Writing Tips: C.J.'s Top Ten Most Hated Book Title Problems

So you have a neat new book title, huh?  Well before you go off sending it to everyone and their mother, remember:  your title sets the tone for your work.  People will judge a book by its cover, and that includes the title.  If the title sounds dumb to me, I'm not going to pick up the book....unless I've gotten a great recommendation from someone I trust.  And if the title sets a tone that the book undermines, it's going to piss me off.  So let's look at some common title errors that drive me crazy....and make me less likely to buy your book. 

1. Series titles that don't match  
So, you want to write a series.  With pretty titles.  And you claim to know grammar.  Ever heard of parallel structure?  You know, that thing that makes words go together and sound nice.  Like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.  Now look at this list from Amanda Hocking:  Switched, Torn, Ascend.  If you're an OCD grammar nazi like me, your brain just cried.  "Switched" and "Torn" are both past participles.  "Ascend" is not.  Was it really so hard to choose Switch, Tear, Ascend or Switched, Torn, Ascended?  It just sounds sloppy. Now look at George R. R. Martin.  Game of Thrones, Clash of Kings, Feast of Crows.  See how nice and uniform it is?

The exception is titles that don't match at all and don't pretend to want to match.  Susan Cooper's fantastic series has titles like these:  Over Sea, Under Stone;  The Dark is Rising;  Greenwitch;  The Grey King;  Silver on the Tree.  They're all purposefully very different, so it works.  

2. One word titles that are vague and tell you nothing about the book 
I've been known to rant about one-word titles, and for good reason.  They can be great, or they can be totally useless.  Examine Twilight.  Beautiful.  Meaningful.  Sets the tone as a dark, sort of supernatural story (since twilight is the time when worlds come together), and is also a clever commentary on Bella's life at the time.  Now look at Forever by Maggie Stiefvater.  Okay, so I know absolutely nothing about this book based on this title, and it just sounds like someone picked a generic fancy word (see also: raven, dark, seduction, etc.).   

3. "Cute" or "clever" variations on famous works 
Again, I've gone into this particular faux pas before.  Some great books are guilty of this crime.  Crime, you say?  Well, let's think.  You're taking the title of a famous work and spinning it.  Why?  Are you actually claiming that your work is a substantive parody / reimagining of the work?  Okay, good luck to you.  Do you just think it's clever?  Then shame, shame on you; the literary gods will smite thee.  Alice in Zombieland by Gena Showalter; cool book, but its relation to Caroll stops at the title.  Bad.  Prada and Prejudice by Mandy Hubbard (despite being way not my genre) is cute because the book has very clear ties to the Austen period but also a modern twist.

4. Puns in non-funny books, or non-funny puns 
I could probably explain this one with A Good Day to Pie by Carol Culver.  It's just groan-worthy.  Maybe some are a little clever, but for the most part, they make you want to punch a bookshelf.  With all the creativity out there, you think we authors could come up with our own clever titles.  Not ones that are thin disguises of other cliches that weren't that great in the first place.  It's a little more forgivable for children's books...but only a little.  

5. Harry Potter replicas, or Boy's Name and the Fancy Object 
It's been done.  J.K. Rowling took it.  Sorry.  You can't have it.  Whether you're Charlie Bone and the Castle of Mirrors by Jenny Nimmo (and don't get me started on the singular oddity in that series, Midnight for Charlie Bone) or Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan, you'd better be kissing Rowling's toes because you're riding her coattails into popularity.  Okay, so Percy Jackson isn't all that awful.  But there can only be so many copycats out there before they all start to look the same.

6. Kh'talkdo goes to the market, aka, I can't spell your title 
This is largely a search problem.  Your book seems snazzy.  I see it at the store or on a website.  I want to find it later and buy it on Amazon.  But wait!  I have no idea how to spell it.  And after a while, I give up, because I've decided that you really secretly didn't want me to buy it, or you'd have spelt it something that another human being could conceivably duplicate.  I'm looking at you, Septimus Heap series (Magik, Flyte, Physik, Queste) and don't get me started on The Tar-Aiym Krang by Allen Dean Foster. Fantasy authors are particularly notorious for this one. 

7. Titles stolen from angsty emo teenagers (no offense meant to angsty emo teenagers; I was one of you not too long ago) 
The inspiration for this pet peeve (which is a phrase I actually hate, mind you) was I Heart You, You Haunt Me by Lisa Schroeder.  How about this rule: if it's likely to be scrawled on the inside of a 14-year-old's notebook, then don't make it your book title.  It just sounds silly.  Period.  I'd give you more examples, but this one is just so good, I'll let it stand alone.

8. When the tone doesn't match the book in any conceivable way 
If I go into the book thinking, based on the title, that it's going to be humorous, silly, dark, or whatever, it had better be humorous, silly, dark, or whatever.  Anything other than that feels like false advertising.  For example, Pirates! by Celia Rees.  For what seems to be a pretty epic, adventurous, historically based book, it has the title of an exhibition for children at the Museum of Science and Industry.  Which is fine.  Except it's not.  So something a little more epic would be nice.

9. That unfortunate sexual innuendo that just ruins it for you 
I could give you an entire list, but, voila!  Goodreads has done it for me.  Basically, don't be these people.  If your book name makes people snigger, they're not going to take it seriously.  So unless you want it to be a humorous sex-themed romp...um, read it a few times over and make sure no one will turn it into one.  A  personal favorite by someone who should know better:  Night Probe! by Clive Cussler.

10. Okay, this one is cheating.  What are your most hated book title trends?  Or, what are the most ridiculous titles you've come across?  
Your turn! 


  1. I'm not a fan of whimsical titles. A friend of mine made a movie and called it "Whatever it Was". Great movie, forgetable title. Or there's "Don't Be a Hero" by Chris Strange. It is easily in the top 5 best books I've ever read...but the title doesn't sell it.

    1. I agree completely. Those titles just don't stick in the mind. If I didn't write them down, I'd never remember them to buy later.