Picking The Perfect Book Title
by Tucker Max
The title of your book is–by far–the most important book marketing decision you’ll make.
Shockingly, there’s little good guidance out there on the right way to think about titling your book. The few blogs that address this decision offer advice that is:
- Trite – “Go with your gut!”
- Superficial – “Browse bookstores for ideas!”
- Actively harmful information – “Don’t spend too much time on it.”
They’re all wrong.
Just like companies spend millions on naming new products, and blogs spend hours testing different titles for their posts, you should spend serious time and energy finding the right book title.
This is a very important decision, one you need to think about and get right to ensure your book has the best possible chance of success.
Why Do Book Titles Matter?
The title is the first piece of information someone gets about your book, and it often forms the reader’s judgment about your book.
Let’s be clear about this: A good title won’t make your book do well. But a bad title will almost certainly prevent it from doing well.
Based on loads of empirical research and our decades of experience in the book business, we have a pretty clear picture of what happens in the mind of a potential reader when evaluating a book. They consider these pieces of information about a book, in this order (assuming they come across it randomly in a bookstore or browsing on the internet):
- The title of the book
- The cover of the book
- The back cover copy (the book description copy, if it’s online)
- The flap copy (or the reviews, if it’s online)
- The author bio (depending on where it is)
- The book text itself (or they use the “see inside” function to read a few paragraphs)
- The price
The title is the first thing the reader sees or hears about your book–even before the cover in most cases–and getting your title right is possibly the most important single book marketing decision you’ll make (even though most people don’t think about it as marketing).
The iconic example of the importance of a book title is the title change that led to an obscure book becoming a #1 best-seller. In 1982 Naura Hayden released a book called “Astro-Logical Love.” It bombed.
She then took the exact same book, changed a small amount of the content, and re-issued it with a different title, “How to Satisfy a Woman Every Time…and Have Her Beg for More!“
That book became a massive cultural phenomenon and #1 best-seller. Same book, same content, just a different title. The take-away for you is simple and clear:
Spend time figuring out the best possible title for your book. It will determine a large part of what people think about your book, and thus, your book’s success.
The 5 Attributes Of Good Book Titles
A good title should have all of these attributes:
- Attention Grabbing
- Informative (gives idea of what book is about)
- Easy to say
- Not embarrassing or problematic for someone to say aloud to their friends
This should be pretty obvious. There are a million things pulling on people’s attention, and you need a title that stands out. A bad title is one that’s boring, or seems boring.
There are many ways to grab attention; you can be provocative, controversial, exciting, you can make a promise, etc. The point is your title should make people stop and pay attention to it.
Here is what #1 best-selling author Tim Ferriss says about titles:
The 4-Hour Workweek also bothered some people and was ridiculed by others, which I took as a positive indicator. It’s not accidental that Jay Leno parodied the book on-air — the title lends itself to it, and that was by design. You can’t have strong positive responses without strong negative responses, and beware — above all — the lukewarm reception from all. ‘Oh, that’s nice. I think it’s pretty good,’ is a death sentence.
This is not the same thing as grabbing attention (even though many people think it is). It’s much easier to get a reaction out of someone, and then be forgotten, than it is to get a reaction and be memorable.
Remember, a book title is not only the first thing a reader hears about your book, it’s the one piece of information that a reader has that leads them back to the book itself. If your book is recommended to them by a friend, and they can’t remember the title, then they can’t go find it in a bookstore or on Amazon.
Bestselling author Scott Berkun says it well:
Often [the title] is all a potential buyer ever gets to see, and if they can draw interest the book crosses its first of many hurdles in the improbable struggle of getting noticed. But titles only help so much. Most people hear about books the same way they hear about new bands. Or new people to meet. A friend or trusted source tells them it was good and it was called <NAME HERE>. The title at that point serves as a moniker. It’s the thing you need to remember to get the thing you want to get and little more.
Informative (Gives an Idea of What The Book is About)
This is the least crucial aspect for fiction books, but very important for non-fiction. The title, including the subtitle, should give the reader some sort of idea of what the book is about.
People aren’t going to do your work for you; the easier you make it for them to understand the subject, the more likely you are to draw in the people who could find your book interesting.
A good test is to ask yourself this question:
If you were to tell someone the title of your book at a party, would they have to ask what it’s about?
If so, that’s probably a bad title.
Also, don’t out-think yourself on your title. A title that is very clever or somewhat unclear signals that the book is for people who immediately understand the word or phrase – which makes people who don’t get it right away feel stupid, and thus less likely to buy the book.
By using a word or phrase that is either not immediately understandable by your desired audience, or doesn’t convey the point of the book, you are putting a huge obstacle in front of your success.
Easy To Say
This is closely tied to being understandable, but not the exact same thing. Using obscure or difficult to pronounce words are killers for titles. Tongue twisters and hard to say phrases reduce the likelihood that people will engage the book or say it out loud to other people.
This is a concept called cognitive fluency–to make it simple, it means that people are more likely to remember and respond favorably to words and phrases they can immediately understand and pronounce. We don’t want to go too far into the psychological explanations here, but the point is this: Don’t try to be too sophisticated at the risk of becoming obscure. It will only hurt your book.
Not Embarrassing or Problematic For Someone To Say It
It’s a basic fact of human psychology–people don’t like to feel stupid or socially awkward. If a book title is hard to pronounce, or more importantly, if it’s a phrase that sounds stupid when said out loud, it makes them far less likely to buy it, and they definitely aren’t going to talk about it to other people.
One of the most important things to think about when picking your book title is how well it facilitates word of mouth. Really, what you’re doing is thinking about how people will feel about saying this book title out loud to their friends. Does it make them look smart or stupid?
The worst possible title is one that makes someone sound stupid after saying it out loud. For example, if the book title is something like “Why Racism Is Great” no one is ever going to tell their friends about it. It doesn’t matter how good the book is, because they have to then face the scrutiny of why they even bought that book in the first place. Social context doesn’t just matter some, it matters a lot.
A great example is Ryan Holiday’s book Trust Me, I’m Lying. He originally wanted to call it Confessions Of A Media Manipulator (which became the subtitle), but was talked out of it by his publisher.
What happened? The title is catchy, but also immediately brands him as a liar–even though the point of the book is how the media system is set up so that it forces EVERYONE to lie, and he hates that and wanted to change it.
But think about the implications of saying this title out loud–you are, unconsciously of course, calling yourself a liar. It resulted in a lot of confusion and negative implications about the book that could have been avoided with a clearer title (this is also partly an issue of #3, making sure the title conveys what the book is about).
The Best Test of a Book Title
Here’s a great test as to whether or not you have a good book title:
Imagine one of your readers talking about your book at a party to other people. If you can see them confidently saying the book title aloud, and the people listening nodding and immediately either understanding what the book is about based on that (and perhaps a sentence or two of explanation), or asking for further explanation because it sounds interesting, then you’ve got a good title.
If you imagine any other reaction than this one, you need to re-think your title…and probably change it.
Remember, so much of book marketing boils down to word of mouth, and word of mouth is all about people signaling things to other people. You want your book title to inspire and motivate the right people to talk about it, because it lets them signal the right things to their friends.
Does Your Book Need A Subtitle?
It depends. If you’re doing a non-fiction book, then yes, probably so. If you’re writing fiction, then no, probably not. But in both fiction and non-fiction, you can make good case for the opposite, so it depends.
Books need a subtitle if it’s necessary to contextualize the subject alluded to in the main title. Typically, the subtitle tells the reader some combination of what the book’s central premise is, who the book is for, and what promise the book delivers on or what need it meets.
Some examples where subtitles help contextualize the title:
The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape The 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join The New Rich
See how the title hooks you by being interesting, and the subtitle explains the premise? Very well done.
Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead
It’s a bit long, but the same thing is going on here; the subtitle contextualizes and frames the title, which is clear, easy to understand and say.
This originally had a subtitle, “Adventures In The Culinary Underbelly,” but it was later dropped. No subtitle needed on this work of non-fiction, because the meaning is fairly clear, especially when paired with a picture of a chef on the front (and because it became very famous, which helps).
The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11
This is an example of a book where the subtitle is very important. That title could mean many things, but the subtitle quickly signals what the book is about and who it’s for.
Specific Steps To Finding A Good Book Title
Step 1: Understand Your Book And Your Goals
Obviously your book goals (building a brand, selling copies, etc) will determine what type of title you pick. If you want to build a brand out of your non-fiction book, then your title options are much different than if you want to publish a novel with a whimsical title.
Let’s examine all the functions your book title can serve, and the places it could potentially be used, before we walk you through the precise process of thinking up title ideas:
Functions A Book Title Can Serve
- To sell the book to readers in some way
- Establish the author’s authority in a subject
- Identify the Amazon/B&N listing
- Start a line of books
- Branding for a company or author or conference or course materials
- Advertising/Marketing the book
- Used in speeches, slides or other in-person activities
- Used in reviews, blog posts, articles, etc.
- It’s something the author has to say in all their press appearances
- Become a defining part of an author’s future bio
- Decorate the cover
- Used on t-shirts, flyers or other promotional material
The point of this whole list is simple: Know which of these goals are for your book, and make sure your title can serve those goals.
For example, if your goal is to build a brand, you need to make sure your book title is your brand. Dave Asprey’s first diet book is called The Bulletproof Diet, because that’s his brand: Bulletproof. The book is about selling everything around the book, not just the book itself.
A memoir, on the other hand, is about catching people’s attention with the title, and making them curious. A great example is Dave Eggers’ memoir, A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius. The title is so audaciously overstated that it makes you think, “Is this guy kidding?” and you want to know more about him and the book. It catches your attention, just like a memoir title should.
Step 2: Brainstorm A Bunch Of Potential Titles
This step is simple.
Spend at least a few days writing down every single title idea you can think of.
Telling someone to brainstorm is like telling someone to “be creative,” meaning that it’s not an easy thing to describe. That being said, we will will list every possible way we know of to find a good book title, complete with examples (remember, these techniques are not just for your main title, they will be the basis for your subtitles as well).
These are just some best practices for coming up with title ideas. We don’t know of any titles that can incorporate all of these, but they are all potentially effective ways to go with titling books:
Use clever or noteworthy phrases from the book: This is very common in fiction, and can work well with novels. It also works well with non-fiction books, where the concept of the book can be summed up quickly or with one phrase.
- The Black Swan
- Lecturing Birds On Flying
- I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell
Use both short and long phrases: We usually start with a really long title and work our way down to much shorter phrases. The goal is to have the main title be as short as possible–no more than 5 words–and have the subtitle offer the context and put in important keywords.
Use relevant keywords: For non-fiction especially, searchability matters. You want to make sure that when someone searches for the subject or topic of your book, it will come up on Google and Amazon. But it’s a balancing act, because you don’t want to sacrifice the authenticity of the work for what looks and feels like a search string query.
If you are unsure of this, go look on Amazon and see how often subtitles and titles are use additional keywords to attract more search engine traffic.
- The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons In Personal Change
- Mindset: The New Psychology of Success
- Productivity: Maximise Your Productivity, Increase Your Productivity, Achieve Success and Stop Procrastination
Make a promise of a benefit: Some of the best titles promise to help readers achieve a desired goal or get some wanted benefit. They specifically call out to an end result that people want:
- How To Win Friends and Influence People
- Getting Things Done
- Think And Grow Rich
Be simple and direct: Some of the very best titles are just basic statements about what the book is. There is nothing wrong with this–it can work well, especially for strictly instructional books.
- Getting Past No
- Steve Jobs
- The Power Of Habit
Target an audience: As previously mentioned, people use titles to judge if the book is for them. Part of helping people understand this can be directly targeting them in your title. You can target specific audiences by naming them, or by describing their characteristics. This works especially well if you have a series of books, and then do versions targeted to specific niches.
- What to Expect When You’re Expecting
- Physics For Future Presidents
Offer a specific solution to a problem: This is very popular in the self-help and diet genres. Basically, you tell the reader exactly what problem your book solves in the title. This is sort of similar to the promise of a benefit, but not the exact same thing; a benefit is something additive, like being sexy. A solution to a problem takes away a negative, like losing weight.
- Man’s Search for Meaning
- 6 Ways to Lose Belly Fat Without Exercise!
- Secrets of Closing The Sale
Use numbers to add credibility: Specifics, like numbers, add credibility and urgency to your titles. The can provide structure for your information, or they can make hard things seem easier. Specificity enables people to engage the idea in a more concrete way, and gives bounded limits and certainty on time frames as well.
- The 48 Laws of Power
- The Five Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts
- The 21 Irrefutable Laws Of Leadership
Pique the reader’s curiosity (but withhold the answer): Using statements that seem to be impossible, unusual contrasts, or paradoxes can make readers curious about what is in the book. The idea is to make a claim or statement that seems a little farfetched or fantastical, but promises delivery. This is very popular now with headline writing on sites like UpWorthy and ViralNova.
The iconic recent example of this with books is one we already mentioned The 4-Hour Workweek. Everyone wants to know how to work 4 hours a week, except it seems impossible. So you pick up the book to see what that guy is talking about.
- Networking Is Not Working
- 10% Happier
- Who Moved My Cheese?
Use metaphors or symbols associated with the themes in your book: Humans think in symbol and metaphor. Using these powerful devices can help you create a title that really resonates.
The iconic metaphor-based series is the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” series. The title signals the warm, nurturing feeling that is associated in our culture with chicken soup, which is what you get when you are sick, and connects it to something else–stories that nurture your soul.
- Lean In
- The Untethered Soul
Use alliteration: Alliteration is just using the same letter at the beginning of all or most of the words in your title. This makes things easier for humans to remember.
- The Mighty Miss Malone
- A Storm Of Swords
- The Pop-Up Paradigm
Alter a popular phrase: This is pretty common in book titles and tends to work pretty well–taking a famous phrase and altering it in a way that makes sense for you book. This works because it’s close to something people know, but not exactly the same thing.
- The War of Art
- Assholes Finish First
Use slang: Slang can work really well, especially if it’s used in a way that is non-intuitive but also novel.
- Ain’t Too Proud To Beg
- No Mopes Allowed: A Small Town Police Chief Rants and Babbles about Hugs and High Fives, Meth Busts, Internet Celebrity, and Other Adventures
Try cliche formats (or reversing them): There are a ton of book naming tropes that some people say to avoid. We don’t think you should avoid them if they make sense for your book, or if you can reverse them in novel ways. Any of these work well:
- The Art of [TOPIC]
- The Myth Of [TOPIC]
- Confessions of [TOPIC]
- How to [TOPIC]
- The Joy of [TOPIC]
- The End of [TOPIC]
- The Art of Racing In The Rain
- The Myth Of Male Power
- Confessions Of An Economic Hitman
- How To Train Your Dragon
- The Joy of Sex
- The End of Science
Consider coining a phrase or new word: This is very helpful, especially if you want to create a brand or company or extended product line out of your book. The problem with this is that it’s not an easy thing to do. Many authors try to create new words; few succeed, so try this sparingly.
Use Amazon/Goodreads/Wikipedia for inspiration: If you’re feeling stuck, you can always go look at how other books are named.
- Wikipedia’s list of the best-selling books of all time
- Goodreads list of best book titles
- Amazon’s current best-selling books
Try Random Title Generators: Look, I’m not going to tell you these are great ways to find book titles. But sometimes people get desperate, and this is something you could try if you ran out of other options:
Some sites to check out:
Use copywriting manuals for ideas: If you are truly stuck and cannot think of anything, read some books about copywriting. They are not specifically about book titling, but copywriters have to understand the sell triggers for people, and they will give you tons and tons of examples. These are three of the best out there:
- POP!: Create the Perfect Pitch, Title, and Tagline for Anything
- The Ultimate Sales Letter: Attract New Customers. Boost your Sales.
- Advertising Headlines That Make You Rich: Create Winning Ads, Web Pages, Sales Letters and More
Step 3: Pick Your Favorites & Test Them
At this point you should have a long list of title ideas. If you don’t, go back and keep brainstorming until you have at least 10-20. Once that is done, you can move on to the next step: testing your titles.
I cannot emphasize how important this next step is. Everyone has opinions on book titles. Most of those opinions are stupid and wrong.
Even people who get PAID to come up with book titles (editors, publishers, etc.) are usually very bad at it.
It’s easy to express an opinion about a book title. It’s harder to empirically test that opinion with objective data, because that could show your opinion is wrong. Fight the feeling to go with your gut, and use the simple and easy tools that exist to get some data. Don’t let ego or creative preciousness get in the way of the best marketing decision. We often find that what we think will be the most popular title lags back in 3rd or 4th place.
Here’s one of the keys to testing your titles: test both the main title and subtitle, and test them in many different iterations. Usually what you’ll find is most things test about the same, while there will be one thing that clearly tests better as a title, and another that clearly tests best as a subtitle.
- This is a great piece about the step-by-step process of using Google Adwords to test a title.
- If you have a large audience already, you can also use Survey Monkey.
- For real customer feedback, I recommend using Pickfu.
- I would also recommend Google Survey. This is real market testing of real people, and can be done fairly cheaply.
Step 4: Make Sure The Title Is Not Already Popular
No, you cannot copyright titles. Technically, you can call your book “To Kill A Mockingbird” or “Lord Of The Rings” or even “The Holy Bible.”
That being said, copying a popular book’s makes it VERY hard for your book to stand out, and pretty much guarantees a lot of negative reviews from people who are not getting the book they expected to get.
Step 5: Listen To The Results
I know this might seem ridiculous to say, but listen to the results you get. Or at the very least, if you know you aren’t going to listen to the results, then don’t run the test.
Step 6: Check The Results Against Your Goals
Here’s the rub with testing: it can be wrong, especially if you run it wrong.
Remember the example I gave above about Ryan Holiday and his title, Trust Me, I’m Lying? Well, that one tested the best out of 6 potential titles.
But not so fast. The problem is that he ran the test in such a way that it was not well representative–most of the results came not from Google Adwords, but from surveys he gave to his friends and readers who knew him well. Biased results.
Ryan relied too much on the data, and not enough on the knowledge around the data, and a careful consideration of how that title would be interpreted by other people in the media. He didn’t really think about his goals, whether that title served all of his goals, and most importantly, how the title would sound to people who didn’t know him when they heard it out loud at a cocktail party?
This is a lot of information to take in, we know. But our goal was to give you everything you needed to be able to effectively title your book. Too many authors spend too little time on this or don’t know how to make the right decisions about titles.
We’ve turned our high-touch process into a book that anyone can use to go from idea to professionally published book in a fraction of the time it normally takes. Check it out here.