A stack of books across several genres, their spines facing out to showcase their titles.

The Evolution of a Book Title

Whether it’s emblazoned on a cover, included on a best-seller list, or mentioned in passing by a friend or acquaintance, most often the title of a book gives a reader the first impression they have of the work. It is not enough for a title to be good (that is, a fitting description of the events of the plot that also strikes the right tone and implies the themes surrounding it), it must be enticing to the target audience and lend itself to marketing. Therefore, picking a lasting title is a crucial part of the process publishers use; titles can be edited like any other piece of text if the original does not work. But if the title of a book really is the first impression a reader will get, who decides what makes for a good and enticing title?
The first person to propose the title of a work is typically the author, and while the author may feel they have a perfect grasp of how to build first impressions of their work, they don’t always get it right on the first try. Certainly Jane Austin must have felt that pride and prejudice coursing through her when she dubbed her most famous work First Impressions. Yet that’s not the name we know it by, and what’s more: she is not the only great author of a famous work to put forward an unremarkable working title.
So then is it the responsibility of the publishing house to decide on a better, more marketable name? Perhaps. Certainly it is up to the editor working with an author through a publishing house to raise concerns if a proposed title isn’t landing well with marketing (especially if the title implies a theme or genre outside of the manuscript’s actual scope), and then to work with the author and/or publisher to generate a more fitting title. However, there are legitimate concerns surrounding “designed by committee” titles either also missing the mark on what a title needs or not generating a title the author can agree with. The fact is, there is no style guide to titling books.
Certainly, there are factors that market studies suggest are essential to a good title. A study of contemporary novels purported that titles that start with the word “the” were more likely to become best sellers, without taking into account that “the” is the most common word in the english language. There are also patterns of naming that publishing houses find themselves in. Ooligan, for instance, has published a few titles with names following a “The X We Y” pattern established by The Gifts We Keep and sustained by The Names We Take. Even so, this naming convention is obviously not appropriate to every single book we publish, which leads to perhaps the most important and most straightforward answer to what makes for a good and enticing title: it will vary from manuscript to manuscript, based on what that specific manuscript has to offer the reader and therefore what title such a reader would seek out.

The Stories that Oolies Are Tired of Reading

We at the Ooligan crew love to hear, see, and read stories. In the course of devouring narratives, however, we have developed small pet peeves (and visceral rage reactions) to certain storytelling clichés. Everyone has a different trope that especially irritates him or her, but there are some patterns in the storylines that editors are sick of.

I started a conversation with current and former members of Ooligan Press to see what stories (or lines from stories) make them want to toss a book in the Goodwill pile . . . or a manuscript in the rejection pile. Writers who want to get published, take note.

Using deal-breaking opening lines.

“I’ll read anything as long as it doesn’t start on a dark and stormy night,” Meagan says.

“Interesting, Meagan,” Kellie says. “I like the dark and stormy night motif, as long as it doesn’t say that exactly. Though if I read ‘once upon a time’ one more time, I’ll go on a red-pen rampage.”

You don’t have long to engage a reader with your tale. Do not waste those first lines on salty old sentences that barely register in the mind. Even if you are writing within the realms of fantasy or mystery, a compelling quote or arresting action is a better place to start.

Why them?

Ever have a secondary character appear in a book you are reading that is much more interesting than everyone else?

If they look like, as Vi says, “The underappreciated best friend who is inserted purely for comic relief; is either black, Hispanic, or ginger; and is ten times more interesting/likeable than the perfect main character,” you might want to reconsider your protagonist.

Mr. Mediocre saves the day!

Brandon says, “I’m not a big fan of the deadbeat/alcoholic/absent father who suddenly in an emergency/when aliens invade/zombie apocalypse is the one man who can save the world. But maybe that’s more of a movie thing.”

Whether it’s in a novel, a short story, or a script, if your character has what it takes to save the day, we would love to know why.

Oh thank goodness you’re here!

Angelina Jolie made a lot of people cry in the early 2000s portraying a passionate aid worker, but times have changed. Margaret, for one, is tired of the “white-savior” cliché, wherein a Caucasian makes his or her way into a different culture or community and saves the day/changes hearts/makes everyone get along happily-ever-after-the-end. Technology has made it so we can hear voices from pretty much every culture on the planet tell stories about their lives, adventures, and struggles. Even Jolie has retired from the white-savior spotlight.

Girl, you’re a special angel.

Melina and Alyssa have seen enough of the young adult plot in which an ordinary girl who feels out of place with the world discovers she is special and then saves said world, also featuring unnecessary romantic subplot with boy who teaches her that she is special.

Everyone wants to be special, but having your character accept herself (or himself) without any tricks is much more compelling.

If you are guilty of using any of these clichés in your own writing, never fear! The process of becoming a good writer involves a lot of exercise and toiling down paths well worn by other writers (and of course there are always exceptions to prove the rule). Keep reading to recognize which plotlines are currently worn out, and write the stories that you know, deep down, to be true.