How to Choose a Title for Your Memoir

An email from my editor showed up in my inbox last week.

Subject line: "Title Talk."

The marketing team had concerns about the title of my coming out later in life memoir. They were worried that a book called Graveyard of Safe Choices could potentially sound "like a real bummer." And my book is anything but. It's a hopeful story about finding the courage to leave the graveyard of safe choices, not wallow in it.

I loved my title! I had gone through many other working titles and thought I had finally landed on a winner. After all, it was the title that landed me a book deal.

But the more I sat with the feedback on my title, I realized that the marketing team was right.

Book buyers are heavily influenced by titles and cover art. So it was really important to get my title right and not settle for something that was potentially "a bummer." And the cover designer was waiting on the right-fit title so she could design the right-fit cover!

Plus, we were at the eleventh hour!

Here's how we landed on my new title, and here's how you too can find your right-fit title.

#1: Understand why your title matters. You want it to communicate something important about your story. A good title (and subtitle) makes the reader curious—but not confused—and it certainly shouldn't mislead.

Graveyard of Safe Choices did communicate something important about my story—it's about a life that had been marked by safe choices and having to make a decision whether I was going to continue on that path or leave the graveyard behind ... Which I thought was implied in my title, but apparently not.

#2: Brainstorm and make a list of at least ten titles. Twenty or thirty is even better! Just let loose and take off your editor's hat for now. I did this exercise early in my process and I did it again after I received the email from the editor.

Feel stuck? Start with one-word titles.

Look at how these one-word memoir titles sum up and describe their books perfectly—often with multiple layers of meaning:

Go beyond one-word titles. Look at the books on your shelf and see if any titles inspire you.

Here are some of my favorite titles by queer memoir authors (love the double-entendres!):

Here are some other fantastic titles that are both provocative and nail the point of their respective stories:

#3: Narrow your list to your top five favorites and do some research. Go to Amazon and check to see if there are any books in your genre with the same titles. If yes, that's not necessarily a problem—titles can't be copyrighted. But you might want to consider tweaking your title or subtitle, especially if the other book is similar to yours in terms of the story.

There were no other books named Graveyard of Safe Choices, and apparently there still aren't. :)

#4: Phone a friend. Test out your titles/subtitle subtitle combinations with 3-5 trusted friends, ideally people who could be your ideal reader. Does one title emerge as a clear favorite? Are there some that people strongly dislike?

Note to those of you who might worry about imposing on friends: Generally, people LOVE to weigh in on titles! It's a fun way to get them engaged in your process. We do this exercise inside my Write Yourself Out Foundations course and it's consistently a crowd favorite!

#5: If time is short, do more crowd-sourcing, but do it judiciously. I came up with a few title ideas after receiving that "Title Talk" email—none of which I was crazy about!

I reached out to a small cohort of my book coaching colleagues and also to my local writers' group and together we brainstormed different titles and subtitles. Three titles emerged as strong possibilities! Hooray!

I sent those three titles to my editor and minutes later he sent a gushing email to me:

The team LOVED one of the titles: The Only Way Through Is Out.

The editor checked Amazon and there weren't any other books with the same title!

They loved the double-meaning and were just mad that they hadn't come up with the title first.

So The Only Way Through Is Out is the title of my memoir!

I didn't find my one-word title but I got my double-entendre.

And I can't wait to see what the cover designer comes up with!

When it comes to choosing a title for your memoir, here's what's important:
  • Titles matter, and it can be hard to get them right.
  • Think curious, not confusing.
  • Field testing your titles is important.
  • Do your best to come up with your right-fit title—and don't get too attached to it!

And of course: Be aware that there's a high likelihood that your title will change as you better understand what your story is about—and even at the eleventh hour after you have a book deal!


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