The Long Road to a Good Book Title

A book’s title is important. It’s a crucial summary of the essence of the content inside, and one of the key ways a book pitches itself to browsers when it’s all alone on the bookstore shelf. Get the title wrong and a book is crippled from the outset. And there are all sorts of mistakes to be made in titling: genre-inappropriate titles, overly clever titles that don’t reflect what the book’s about, titles with strange formatting or cute intentional misspellings that make the book not show up in online search results.

If you’re trying to title your book and getting frustrated, you’re in good company. For instance, George Orwell almost called his dystopian masterpiece The Last Man in Europe instead of 1984. Bo-ring. And Moby-Dick was named after a real-life whale named “Mocha Dick.” It’s a good think Melville changed it up—can you imagine the cleverly named Starbucks menu items? (Starbucks got its name in part from Captain Ahab’s first mate in the novel.)

Those two title tidbits came from a website we recently came across called, quite appropriately, How Books Got Their Titles. Author Gary Dexter gives anecdotes and insights into well-known titles and how they were derived. Some—like Married Love as the title of a sex manual that very well could have been accused of obscenity upon its 1918 release—artfully spin the book’s presentation to appeal to its target audience while accurately representing the content inside. Read through these and perhaps you’ll gain a little inspiration for your own titling endeavor.

Dexter’s full-length book on the topic is called Why Not Catch-21?