“Never judge a book by its cover,” they say—yet almost everyone does. And one of the main things readers judge is the book’s title. For such a crucial piece of a book’s identity and marketability, titles receive surprisingly little attention from authors. Some authors get all the way to the submission phase before they realize, “Oh yeah, I need a title for my book!” Though it may be difficult, learning how to write a book title can have a big impact on your book’s success.
Do You Put a Book Title in Quotes?
Before we get into how to come up with a good book title, let’s talk about correct styling. How do you write the title of a book in an essay? Do you put a book title in quotes? In italics? Do you underline it? The answer is, it depends on the audience and the style guide. The Chicago Manual of Style, which is the standard style guide for the book publishing industry, puts book titles in italics. The same goes for MLA, which is used for academic writing, and APA, used for medical and science journals. The outlier is AP, the standard style for newspapers, which puts book titles in quotes.
Chicago/MLA/APA: The Sun Also Rises, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, The Power of Now
AP: “The Sun Also Rises,” “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” “The Power of Now”
If you’re writing for an organization or institution for whom style is important, find out which style they use, and adhere to it. Correct formatting is important in many circumstances—including query letters, book reviews, and any publishing correspondence. If it’s unclear which style is preferred, choose one method, and stay consistent.
How to Come Up with a Good Book Title
As with a book’s opening line, the title can either hook or deter a reader in a split second. A title can be vague as long as it’s creatively intriguing. Take, for example, Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury. It’s not a clear indicator of the novel’s plot, but it gives off a dark fantasy tone that catches the reader’s eye and creates an appropriate mood for the book. For a more lighthearted example, Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is an intriguing title that honors the book’s cheeky humor and space setting.
To learn how to come up with a good book title, you must also learn to recognize the bad ones. Consider A Victorian Murder. A good book title should be unique to one book, but this title could conceivably be the title for a number of books. More compelling titles are Silent in the Grave and The Meaning of Night, both of which more creatively convey a foreboding tone. On the nonfiction side, My Story would be considered a poor title, as it could work for any memoir. More interesting titles say something interesting about the author or the subject—for example, Dreams from My Father, by Barack Obama, or Born Standing Up, by Steve Martin.
Brainstorming Book Title Ideas
Authors tend to have a difficult time distancing themselves from their works enough to think objectively about them. You might come up with a title that seems perfectly logical to you but confusing to an outsider. Once you’ve finished your manuscript, take a step back and use what you know about your work to start brainstorming book title ideas. Below are some strategies to help you along.
Consider Your Readership
It’s not always enough to write an exquisite book—you also need to identify and engage with your audience. If you write a Victorian mystery, for example, you should know that readers of Victorian mysteries will respond to a tone and sensibility that are consistent with the era. Something like A Very Proper Murder might catch such a reader’s eye. If you’re writing a memoir, think about which generation you belong to and who is most likely to read your memoir. A baby boomer memoir title might reference the social upheavals of the ’60s, whereas a millennial memoir title might include an internet reference. If you’re still having trouble, tell your friends and family, “I need a title for my book!” Chances are they’d be happy to brainstorm. Better yet, open the process up to your readers by letting them vote on book title ideas in a social media poll.
A good book title shouldn’t be faithfully descriptive of the plot, but it shouldn’t be completely unrelated either. There are many ways to come up with such book title ideas: If the main character or characters have interesting names, you can make them the title, like Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. If the setting is important, use it, like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Another great strategy is to make a list of your favorite phrases in the book—you may just find one of them captures the theme or mood well enough to be your title. The Grapes of Wrath, for example, takes its name from this passage: “In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”
It’s common for nonfiction books to have an artistic title and a descriptive subtitle. Take, for example, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond, and The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, by Michael Pollan. Both books catch the reader’s eye with an interesting title while leaving the more descriptive details for the subtitle.
Avoid the Esoteric
A book title should be readily understandable. Unless you’re publishing for a specific academic audience, avoid uncommon words that will make the reader feel dumb. Even heady works like those of William Faulkner have relatively simple titles: think of The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying. These books wouldn’t have the same effect if they had been titled The Sonance and the Acrimony and Whilst My Personage Reclines Expiring.
Is Length an Issue?
Though certain books can get away with long titles, it’s generally best to go with a short, punchy title. Jaws (yes, it was a novel before it was a movie) is an excellent example of a short and to-the-point title. Long titles are fine as long as every word pulls its weight. With Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, the series of synonyms for “bad” convey a sense of intriguing whimsy that attracts readers to this children’s title. The book Jesus Potter Harry Christ: The Astonishing Relationship between Two of the World’s Most Popular Literary Characters; A Historical Investigation into the Mythology and Literature of Jesus Christ and the Religious Symbolism in Rowling’s Magical Series, on the other hand, is practically a book in and of itself. It could be half as long while still being true to the book’s subject.
Keywords and Book Titles
More and more books are being sold online. Whether you go through a traditional publisher or self-publish an e-book, consider including keywords that your readers might use when searching for books like yours. For instance, Never Romance a Rake and Love Letters from a Duke are intriguing titles that contains the words “romance” and “love,” which readers may use when searching for a romance title. However, though keywords can go a long way toward connecting your book with the right readers, shoehorning keywords or making them the focus can have a negative effect. For instance, A Victorian Murder, mentioned above, is great for search engines but not so great for readers.
To recap: How do you write the title of a book in an essay? It depends on the style. Do you put a book title in quotes? If you’re using AP style, yes; if not, put them in italics. That’s the easy part.
Knowing how to write a book title is trickier, yet it’s essential for any aspiring author. Even if you’re a literary genius, readers will be slow to recognize your work if they don’t actually read your work. Writing a compelling title will make your book stand out on the shelf, increasing the likelihood that readers will pick it up—and better yet, start reading it. Once they start reading, your wonderful prose will do the rest.