Titles are the short way people remember a book. In effect they have to be the essence of the book.
Right now there is a push to make short one word pithy titles. This actually works against a book in many ways. For example a book entitled “Restless” a young adult novel about a boy who feels restless and sets off on an adventure. (made up title and book) Now when a person wants to remember the book they can’t just remember what its about, they have to remember the exact word that the young boy was feeling when he set off on his adventure. There are many words that it could be instead; unhappy, board, miserable, uncomfortable, jittery, housebound, uneasy, unsettled, on the move, dissatisfied, the list goes on, but because the title is one word, in order for the book to be found you have to find the exact word “restless”. And if your lucky it will be the only book with that title. With a word like restless, its unlikely. Even adding “The” to a single word can help make it more memorable to the human mind.
For example, “The Restless” the story of a gang of wild young artists on the back streets of London. (again made up title and book) But if you added one more descriptor it could be a lot more memorable “The Young and Restless.” By leaving out one word this title is distinguished from the soap opera title “The Young and The Restless” which implies there are both people who are young and people who are restless. The lack of the second ‘the’ makes the title mean that the people talked about are young AND restless. Which is pretty apt to the idea of young men running wild around the streets of London.
Being memorable is important but sometimes writers or perhaps their agents care more about being memorable than they do about being honest, and the title doesn’t fit because it was too sensational. This can back fire. When the people that are drawn into reading a book are not the kind of people who will like that book it can create bad buzz. For example lets say a non fiction book was called “Fine Vintage”, it looks at first glance to be a book about wine and a lot of wine people read the book only to be disappointed and annoyed because the book is not about wine at all, its about the modern making of raisins. There could be some very vitriolic reviews of the book in wine magazines or perhaps it will just be ignored because the people interested in raisins think its about wine and people who drink wine know its about raisins. A more honest title might have been “The Other Vintage: The Untold Story of the Dried Grape” Even wine lovers might pick it up, but they will read it because its about grapes not wine and won’t feel ‘tricked’ into reading it.
There is a lot of pressure to find a good title. Sometimes people write books around a title. This can be great because, a title can help the writer stick to the topic and create of good story that really fits with the original idea. The opposite can happen too. Story ideas often drag writers around and end up in strange places. If this happens and the book title no longer fits, even if it was a great title it might be better if it were changed. Of course many books wait to make one until they are done to find a title.
I’ve done both. I wrote a short play based on a title I thought up one night as I was drifting off to sleep once, called “On Company Time”. It was very vaudeville and I loved it.
I also wrote a short story about a vampire set in a dystopian future that had no title and ended up calling it “Prey Tell”. A play on words standing for both the fact that the vampire hunts people and that there is much dishonesty between the two main characters.
In the end it is often easier to start out with the title in mind, but I am currently thinking about this for a longer book I am working on that I love, and I hope that eventually the right title will come to me. No pressure.