Titles: What Makes a Good One

My guest today is Marshall Karp, an award winning former advertising executive, a playwright, a screenwriter, and a novelist. He has also written, produced, and executive produced TV shows for all the major networks. Karp tells us what makes a good title:

1. Short.

That’s my first thought.  Why?  Because your title is not just words.  It’s a major design element on your cover – often even more than the illustration.  And given the space limitations, the designer can do a lot more with one, two, or three words, than with ten.  Also, picture your cover reduced to a thumbnail on Amazon.  Too many words become unreadable.  That said, I think my title HOW TO EARN MILLIONS, LOSE WEIGHT, AND DEVELOP KILLER ABS WITHOUT WORKING, DIETING OR EXERCISING would sell a ton.  I just have to write the book.

2. Intriguing. 

I think it helps if your title makes prospective buyers wonder what that book might actually be about.  My first title, THE RABBIT FACTORY, is probably my best.  It just seemed to grab people.  And the chalk outline of a six-foot rabbit on the cover added to the mystery.  Note: a year before publication another author used the same title.  I was crushed, but my publisher told me that titles are copyrighted, and there are lots of duplicate titles. THE RABBIT FACTORY, he said, was too good to change. He was right.  The title definitely helped sell the book, both to the trade and to readers.

3. Not generic. 

My second book, BLOODTHIRSTY, is about murder by exsanguination.  I was so excited when I came up with a title that described the plot in one word that I never thought twice about it.  In hindsight, I should have.  Blood is a little — make that a lot — overused.  But the designer loved having a word that was loaded with visual possibilities.

4. It’s a title. It’s not the book.

The title does not have to communicate what the book is about.  It has to make the reader want to buy the book to find out what the book is about.  Sorry if that sounds like I’m talking down to you, but it’s a basic fact that I was late in learning, and still have trouble dealing with.

5. If you’re lucky, the title will keep on changing.

English is not the universal language.  So while THE RABBIT FACTORY is called THE RABBIT FACTORY in the UK and literally translated to IL MISTERO DEL CONIGLIO SCOMPARSO in Italy, it’s CARTOON in France, and in Dutch it’s loosely translated as FATAL ATTRACTION. 

My latest book is about a group of cop wives who are getting murdered.  They also have a house flipping business together, and my US publisher is very happy with the title FLIPPING OUT.  But my UK publisher said the Flipping part wouldn’t resonate.  I got in touch with my inner Agatha Christie and reluctantly offered up THE DEAD WIVES CLUB.  They loved it.

But months before either book was ready for market there was a lot of confusion among readers, booksellers, and reviewers.  Even when I tried to make it perfectly clear on my website that it was the same book, going by two different titles, people kept asking me how two different books could have the same synopsis?

Finally, my UK publisher agreed, and now, FLIPPING OUT is called FLIPPING OUT in the US and the UK.

6. The Airport Test.

Titles are very personal and intensely subjective.  It’s hard for an author to subtract his or her own investment in a title when making the final decision.  So try putting your prospective title to this test.

Narrow down your titles to a small handful.  Then find someone whose opinion you value and say this:  You’re in an airport. You have 30 seconds to buy a book.  If you saw this title, does it (a) intrigue you to want to learn more, or does it (b) just grab you?

You want a title where the respondent says (b).  Because the best thing a title can do is grab a reader in a way that makes her want to grab the book.

See also:
Review of Flipping Out
Conversation With Marshall Karp, Author of Flipping Out
How To Do a Blog Tour by Marshall Karp

One lucky commenter, chosen at random, will win a free copy of Flipping Out. If you do not win, click here for your consolation prize:
flipping cover[2] - online jigsaw puzzle - 40 pieces

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26 Responses to “Titles: What Makes a Good One”

  1. Bonnie Toews Says:

    I agree with all these points except number four. A short title is easier for design and to see on a cover. It must be grabby and fascinating, YES, especialy with the myriad titles appearing on book store shelves today. But, a title has to have some connection to the story, even if it’s only an isolated word that doesn’t become significant until the reader has read through the book and sees how the word works or is connected within the story. Robert Ludlum always stuck to three words in his titles. That rule became his trademark, and they were definitely connected to the story.

    If you have a grabby title but readers can’t see the connection by the time they finish reading the book, they will see it as a lie. Now this could become a marketing ploy where readers come to expect that Jane Doe’s titles are always lies and the fun is reading the book to find the “disconnect” rather than the connect. But it’s a ploy that can only be used by one author because readers have come to accept that this is this author’s idiosyncrasy. It’s not something all authors can do and keep loyal readers. Readers are people first, and people don’t like to be fooled. It’s a mark of disrespect. The best authors respect their readers.

  2. Smith River Says:

    I’m from your school of titling Marshall. Two words on average for mine. One is a nice touch. Well done.

  3. June Bourgo Says:

    I agree. My first novel is two words. However, it does reflect the content of the book. It is a hard concept to grasp that the title does not have to communicate what the book is about. I was lucky in that the title of my book came to mind easily and seemed to fit like a glove. Now that I am contemplating a sequel, I will keep in mind this new concept, but it doesn’t sit easily.

  4. Stephen D. Covey Says:

    Instead of discussing what makes a good title, wouldn’t it be easier to describe bad ones? Or the common mediocre ones?

    I wrote an SF-thriller and gave it a title that intrigued me, and described the central concept of the story. But it won’t work because it is a play on words that only works visually, and consequently would never be purchased, and would be even worse in the hands of a reviewer if it somehow made it into print.

    “The Waist of Time”

    It has a new title, now, that better describes its genre as a thriller, and hints at a ticking clock. A great title must imply genre, and work when read and spoken.

  5. John Wayne Cargile Says:

    I couldn’t agree with Marshall more. I was a headline writer for newspaper and magazine articles, and I loved to write the headlines to draw the reader in. My new novel, The Cry of the Cuckoos, has been said by those who have seen it “intriguing.” If it is “intriguing” then why are they buying it? With a name of John Wayne Cargile, and great graphics for the cover, it has to be a draw, even though the graphics are a little simplistic, but it conveys the message I want to share.

  6. GABixler Says:

    My #1 priority for buying books is by author, after that the title and, yes, it must be descriptive of content, merging with the cover to entice.

    As a book reviewer, the ones that really “perturbed” are those that give no clues, especially if, while reading, you come across the title in a sentence…and still can’t figure out what the title means!

    Enjoyed your blog article!

  7. Kelly Says:

    Once you read the book, the title encompasses all sides to the story.

  8. Bonnie Toews Says:

    Stephen makes another good point–the title must reflect the genre as well–and that’s difficult. I’m using a title now for my novel in progress that I love but doesn’t suit the intrigue/suspense genre, so once it is ready to be published, I will have to go back to the drawing board to come up with a more applicable title. Sor far I’ve stuck to three words but one word would be much better.

    GA also makes an important point. Marketing surveys back up the author’s name is the first choice for buyers. So newbies have to deal with this extra stress of breaking through buyer preference putting even more importance on the title to attract sales.

  9. Terry Odell Says:

    I hate coming up with titles. Hate it hate it hate it. In my computer, my folders for each manuscript are either numbered, or designated with the protagonists names. I keep hoping something will come to me as the theme of the book clarifies. One of my books was called “Starting Over” simply because it was the second book I wrote, and I was literally starting over with writing again. The title ended up fitting the book. The next, “What’s in a Name?” came about because I had to fill in that “Title____” line on a contest entry form. It also seemed to fit, as the characters were assuming identities.

    I keep wishing my publisher would come up with better titles, but they’ve never changed any of mine. Did I mention how much I hate coming up with titles. I know writers who say they get the title first, then write the book. Can’t comprehend that one!

  10. Rie Sheridan Rose Says:

    Hmmm…great article. I usually go with some kind of word play, and I guess my novel titles average about 5 words:

    The Blood that Binds (retitling the new version)
    The Lute and the Liar
    Sidhe Moved Through the Faire
    The Right hand of Velachaz

    Will have to think shorter in future…

  11. Elizabeth White Says:

    I agree that short & simple works best. It also helps, as Marshall noted, if the title lends itself well to artistic interpretation by the cover designer.

    I actually disagree about the need for a title in and of itself to reflect the genre; a great title is a great title, period. “The Rabbit Factory” doesn’t reflect any specific genre IMO (unless one thought it was some PETA exposé or something), but it was catchy! I think it is as much, if not more so, the responsibility of the artist who designs the cover to get any “genre feel” injected into it (where possible).

    Thanks, Pat, for helping spread the Lomax & Biggs gospel! 🙂

  12. LuAnn Morgan Says:

    The title is what first catches my eye when looking for a new book.

  13. Wendy Potocki Says:

    Definitely the title grabs my attention! For new authors, it’s imperative that any work have a catchy title that conveys a sense of what the novel is!

    I think the cover art should amplify the title and set the mood or reveal the type of genre, but even without cover art, a really good title works on its own!

  14. A. F. Stewart Says:

    I thinks a title should have some relation to a book, if only to the genre. When I look at a title it conjurers images in my mind, and I want the book to compare with that first impression.

  15. mickeyhoffman Says:

    When I’m looking for a book, the title will tell me whether to pick up the book or not, unless I am searching for books by a certain author. I am not sure the title has to reflect the genre because whether the book is on a shelf in a store, a library or even on a web site, chances are the books have been grouped into sections by genre already. The exception would be a used book store perhaps, where the customers are picking through piles of unsorted books.

    I like titles that are fun. One of my favorites is John Stewart’s “America” a Guide to Democracy Inaction.”

  16. Sandy Says:

    I don’t like to come up with titles, but I do tend to keep them short. Addiction is my next book to come out. I think the blurb on the back attracts people to buy a book.

  17. Marshall Karp Says:

    Great comments. Excellent feedback. It’s clear to me that you’re all wordsmiths.

    Having spent most of my life writing for visual media (tv, film, advertising) I quickly became aware that writing a book requires a whole new discipline. I’m the guy who has to paint the pictures. I have no set decorator, no wardrobe department, no casting director. If the reader is going to visualize my characters, my story, or my world, she needs my words to help her do it.

    Except on the cover.

    Your title is the only part of your book that comes with pictures. I agree that THE RABBIT FACTORY is a catchy title, but the reason you knew it wasn’t about how Cadbury manufactures Easter candy was the chalk outline of the dead rabbit on the cover. So let the graphic do some of the work for you.

    And I totally empathize with those of you who are frustrated by titles. If it were easy, everyone could do it. And once you’ve got your book in hand, you’ll find that everyone does. Friends, family, and lots of folks at your publisher who wouldn’t think of suggesting that your plot is full of holes, or that your characters are one-dimensional, feel comfortable — sometimes obligated — to pitch titles to you. Pay attention. It’s one of the few places where the amateurs can trump the pros.

    I want to thank you all for your comments and I want to thank Pat Bertram for inviting me to guest blog, and for the opportunity to get some exposure to a community that loves the written word. You’ll find plenty of mine at http://www.lomaxandbiggs.com — along with a few choice pictures.

    One last sappy (and totally out of character for me) thought. Finding a great title is like finding true love. When it finally comes along, you’ll know.

  18. Barbara Says:

    For my first adult novel which I wrote this year and is totally in first draft I came up with the title first. But it’s only two words:
    Tall Poison. What do you think of that, Marshall. Does it grab you?

    Great discussion and looking forward to the review of this book. I am hosting guest authors on my blog and would love to have you as a guest there.


  19. Sheila Deeth Says:

    My husband just bought a book by an author he loves, only to find out he’s already got it by its English title; it was interesting to read how that can happen. And fascinating to read about title. Thanks.

  20. Christine Husom Says:

    Titles are almost as hard as writing a synopsis. So much to say, so little time (or space). I love great titles, but find I almost don’t pay attention to it if it’s by a favorite author. I entered the first chapter of my book, “Murder in Winnebago County” in a contest. I called it that for lack of a better title. One of my critics said she almost didn’t read it because the title was so “pedestrian”. When my publisher wanted to publish it, I asked if he had any ideas for a title. He said he liked the title because it sounded rural and described what it was about. So you never know!

    I checked to see if there were any other books by that title–there weren’t. My next mystery thriller is titled “Buried in Wolf Lake”. I asked a few people and they liked it, so after an online check to see if there were any other ones out there with the same title, I went with it.

    I know some authors have the titles before they write the book so the promotion can begin–that would be tough!! Thanks for the post.

  21. stinginthetail Says:

    your post has been plagiarised -the thief posted it at http://thoughtsaboutnotes.blogspot.com/2009/04/titles-what-makes-good-one.html

    he stole one of mine too – please report the thief to google (blogspot’s owner) at

  22. Pat Bertram Says:

    Thanks, stinginthetail. I reported it.

  23. caleb fox Says:

    I agree with Marshall Karp for the most part. I’d add that certain words have an aura that is intriguing–“shadow,” for instance (as in Carlos Zafon great novel SHADOW OF THE WIND). Also “home,” “heart,” “dream,” and many others. One of my favorites titles is Robinson Jeffers’ GIVE YOUR HEART TO THE HAWKS, which my kinsman Win Blevins borrowed for a different book. Maybe I should have given my next book, the fantasy ZADAYI RED, one of those aura words.

  24. Laurie Foston Says:

    I either heard it in a class that I took or read it that you should piggyback your title off of a former title that is no longer in print but was successful when it was available. I heard the same thing about author’s pseudonyms. Piggybacking a pseudonym is trickier because the author is alive and it can be confusing. At first, i though Pat piggybacked her book titles. Then I read how she came up with the titles. She did the right thing without being told ahead of time. I think piggybacking a title contributes to its success.

    If you don’t want to piggyback a title then use an old saying for the title …like When The Bough Breaks.

  25. Becke Martin Says:

    You are obviously doing something right because you have great titles and your publisher left them alone. So many authors I know don’t get to choose, but maybe that’s because they don’t write mysteries.

  26. Guest Blogger: Pat Bertram | Tom Rizzo Blog Says:

    […] Karp, who is now co-authoring books with James Patterson, once was a guest on my blog talking about Titles: What Makes a Good One. He says they should be short so that the title stands out online in a thumbnail (good point!) and […]

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