Titling Your Manuscript For Submission: An Agent Weighs In

Artwork by Marcus Connor at Brainless Tales

A quick Google search will bring up a host of useful articles with tips on how to title your novel. Rather than regurgitate the information already easily available, this post will dig into my own personal (and I like to think professional) point of view and focus on those books that are in the manuscript phase, i.e. soon to be out on submission or wallowing in the slushpile.

As I evolve and grow into my occupation, I am surprised by how much I am continually learning and changing. Writing rules that I believed were absolutes in my first year are now not as important to me as writers who have clear longterm career goals. Genres/writing styles that I once thought to be marketable fall behind as marketing trends point me in a different direction. And the amount of time I spend on each submission, has dramatically fallen. Before you get indignant, hear me out. I know, more than ever before, what type of client I’m looking for and what kinds of projects I want. Eighty-five percent of the time I can tell from the query alone that we are not a good match. The other fifteen? Those will eventually get a closer look. They will queue in my inbox (hopefully not too long), waiting for the day I can muster up a few hours to examine them. When that day comes, first I have to recall why the submission is sitting there. Perhaps the author’s website or bio impressed me. Maybe their opening pages caught my interest or their particular writing style intrigued me. But if I have difficulty pinning down why I kept it, odds are I will pass. If it didn’t stick with me after percolating awhile, then I move on to those that did.

One of the biggest aspects of a submission that will help it stick in my memory is the title. If I remember the title, most likely I’ll remember the query, the writing, and the reason I’ve kept it around. And I’m going to boldly make the conjecture that most agents and editors would agree with me.

Titles that tend not to stick are those that are hard to pronounce or have made-up words (here’s looking at you SFF writers!). Long titles will be a problem as well, unless it’s a catchy phrase. In general if people give you a “huh” expression when you tell them the name of your book, time to rethink it.

The takeaway from this? Your title shouldn’t be a half-fast decision nor a personal choice (most titles will change a few times through the publishing process anyway, so you don’t want to get attached), rather it should be considered another tool to market your book, a piece of the submission whole package. Research the craft of titling your book as carefully as you are researching the agents you choose to query (operating under the assumption that if you are reading this, you are researching literary agents) and hopefully you will come up with a title will make your submission stand out in the slush.

And, given my baby girl has let me sleep that night, I’ll remember your submission.


  • Michael K. Eidson

    August 15, 2016 at 10:57 am Reply

    Nice article and especially timely for me.

    I’m one of those SFF-type writers who makes up words for my fiction. Based on excellent beta-reader feedback, I just finished editing my 108,000-word debut otherworldly-fantasy novel. And, yes, you guessed it, I’m researching agents — while also considering self-publishing. I’ve been thinking all along I’d self-publish regardless, but the write-up about you in Writer’s Digest has me pondering another option. Discovering that you’re handling several duologies and series has me pondering even harder. That my novel is written from the viewpoints of three female leads and features a strong female antagonist seems a big plus. A bunch of other qualities of my novel seem to fit your likes too, so you can see why I find you so attractive. As a possible agent. You knew that. Your picture is lovely too.

    My wife, who shares your first name, is not a fantasy reader. She tends to read mysteries or classics written by long-gone British authors. I ran a few prospective titles by her and she gave most of them that “huh” expression or said outright that she didn’t like them. She did like the ring of one of the titles. I trust her honesty about this, because she has no problem being critical of me. 🙂 Others on whom I’ve tested the titles have responded well to the same one too. It’s not hard to pronounce and contains nothing made-up. It’s four words long, of which two are “to” and “the.” So I think it might pass your test. I might query you in a few weeks and see if I’m right. Cheers!

    • Mary C. Moore

      August 24, 2016 at 6:49 pm Reply

      Glad the article was useful!

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