How Important is the Title?

What weight should we give to the title of a novel?

If the sum of a book is 100%, is the title worth 20% or 80%? On the one hand, if the title isn’t catchy then potential book buyers may never pick it up. All the efforts the author has put in will never be tested. What a waste for both author and reader. On the other hand, if the title is too convoluted readers may not understand the direction the author is taking them. Like a four-star chef, authors want readers to finish their creation. Putting it aside half-finished is worse than having never started. It is the difference between telling the waiter, “I’ll try something else, thank you,” and telling your friends, “I’ll never eat in that restaurant again.”

This question has been weighing heavily on my mind for the past few months as I turn the final corner on writing Knock Softly (working title). I’ve asked a few fellow writers – those who are in my writing group and have read the manuscript so far – to think of something better. Nothing is sticking. I try not to fret about it, tell myself it’s not important until you finish, but that finish line is now in sight and the fret is turning into sweat.

Let’s look at the responsibility of a title. That’s right, a title has responsibilities. First and foremost it has to succinctly sum up your story. It also has to be catchy enough to cause a reaction. It should say either “pick me up” or “not for me.” But is that all? Shouldn’t the title also come into to play at the end of the read? Shouldn’t the reader be able to see that title again on someone else’s shelf and be able to recall the entire story? Have an engaging conversation with that person over the book? Gone with the Wind does that. So does Hunt for Red October and To Kill a Mockingbird, and numerous others. That’s my dilemma with Knock Softly. I want a title that will recall the entire tome when next you see it again.

I came up with Knock Softly strictly as a constant reminder to myself that no main characters die in this story – there are things worse than death. Cancer is the villain. Curing our heroine is the story’s master thread, and keeping that central to the other events in the story hasn’t been difficult. Those other events include our heroine’s infidelity and a tortured past life she’s kept secret from her husband and children. Only mitochondrial DNA can save her now. To get it, her husband must delve into her dark past. Her desire to die with her secret is almost as strong as her will to live for her children and the child she carries. Knock Softly doesn’t convey any of that.

In Knock Softly, we have a mother of two, pregnant with another man’s child and suffering stage-4 cancer. She refuses to abort the baby, even though it increasingly diminishes her own chances of survival. Her husband rides the full length of the emotional rapids as he discovers there is so much more to the woman he married.

I don’t have the answer to my question; what weight should we give to the title of a novel?

I suspect it’s a squishy number, based on how strong the author’s own name is. Steven King could call his next novel Untitled and it would sell out. I doubt 100 copies would sell if my name were on it. For someone like me, a mild-mannered suspense writer whose day job is composing coherent internet ads in forty characters or less, I suspect the title is worth nearly half of everything written. It is in advertising, and in selling newspapers.

Now taking good suggestions for A.K.A. Knock Softly. Anyone?


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  1. Phil,

    No question! The title is of utmost importance. Example: my autobiography titled “A Stroke of Luck”. The relationship of this title to my life’s story is that I have experienced an incredible series of synchronistic strokes of luck all of which have served to propel me forward from chapter to chapter. These compelling strokes of luck provide the framework for my life’s story.

    • Kren Kittrell on February 2, 2015 at 3:27 pm
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    Phil, I have a work in progress, “Untitled Kate.” It’s a placeholder for the real title which will come later when I’m finished. It’s the first time I decided not to name the manuscript while writing.

    You mention delving into a secret past and a DNA mystery. Those two facts would capture my interest in an instant. Hint at this in your title and know that a publisher may change it later.

    1. Thanks, Kren,
      I leaning towards that idea because it includes the main thread. We’re getting closer… Have you thought about “Kate, Untitled” ??

    • Kelly Bixby on January 29, 2015 at 10:53 pm
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    Hey, Phil. I think your cover art could be a shadowy picture of a man on one side and a woman on the other side of a more clearly formed double helix that links the couple together. Each person could be stretching an arm out toward the other, completing one of the “rungs” in the DNA molecule. That imagery would work with many of the options you have for titles. Here’s one more suggestion:
    Unlocking the Secrets
    It’s intriguing, hints at all the things happening in the story, and reminds me of when the human genome was identified. It may not be as original as you want though. There are a lot of topics that begin the same way.
    Good luck deciding!

    1. Thanks Kelly,

      Lots of good title ideas to think about now.

  2. With the ellipsis. Then, what the continuation? Also, I just found out yesterday that there is a short movie titled Knock Softly, and a book that uses it, Knock Softly on Death’s Door if I remember right.

      • Kelly Bixby on January 27, 2015 at 12:30 pm
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      Phil, my perspective is similar to Sue’s. Just from the title of your book, I sense that there are delicate issues lying between the pages. “Knock Softly…” is both a subtle and a direct way of telling readers to proceed with caution, tread lightly, you may be uncomfortable with what lies on the other side of that door. I like the addition of the ellipsis. It pulls readers in and nudges them to open the book and carefully peek inside. The ellipsis also distinguishes your book from the movie and the other book. If those were at all successful, the similarity (in titles) you share with them may help yours get more attention. Generally, I like titles that have some action going on. Yours fits the bill as is. Those of us who have been reading the story are apparently having trouble imagining any other title!

      1. Thanks, Kelly, I’m getting a lot of this 🙂 Not what I expected but the votes of confidence are appreciated. Should there be something else after the ellipsis?

        Maybe, Knock Softly… Cancer at Rest

        One thing I like is “Twisted Ladder” (as in DNA’s symbol)

        Maybe, Knock Softly on Life’s Twisted Ladder. ?
        or, Walk Softly on Life’s Twisted Ladder. ?
        or, Step Lightly on a Twisted Ladder. ?

        Whadaya think?

          • Kelly Bixby on January 29, 2015 at 5:40 pm
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          Thinking about the nature of DNA inspires:


          Knock Softly…Unraveling The Ties That Bind

          1. Entangled On A Twisted Ladder?

    • Book Lover on January 25, 2015 at 5:26 pm
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    I’ve picked books sometimes because of the title, sometimes because the cover art intrigued me, and sometimes because the author is a favorite. I’ve enjoyed your story and can’t think of another title that would intrigue a casual book browser. Unless you can come up with a much better title, stick with what you have. Unless you self publish, your title may be changed by the publishers anyway.

    1. You bring up a good point, on cover art. Title and cover art should work hand in glove. What would make a good visual for a Knock Softly cover??

        • Book Lover on January 26, 2015 at 7:13 pm
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        Perhaps a hand knocking on a door with a startled couple hugging behind the door. Or a picture of a sonogram on the other side of the door. Finding eye-catching appropriate cover art won’t be easy. Good luck.

    • Sue Remisiewicz on January 25, 2015 at 3:38 pm
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    The phrase ‘knock softly’ conveys to me being careful about disturbing whomever or whatever is in the room behind the door. In your story’s case, that seems to be everybody’s past. Ugly, painful things are going to be stirred up no matter how softly you knock, so the title works for me.

    1. Thanks, Sue, but does Knock Softly convey all that in the beginning, when you first see the title? Not sure.

    • Lee Helms on January 25, 2015 at 2:34 pm
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    Good blog entry!

    Your mini-synopsis of Knock Softly suggests that its title should reflect something to do with life: That’s Life or Life’s Maze or something like that.


    1. Thanks,Lee, two more ideas. So far, more people want the title to stay as it is now.

    • Claire Murray on January 24, 2015 at 3:55 pm
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    I think the title is very important, 50% or more. It, and the book’s cover, is what gets the reader to pick it up in the first place. And, without readers, … I like “Knock Softly…” because it’s both intriguing and implies there’s more mysteries to come.

    1. Thanks Claire,
      It seems most people like the title as is. I may need to rethink keeping it.

  3. Thanks, John. That’s two votes for no changes.

  4. I wonder if the percentages shifts in steps. The title and cover art is critical to the casual browser to get them to pick up the book out of the crowd. From there importance lay with the description and opening page. But I agree, the title is huge across different mediums. Knock Softly is an “eye” catcher 🙂

  5. The title is a portal into the content. Maybe there’s a shifting percentage. Before and after you read, it’s all about the title. In the midst of losing yourself in the story, you are married to the content. Knock Softly expresses both the suspense of what lies ahead and implies the vulnerability of your story. Don’t change it!

    1. Originally, it was Knock Softly… with the three little dots (ellipsis) for continuance, so maybe it could be the first “part” of the title? Or, maybe the complete title with the ellipsis? Dunno, it’s a thought,and thanks for commenting.

    • Kook-Wha Koh on January 23, 2015 at 6:09 am
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    I enjoyed very much to read your story( not all of them ).
    I think the title is very important of the book. If we weigh the importance, it can be more than 50 %.

    1. Thanks, Kook-Wha

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