title cheekily slipped in among 82,000 others. In fact, I was utterly convinced the discerning reader would have absolutely no trouble identifying those twenty one letters tucked neatly away, especially as they appear at a critical point in the story. Just because I thought it might be fun for the reader, didn’t mean that in reality the title would resonate in the way I had anticipated or needed it to. Again, if the aim of the book title is to convey the contents and story, intrinsically I knew it was unlikely those three words were the right ones (however witty the idea in my mind) and so, with a heavy heart, Where Mercury Plummets was vetoed. Deep sigh. Honestly, I still love it as a title though.
Saviour of the World! But you’d only know that if you spoke Italian, right? How better to encapsulate the entirety of the story than those two words? Well, in English would be a start. To my mind, Salvator Mundi perfectly conveyed the idea of a quest in which the protagonist is saving all of mankind from spiritual destruction - well, from something anyway. In a stroke of genius, I remembered Salvator Mundi is also the name of my favourite da Vinci portrait and what could possibly be better than uniting these two Italian masters on the front cover of my novel? Brilliant, yes? Er, no. I was trying to be too clever. It remains my favourite but what good is a title if only the writer understands it, or a cover design that only a few readers may recognise? As a concept, both are totally relevant and appropriate, but the harsh reality is that neither worked. Shame - I really envisaged the cover in my mind.
Having rejected all three working titles, and after a mind mapping session, I came up with Beyond The Inferno. Bingo. Of the four it seemed the most logical, primarily because there is a reference to Dante’s Inferno, but the inclusion of the word Beyond hints there’s something more to come, that there’s something on the other side. And there is. Inferno is the first and most famous of the three poems that comprise The Divine Comedy but Purgatory and Paradise, the lesser known of the trio, stand up in their own right as wonderful tales of atonement and spiritual reward. The subheading - A Lover’s Quest to Save Mankind - anchors the idea that this is an adventure. In fact, I promote it as an adult adventure down a dark and dangerous rabbit hole. But it’s also a love story, a tale of triumph over adversity, of joy over despair and of pure grit and determination. Ultimately, it’s about personal redemption and salvation.
So, for what it’s worth, my advice is not to bamboozle the reader. The inference of the title may be clear in your head as the author, but to entice them to make a purchase, it must be in theirs, too.