Tuesday, September 20, 2011

What's a Good Title for a Book? Ask a Tabloid Journalist

I’ll never forget the night I took my wife-to-be out to dinner and subtly asked about her parents.  When you get serious about someone, you naturally want to find out who your future in-laws are going to be.

“So what does your mom do?” I casually asked. 

“She writes a gossip column for a...well, some people might call it a 'yellow' newspaper.”

I searched the restaurant for the nearest exit—we hadn’t actually ordered any food yet.

“Come on, Mike.  She’s really sweet, I promise.”

Yeah.  So is a Bengal tiger, when its belly is packed full of fresh meat.

My fiancée dug around in her purse and pulled out a photograph.  "Just look at that face..."

The woman was grinning at me, a pencil behind her ear, one eyebrow raised.

This didn’t help.  Talk about “walking the line!”  One wrong move and she could destroy me with a single stroke of that pencil.

Well, love overcomes fear, and I got married anyway.

It turns out that, as a novelist, having a gossip columnist for a mother-in-law is one of the best things that ever happened to me.  And not for the reasons you may think—Luba has never written one word about any of my books (not that it would do any good—she lives and works in Latvia, which is not exact the center of my geographic market!)

What Luba is a genius at is titling books.  Having worked for so many years as a “yellow journalist”, she knows exactly what hits readers’ hot buttons.

When I finished my international thriller about currency counterfeiting, I titled it In God We Trust.

It hardly sold a single copy.  One day Luba overheard me complaining about it.

“Is it a religious book?” she asked.

“No, it’s an international thriller.”

“Sounds like a religious book.”

Exasperated, I said, “It’s not a religious book, Luba.”

“What kind of book is it, then?”

“Well...it’s about lust...it’s about money...it’s about murder—”

“There’s your title,” she said, pointing at me.

“Where’s my title?”

 “Lust, Money & Murder.”

I was skeptical, but I decided to try it.  As soon as I changed the name of the book, people started buying it.

Not long after that, I was finishing up another novel, a paranormal thriller.

“What’s it called?” Luba asked.

Hesitating, I said, “A Gift from the Stars.”

She lolled her head to one side, closed her eyes, and made a snoring sound.


“Well, it sounds boring.  What’s it about?”

“It’s about this guy who mysteriously disappears when his family is on vacation in—”

“A mysterious disappearance, then.”


“What’s the guy’s name?”

“Kurt Kramer.”

She pointed at me.  “The Mysterious Disappearance of Kurt Kramer.”

I changed the title. 

The book started selling. 

Now, I no longer resist Luba’s suggestions.  I recently published a novel that I was calling Cosmic Casanova, and it wasn’t selling at all.

“Sounds like science fiction,” she muttered.

Even though I don’t resist her suggestions, she still makes me mad.  “It’s not science fiction, Luba.  It’s a romance novel.”

She raised an eyebrow.  “Oh, really?”

“Yes, really.  It’s about this guy who’s dating several women at the same time, and he wants to keep them secret from each other—”

“So it’s about secrets.”


“Lover’s secrets.”

“Yes.  The guy in the story is kind of dodgy, is hard-to-get.  You know, elusive—”

She pointed at me.  “Secrets of the Elusive Lover.”


  1. sounds like you have a hidden gem in that mother-in-law! Perhaps she might be interested in selling her "titling" service? hehe

  2. I think the only way anyone else will get help from her is to marry her other daughter, who is still single. :)

  3. Well okay then, while I appreciate a beautiful woman I am quite happy with my WoW playing boyfriend *giggles*

  4. That is so awesome! I guess its true however. I've been turned off of what are probably wonderful books just by the cover image.

  5. I am jealous. The only thing my mother in law gives me are things with cats embroidered on them.

  6. I will give her $10 a title if she will work for me. Titles and I are not friends. I'm getting better at them, but I would love to have a Luba, even if she pretended to fall asleep when I listed off possibles.

  7. Want to exchange mother in laws? Actually you can keep mine. I just need title ideas from yours! :)
    Thanks for sharing this and the fact that the title of a book is important!
    Collaborate, Create, Publish

  8. I think your Mother-in-law is a genius, titles are always the hardest thing for me, I never know how to make a book sound interesting that way. Wish she was my mother-in-law lol

  9. Thanks for the comments, everyone, and the humor. Luba read them and said, "I only have one thing to say: my other daughter is still single."

  10. had to laugh at your description of Luba lolling her head to one side, closing her eyes, and snoring.

  11. Yeah, Luba's real subtle that way. :)

  12. Ha, Mike, this is delightful! I love your mother-in-law and wish mine were as insightful about titles!! GREAT piece. Hey, would you like to do a guest blog over on Murderby4.blogspot.com? We host great articles by and for writers, and have won the Writers Digest Best 101 Website award two years running. Would love to feature you in Oct or Nov. Let me know at aaron dot lazar at yahoo dot com.

  13. Thanks for sharing this story! I've been noticing the most hits to my blog come from stuff I wouldn't expect. The general public isn't always interested in what you think they might be and you have to catch their interest in their language, not yours!

  14. LOL I love Luba - I think she needs to feature as a crime-solver in one of your future thrillers :)
    Wagging Tales - Blog for Writers

  15. I think I would really like Luba and wish I had a mother-inlaw with such insight. it is wonderful when family gets involved with something that is important even if there are moments that rate a frustrating. I love this blog and will be back soon

  16. Okay, then--do you have Luba's contact info handy? I'd love to get her take on my work-in-progress!

  17. Perhaps we should all turn to Luba!

  18. Really awesome to have such an amazing and talented ma-in-law! And yes, especially when travelling I am guilty of buying random books based on the titles. :) We have a saying in India that "marriage is not between 2 individuals, its between 2 families" coz for a long time we had this joint family system where everyone lived together though that is disintegrating these days. Cheers to Luba! :)

  19. Wow! I knew titles were important but I never would have come up with those. It's to bad we can't all get her to help us with our titles. I could sure use that kind of help. Thank you for sharing. Titles have always been a problem for me.

  20. So funny and so true, sometimes we want titles to be mysterious and creative but we have to think of the readers too - they're only going to take a few seconds to decide if they want to read a book or not, so it has to be pretty obvious...

  21. Cute story. Your mother in law sounds like she's a funny woman. I am reading Secrets of the Elusive Lover... considering how he 'lures' in his women, Cosmic Casanova would have certainly fit. The one you chose fits better but...

    IMO :)

  22. What a gem your MIL is. I have a hard time with titles, too. Your story also shows that we can't make assumptions about a person's character.

  23. This article alone is worth the price of a webinar! I have a terrible time with titles and, so far, you're the only writer I've found who even bothers to talk about them. Thanks for the insight and give your MinL a hug from me. ;-))

  24. Great article, Mike! I think a book's title is very important. I like to have a working title before I write a word to focus my mind. Unfortunately, I'm finding lately that publishers change my titles [they did with one of my recent novels] and I think it's affecting sales. BTW your mother in law sounds great. What a character!

  25. Such a mother-in-low is a treasure! Protect her:)