This post is aimed primarily at the independent authors in our readership, not because we love the traditionally published folks less, but only because they will not get to participate much in their book title decision.
There are really two main schools of thought here – title it descriptively or title it evocatively. There are plusses and minuses to both methods, and you should spend some time researching your genre to see which is more popular. Regardless, while it may be tempting – do not fall in love with a title until you take the time to truly do your homework.
Title Descriptively – Examples include “Seductive Shadows” by Marni Mann (an upcoming book from Booktrope) or “Permission Marketing” by Seth Godin. Even though one is erotic fiction and the other non-fiction, neither title leaves you any doubt what the content of the book will be.
Title Evocatively – Examples include “Wool” by Hugh Howey and “Purple Cow” by Seth Godin. The idea here is that you read those titles and have no clue what they are talking about, but they are so odd, you can’t help but take a closer look.
1) Research your genre to see which is more commonly used.
2) Once you have understood what is standard in that genre decide whether you will conform or move to the opposite model. Conforming gets you better instant recognition from readers, opposing may make you stand out if you can make it clear in other ways what your book is about.
3) Start brainstorming. Usually I make a list of themes, highlighted items or situations as my starting point. Or you can go wild and just starting writing words in a free-association style. A thesaurus is your friend at this point.
4) Do some keyword research. I usually start with Google, then check Amazon and BN.com to see what comes up with the keywords I have in mind. If you really want to go hog wild, there are all kinds of keyword tools, like Market Samurai that will be useful (Lori outlined a bunch of them in her Resources post here). Keep in mind; it is not just so that your topic is clear, it is also important to see what else comes up with those words. If you have written a book on writing, and all the other things that come up with the keywords you have in mind are erotica, you should reconsider your choices.
5) Narrow down your list to a top 3-5 and ask other people’s opinions! Ask friends, ask total strangers (Twitter is great for that) and see what comes to mind as their immediate response. If you think you are talking about submarine sandwiches and everyone else thinks you mean naval submarines, you are pretty far off your mark.
6) Before you finalize, check Amazon again. If there is another book with your exact same title, you may want to rethink and start over. It is not technically illegal from a copyright perspective to use the same title as someone else; in fact, it is done all the time. However, it is pretty bad form (i.e. rude) to do so, if that title is recent. If you absolutely must use the same title as a recently published book, consider adding a secondary or subtitle to differentiate. If it is an older title, it is less problematic but you should still think about whether the prior work is similar to yours, or whether you would want to be associated with it and vice versa. You will come up in searches together, after all, and in a sense you are promoting one another’s work by default.
Now – in the interest of full disclosure, I will tell you that the reason this topic was top of mind for me this week is that someone clearly did not follow step 6, and/or did and did not care. The result, they published a book with the exact same title as the one Lori and I wrote in 2011 (and recently updated and re-released this past Spring).
Our book – “How to Market a Book” (by Lori Culwell and Katherine Sears – Booktrope Publishing)
The other book – “How to Market a Book” (by Joanna Penn – Self Published)
When we chose our title, Lori did a bunch of magic keyword research (compared to Lori I am a hack in this regard); we both did the title research and were pretty astounded that no one had used just that phrase as a title before! Oh well, we are no longer unique. And, lest you wonder, there is not much to be done about it, as technically this is only defensible through some vague laws around unfair competition and would be tough to enforce. You cannot own a book title specifically (unless you go to the trouble of also making it a trademarked phrase). But, hey, it did prompt me to realize that not everyone may understand the steps above.
Go forth and title your books – just do so with the right intent and research behind you!