The Psychology of Book Titles

Posted by: Kevin Tumlinson 2 months ago

What’s in a name? It’s a more complicated question than you might think, because the name of your book can indicate everything from tone to genre to setting and more. Choosing the perfect title for a work is about more than finding something that sounds cool—it’s a shorthand communication with the reader, encouraging them to pick up, purchase, and read your work.

Names are an important psychological tool. They give us a means of reference, allowing us to communicate easier.

Imagine constantly trying to explain to someone that for breakfast this morning you ate “a long yellow fruit, the contents of a ceramic container filled with processed grains, sugar, and large mammalian lactate, and high temperature water infused with ground remnants of a roasted bean grown in a tropical region,” served in a ceramic cylinder.

Mmm-mmm, good!

We name things so that we don’t have to explain things. And that same philosophy holds true when we’re naming our books.

“What’s your book about?”

That could be the single most frightening question an author can be asked about their work, and with good reason—it took us a whole book to explain the idea the first time. Now you want us to boil it down to a sentence?

Having that ‘business card synopsis’ for your book is an important part of being able to market it, but it’s also a huge help in naming the book itself. In fact, to completely make up a statistic, 90% of the time if you can explain the book in one sentence then you likely already have a title.

Consider these examples:

  • A young girl is forced to participate in an annual life-or-death contest designed to keep the remains of human society under the control of a corrupt government: The Hunger Games
  • A murder in the Louvre and cryptic clues found in some of Leonardo da Vinci's most famous paintings lead to the discovery of a religious mystery that could rock the very foundations of Christianity: The DaVinci Code
  • A young boy is conscripted into military service and trained to face an alien threat through a series of high-tech strategy and combat games that are a little too real: Ender’s Game
  • A botanist astronaut is accidentally left behind on a mission to Mars, and must survive as the sole human on the Martian surface for a year: The Martian

Notice that in the description of each book we never actually mention the title, but it is derived from the central focus of the book itself. In the case of ‘Ender’s Game’ and ‘The Martian,’ the titles are a little ironic (no spoilers). But all four titles above more or less sum up the ultimate, underlying subject of each book.

Knowing what the book is about gives us a source for drawing out a title.

You’ll also note that the titles aren’t necessarily explicit. Simply writing “The Hunger Games” on a sheet of paper won’t tell anyone the full story. But that leads to another bit of psychology for us to consider.

Pique our curiosity

The common trait you’ll notice amongst all four of the titles above is that even though they never expressly tell us what the book is about, they give us just enough detail to make it intriguing.

In other words, they make us want to know what the book is about.

We want to know what “hunger games” are. We’re curious what a “DaVinci code” might be. We’re interested in learning how “Ender’s game” might play out. And we’re fascinated to learn more about “the Martian.”

Each of these titles sets us up with both a sneak peek and a question: “What does the author mean by X?”

When it comes to titles, the job is to set up the story while also creating an open loop.

If you’ve spent any time studying marketing techniques, you may have come across the term ‘open loop,’ usually as it relates to email marketing. The basic idea is that you are asking the reader a compelling question that only you can answer, but to get the answer they have to stick around for the next email. Or, for us authors, they have to open your book and read through to the end.

Open loops can include everything from cliff-hangers to plot points, within the story of the book. You’ll also find them handy outside the book—using them in your back cover copy and, more to the point, in the title of the book itself.

Consider The Girl on the Train. The title immediately sets the tone of the book—it even gives us a setting. It tells us there’s a girl, but doesn’t go out of its way to tell us who the girl is. It leaves us with a few open questions: Who is this girl, why is she on a train, and what happened to her?

That’s three open loops in one title—that’s not bad at all.

Those open loops pique our curiosity, and in general they will intrigue us enough to pick up the book and read on.

I say ‘in general,’ because it’s important to realize that not every title or open loop will connect with every reader. But the goal here is to connect with your specific reader anyway.

We’ll explore determining and writing to your ideal reader in a future post (see that open loop there?), but for now it’s enough to say that your title should be designed to reel in the reader who will enjoy your book most.

Don’t spend any time at all on worrying over whether your title will appeal to the masses—it won’t. There will always be a group of readers who won’t find your title intriguing or inviting at all, and the best label for that group is ‘not my reader.’

Concentrate on crafting a title that will snare the kind of reader you’re aiming to reach, and let everyone else go find a book better suited to their tastes.

SET THE TONE

This is trickier, because its subtle. The title of your book should set the tone for the type of story you are telling.

Think about The Silence of the Lambs. That may be the single greatest tone-setting title of all time, because without knowing a thing about the story, you’re already experiencing a slight chill down your spine. We may not all have direct exposure to lambs, in our daily lives, but nearly everyone, when thinking of a lamb, will think of their innocent and joyful bleating. It’s almost impossible to think of a lamb without also hearing that sound in your head. So when we think of them going silent, it feels wrong to us.

This is because of a psychological state known as cognitive dissonance—meaning an inconsistency in thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes when compared to observable behavior. Basically, when our expectations are disrupted, we experience cognitive dissonance, and that makes us uncomfortable.

In terms of The Silence of the Lambs, that discomfort translates as something eerie and frightening. It builds suspense right from the start.

When choosing your title, you’ll want to consider your audience, and you’ll want your title to either meet the expectations of that audience or disrupt them in a calculated way. Controlling the expectations of your reader is how you control tone, and it can be done in just a few words.

Consider every Nicholas Sparks novel ever.

Ok, now let’s narrow it down to The Notebook.

This title could go either way—it could be a tale filled with stories of love and romance, but it could also be dark and forbidding. Without dropping any spoilers, I’m just going to say that there are elements of both throughout this novel. But it’s the intriguing and subtle question of the title that really sets the tone. We want to know, “What’s the story with this notebook? What’s in the notebook? Is it good? Is it bad? Will I cry?”

You may not even be a fan of romance as a genre, and you might still pick up this book just to find the answers to those questions (I did).

But the title itself sets a tone, and it does it in just two words. Actually, it does it in one word in particular.

The word ‘notebook’ is shorthand for conjuring up all sorts of imagery. We instinctively think of a notebook as containing personal insights, secrets, quick notes that may be indecipherable. The word conjures up a sense of mystery and intrigue, but it also says “personal and private.” All of that plays into the tone of the story, and so the title does a great job of pulling in a reader looking to have that experience.

The right cover image doesn’t hurt either, of course.  

A NOTE ABOUT NON-FICTION TITLES

So far we’ve talked in terms of fiction titles, but all of this applies to non-fiction authors as well. You should be able to sum up your book in a sentence, and you should certainly want to intrigue your readers enough to pick the book up and read it. The tone may not vary quite as much as it does with fiction work, but you still want to convey to your reader whether your book is dire serious, tongue-in-cheek, or “a difficult subject made reader friendly.”

As you think about your ideal reader, the thing to keep in mind is that your book is solving a problem for them. So your title needs to focus on the problem-solution set.

How to Win Friends and Influence People is just about as straightforward as a title gets. It’s specific, outlining exactly what you’ll get by reading the book. But it also has a nice tone—it doesn’t say “how to get your way and manipulate people.” It uses the terms “friends” and “influence,” which immediately tell the reader this is an accessible book with a positive theme.

Who Moved My Cheese? Is another good non-fiction example of a great title. First, it’s a question—and if we’ve been paying attention, we know immediately that a question is an open loop. It’s intriguing, because we have no idea why it matters if someone has moved your cheese, but now we want to find out. And the title sets the tone immediately—we know this book is going to be a fun read, because it isn’t titled “Logistics and Management Principles for the Career and Goal Minded Individual.” That would be a totally different book.

But just to be sporting, let’s consider Current Perspectives in Forensic Psychology and Criminal Behavior. There’s very little doubt about the topic of this book, and you know right away that the tone is academic and serious. If you happen to have an interest in Forensic Psychology, this is a gripping read (trust me). But if you just want to relax with a good pot boiler at the end of a long work week, this may not be the book for you.

INSTINCT IS USUALLY GOOD ENOUGH

The psychology of a good book title isn’t about following strict rules and processes to determine the name of your book—these are guidelines, just like anything else. The point here is to consider your title in light of your audience, and in light of the type of story you are trying to tell.

Sometimes we get a great title like a bolt out of the blue, and those are blissful moments. Other times we struggle with ‘what to name this thing,’ and it can frustrate us to the point of just slapping the first thing that comes to mind on the title page, and living with the consequences.

But it’s worth taking your time to think through not only what your title should be, but how your reader should react to it.

Remember, always, that your book’s title is meant to capture and inspire readers, to compel them to pick up the book and start reading. In that sense, a title has more in common with marketing and copywriting than it does with art—though great titles are an art all their own.

Spend some time looking around at some of the bestselling books you can find, and consider how the titles make you feel as you read them. Read the spines of books so that you’re not influenced by the cover art, and see what emotions are evoked by the titles you find. Which titles make you want to pick up that book and start reading? What tone does the title set? What information can you learn just from the title alone? Are there any lingering questions in your mind, as you read that title—things you just want to know?

Imitate what you see and try to capture what you feel, and your instincts will make it easier to choose the right name for your work.

When you’ve just spent a huge chunk of time writing, editing, and rewriting your manuscript, having to shift gears and think in terms of a catchy phrase that sums it all up can be a bit daunting. You may have had a title from the very beginning—and congratulations you rare and wonderful unicorn. But for many authors, the title comes somewhere in the middle, if not dead last. Maybe they go with a placeholder (and these usually stick). Or maybe they go with “Untitled Vampire Romance Novel” right up to “the end.”

Considering the psychology underlying your title can actually help ease the burden of choosing a good one. Thinking like your reader is never a bad thing. You should be thinking in terms of “how can I intrigue them, inspire them, delight them, or disrupt their expectations?”

Once you’ve started making those sorts of considerations, good titles will usually just appear like manna in the desert.