How Book Titles Turn Browsers into Readers

There’s no “rule” for book titles. Not a single one. They aren’t copyrighted, so you can call your book whatever you want. Call it WAR AND PEACE or WIZARDS OF EARTHSEA or THE CLOUD ATLAS or whatever. You can do what you like.

Got that out of your system?

Now let’s get to work.

Titles are easy for folks to confuse. Ask the guy who wrote this THE CLOUD ATLAS how many more sales he got when this THE CLOUD ATLAS got a movie deal. Not a bad problem to have! But when you have two midlist books BOTH called SWORDSPINNER, all you’re going to end up doing is frustrating and confusing people. We live in a world of lazy instant communication, of the one-click purchase, of Google and Twitter hashtags and all the rest.

I don’t want to sift through 8,000 books called NOVEL to find yours (if you’re famous already, this post isn’t really for you. People buy a Stephen King book because it’s by Stephen King. He can call a book MADAME BOVARY if he wants. You might have more trouble. Here’s why).

There’s no other book called GOD’S WAR, which is nice, but there are plenty of INFIDELs and plenty of RAPTUREs. Worse, when I titled these books this way it left a lot of readers thinking they were Christian religious fiction (the covers help dispel that, but in casual conversation or status updates all they’ll hear/see is the title).

UK covers bel dame

Yes, really.

The titles were perfectly resonant for the works, but didn’t help those books find their audience. In fact, those titles actively turned people away. Titles tell us all sorts of things, just like covers. And like covers, it’s not about making a title literal. It’s about telling readers what kind of book you’re selling.

Ever since the mess of titling I experienced with my first trilogy, I’ve been spending a lot more time thinking about titles. I want titles that are unique and easy for me to track during my marketing efforts. I want titles that are easy to remember, easy to spell, and easy to plug into a social media update. As I learned when I wanted to tweet about the movie “Edge of Tomorrow” a meaningless, overly long title wasn’t any fun to share with people. I called it “Live. Die. Repeat.” instead, as did many others. And lo, by the time the DVD of the film came out, that’s the title the marketing folks were using for the film. It was evocative of the type of work it was, it said something, it was easy to type up and easy to track. It didn’t sound like a James Bond movie, but an actual science fiction film.

What genre are you writing? What genre does your title evoke?

When it came to titling THE MIRROR EMPIRE, I went through about a bazillion titles. THE DRAGON’S WAR. THE MIRROR WAR. Here was the list I sent my agent:

• Shade Empire
• Shade War
• Dusk of Empire
• By the Bloody Gate
• The Blood Conjurer
• The Shade Ward
• Dark Ward Rising/ Shadow Ward Rising


TheMirrorEmpire-144dpi-forrevealIt was my agent who suggested THE MIRROR EMPIRE, which I loved. Because it said what the book was: fantasy (see: empire) and implied the central conceit of the book (parallel universes invading). We also passed it through the Amazon machine, ensuring that no other book had the same title.

For the sequel, we went round and round again, with DARK STAR RISING and DARK STAR ASCENDANT. But I felt that both of those felt like SF titles (see: “Star” anything). We settled on EMPIRE ASCENDANT, which I have since had some reservations about, as most people can’t spell ASCENDANT correctly the first time (I sure can’t) and it makes it difficult to search for. It passed the Amazon test, though – it’s the only book with that title.

We went through a similar round-robin with THE STARS ARE LEGION, which started out being called, LEGION which is bad in so many ways. There are a billion other books called LEGION. It also didn’t code as any type of genre. It could be anything from historical fiction to fantasy.

I wanted something that included “Legion” but that coded SF, which was tough. I threw around some ideas with my editor and agent that included:

• Legion Born
• Lord of the Legion
• Legion Bound
• Blood of the Legion
• Legion Among the Stars

Once again, it was my agent who put all the pieces together and suggested THE STARS ARE LEGION, which gives us the SF “Stars” and the word “Legion” which was integral to a title, for me. And, once again: it passes the Amazon search test. There’s no other book with the title, currently.

I’d like to say that choosing a title makes no difference, but to be frank: no fantasy reader confuses THE MIRROR EMPIRE with religious fiction or a cozy mystery novel and says, “That’s not for me.”

Titles can turn casual readers off. I had people turn up their noses at GOD’S WAR for years, thinking it was not something for them, until there were enough people they knew telling them to try it that they finally gave in despite their reservations. It’s far easier to convince people to read THE MIRROR EMPIRE, let me tell you.

If I had to go back in time, I’d make it clearer that the GOD’S WAR books were SF, or an SF/Fantasy mashup, right there in the titles. There were certainly other things that contributed to their rather poor showing (lots of publisher issues), but what I’ve learned since then is that this business is tough enough that you can’t afford to slip up in even one aspect of it. Every single thing has to be perfect to position the book at its best. We’re all competing for readers’ time and attention, and if you can’t capture it, you’re lost.

I remember thinking, the week after the Hugos when THE MIRROR EMPIRE came out, that I’d done everything I could think of right. My publisher, Angry Robot, had done everything right – from cover to table placement to positioning to pitching the book to booksellers. We had done the absolute best we could for that book at every step of the way. If it failed, then it was just a bad book, or maybe the market just wasn’t ready for it. But every single part of the process I could control – from words to title to cover to promo – I had done to the absolute best of my ability. So if it failed, then, OK, it would fail, but I could sleep easy knowing I’d done everything I could.

This is a hell of a business. It’s competitive because it’s so noisy. There are roughly 300 traditionally published books coming out every month just in SFF, depending on the month. There are video games. There are movies. There’s TV. There’s board games. There’s sports. There are a million other ways that human beings have to entertain themselves, and our work somehow has to pop to the head of the line.

I don’t like the idea that there’s something I can control that I didn’t consider. Something I let slip. So I pay a great deal of attention to my titles; the same amount of attention I pay to the other words I put on the page. People ask all the time if it makes any difference and I want to shout, “It takes an hour of your time. Who cares? Wouldn’t you rather go to sleep every night knowing you did everything right? Knowing you gave the book you’ve been working on for years a good sendoff, coding it for the right audiences?”

I do. And I have. And I’ll continue to work toward launching books even more successfully in the future. Because this is a long game. And I have miles to go yet.



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