Of Terms and Titles

Last week, I bombarded you with a mega-ton of angst over the title of my Young Adult fantasy manuscript. The bottom line on that post? In its querying stage, the importance of a clever book title is insignificant compared to other aspects of the project (i.e., is the plot interesting and fresh? Is it well-written?), but a catchy, solid title can impart confidence to the querying writer in the marketability of their project. It might also show prospective agents and editors that the writer knows the category/genre well enough to choose a title that’s in line with market trends.

Now, about those trends…

NPR ran a feature a few weeks back which touches upon the idea that smart and effective marketing, especially when it comes to comping books, sometimes relies on aligning titles with those that are already successful in that genre. The story specifically examined the use of the word ‘girl’ as a marketing trend for adult women’s thrillers, based on the popularity of GONE GIRL. Because of its success, authors of female crime thrillers are reportedly encouraged to incorporate the word into their book titles. This clues the reader in to what type of book, in general, they are getting when they pick it up.

YA Book Title Wordle

Wordle of Words in 2013-2015 Young Adult Fiction Titles

When I decided to change my book’s title back in December, I took a cursory look at the themes and styles used by the most popular books in Young Adult speculative fiction. It seems I had the right idea, given the NPR feature, and let’s face it – emulating success in my writing market is a smart move. Notice that I said emulate, not imitate. I’d never be ballsy enough to title a YA dystopian thriller THE THIRSTY GAMES. However, it might behoove any new author struggling to come up with a title to pay attention to the types of words chosen, the way in which titles in their genre and category are phrased, and common themes.

To that end, I decided to do a bit of unofficial research and analysis, supported largely by the fact that I’m a Virgo, and Virgos love analyzing stuff. I didn’t spend weeks, or even days, on it, but it took many hours to wade through the information. Hours I could’ve used to binge-watch Jessica Jones or…oh, I don’t know…write, I suppose. Regardless, I’d like the fruits of those hours to be somewhat useful or enlightening to others, so here they are in a fresh-from-the-oven blog pie.

Let’s start with the boring externals: the basis of my information. I compiled a spreadsheet of Young Adult books from Goodreads’ Listopia, so my overall data is only as accurate as their lists. I’m not certain how those lists are ranked, though it seems to be a combination of number of ratings, stars of ratings, and votes by Goodreads members. According to Listopia, the lists are re-ranked every five minutes. This doesn’t make for an exact science, but since I’m not concerned with absolute ranking, the data works for my purposes.

I gleaned the titles in my spreadsheet from the 2013, 2014, and 2015 released-books lists, and took the top 200 books from each year, as ranked back in February 2016 (or, for a five-minute increment on one day in February – I don’t remember which specific five-minutes, so don’t ask.) Granted, according to the Listopia numbers, there are upwards of 1,400 – 1,500 books released in the Young Adult fiction category for each of those years, but I only have so much time and energy for a project that’s not billable. However, I felt that the top 200 rated books across three years would give me a good sampling of the market for this chunk of time.

I didn’t take time to break down each of the 600 titles by genre, either (though if someone wants to pay me a bucket full of money to do so, I can arrange it – that might reveal even more illuminating information), but I found some common themes in titles I was familiar with or otherwise researched to check my theories on styles.

Here are a few I discovered:

Contemporary YA titles are centered – understandably – on relationships. For this reason, they tend to be the biggest users of pronouns: I, you, me, we, us, etc. The titles are usually suggestive of those relationships in a way that speaks to the setting or subject of the book, such as THE GEOGRAPHY OF YOU AND ME (long-distance relationship) or MY HEART AND OTHER BLACK HOLES (MC is a physics nerd). They also utilize clever twists on common expressions or turn of phrases. THE ANATOMICAL SHAPE OF A HEART (MC draws cadavers) is one of my favorite titles from 2015.

Speculative fiction books, on the other hand, like to dress themselves in evocative terms. Elemental words (fire and ashes were popular) corporeal terms (i.e., bones and blood) and intangible ideas (death, spirits, and shadows – which was the most commonly-occurring word, by the way) featured in several spec-fic titles, many times in pairings. More than twenty-three titles included combinations of two items that speak to elements in the book. The ETIQUETTE AND ESPIONAGE series, HOUSE OF IVY & SORROW, SALT & STONE, and ASH & BRAMBLE, among others, use this pairing concept to great effect.

(Side Note: I also have a sneaking suspicion that single-word titles, especially if they are adjectives or verbs, are likely to belong to speculative fiction books. I might even narrow that down to science fiction or dystopian genres, but I’d want to research that further before I say for sure. One hundred and eighty-nine titles were single-word titles, to include 34 preceded by “The”, if you want to know.)

The use of proper nouns in the title can also clue you into the genre of the book. Contemporary novels, for example, like to use character names in their titles. ELEANOR & PARK, BEING SLOANE JACOBS, and ME, EARL & THE DYING GIRL, are all contemporary fiction. However, if the book has a place name in the title, especially if it’s one you’ve not heard of, chances are its speculative fiction. Consider SHADES OF EARTH (science fiction), MAGONIA (portal fantasy), and THE CADET OF TILDOR (medieval fantasy.)

The idea here is that the general style of titles – along with book cover art, of course – serves as immediate short-hand to let you know what you are getting before you even pick up the book. Of course, there are always exceptions. I would have bet my prized “The Last Unicorn” tee-shirt that A THOUSAND PIECES OF YOU would be contemporary, but it’s a time-travel fantasy. PRISONER OF NIGHT AND FOG, and its sequel, A CONSPIRACY OF SMOKE AND BONE, have the title elements of a great urban fantasy. Nope, they’re historical fiction – no space ships or magic to be had. Despite the character names used in DOROTHY MUST DIE and DENTON LITTLE’S DEATHDATE, these titles are both fantasy books, while KALAHARI is a brutal contemporary novel.

There you have it – my totally unscientific and inexact analysis on Young Adult fiction titles. Now what exactly are you supposed to do with this quasi-knowledge? If you’re a writer, it may help guide you in choosing a title under which you can market your manuscript; a title that speaks to the specific genre of your book in terms of style. If you’re a reader, it may help you more quickly discern from the hundreds of titles on a library or bookstore shelf which books will be of interest to you.  Then again, perhaps you were already aware of these style trends, at least subconsciously, so maybe this just helps confirm what you didn’t realize you knew.

If this blog article does any of those three things, I’ll consider the time spent copying, pasting, sorting, analyzing and writing not wasted. In fact, not only will I count this article as valid writing time, but I’ll also feel entitled to binge-watch Jessica Jones now. If you need me, I’ll be in front of the TV for a while.

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