A good title for your nonfiction book is essential. The title will make or break the sales of your book. The purpose of the title and the subtitle is to cause the reader to flip over and read the description on the back of the book, and the purpose of the copy on the back cover is to create interest and cause them to open the book and read the table of contents. The goal of the table of contents is to create enthusiasm and encourage the reader to then read the first chapter of the book. The last paragraph of the first chapter should be filled with the promises your book is going to deliver on, and if you do it all right the result will be an excited reader who wants to read the rest of the book. But it all begins with an excellent title and subtitle.
When I wrote my first book in 1994, I was lucky enough to have the support of Melvin Powers in producing it. Melvin Powers was a prolific marketer and genius in the book publishing business. By the time I met Mr. Powers he had written numerous books and published some of the bestselling titles in self-help and psychotherapy (making millions of dollars in the process). His simple advice is a rule that I still follow to this day: “Make the title an explanation of what is inside your book. Nothing more, nothing less.” Mr. Powers favored titles with How-To, questions, and listicles (a title with a list in it, like Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover). Some of the bestselling books that he had either written or published include A Practical Guide to Self-Hypnosis, How to Get Rich in Mail Order, Three Magic Words, Psycho-Cybernetics, and A Guide to Rational Living (by Albert Ellis).
To this day, I still prefer titles that clearly tell the reader exactly what the book is about. Some of my bestselling book titles are Excellence in NLP and Life Coaching, The Seven Most Effective Methods of Self-Hypnosis, and Counseling People Who Have Killed Other People. The titles are to the point without being overly long, are unambiguous, and capture the attention of the target audience.
If you are writing a non-fiction book, you will want to create a title that does not require deciphering a code to understand. Catchy, cutesy wordplay or metaphors do not help catch your target audience or clearly explain what the subject of your book is. The potential reader’s subconscious mind only has a moment to decide if they will continue their search or stop to read your description and buy the book. There are some exceptions like the bestselling book “Who Moved My Cheese?” but the title phrased as a question is so ridiculous that it demands enough curiosity for readers to learn more (and of course, the subtitle to the book make it crystal clear that the topic is about change in the workplace). There are many more examples of times where this strategy didn’t work than when it did, and I don’t recommend it.
If you are writing a non-fiction book such as a How-To book, an inspirational book, self-help book, textbook, or other similar non-fiction book I am going to suggest you keep it simple. Another advantage of simplicity is that when you title your book exactly what the subject of your book is, you gain organic keywords when people use a search engine to look for book on the subject.
There are five main questions for you to consider in titling your non-fiction book:
Is the title clear and does it describe the overall subject of the book? You want a potential reader to know without a doubt that the book they are looking at is going to speak to them.
Is the title short enough? More than 7 words becomes a cumbersome title. There are exceptions to every rule, but the shorter the better.
Is the title interesting? It does not need to be interesting to everyone, but someone who is seeking help in your niche it going to find “how-to” or listicle such as the Three Magic Words or The Seven Most Effective… to be interesting.
Does the title use keywords? Are the words in the title being searched in Google, Amazon, and other search engines? If they aren’t, you’ll have a hard time picking up prospective readers in search of a book on your subject.
Is your book free of trademarked terms? It is important to avoid brand names, trademarked terms, etc. in your title. One of our class members used the word “Superhero” in his book and it was rejected by Amazon based on DC Comics and Marvel Comics claim to the term. You can always check TESS to determine if the words you are using have a trademark on them. Trademarking does only protect terms for certain and specific purposes, and your use might be a legitimate use, but you may still end up fighting Amazon, Ingram, and others for the right to use a trademarked term, so it is easier to simply avoid these problems in the first place.
I also prefer positive titles for a book. Just as I was writing this blog I got a call from my longtime friend Seth-Deborah Roth who is writing a book on health and disease prevention. We decided an attention getting and clear title for her book would be How to Avoid a Miserable Death. As a nurse she has decades of experience of caring for people in the late stages of avoidable illness. The title, while provocative, is positive because while it has the term “miserable death,” it is clear the promise of the book is “avoidance” of that death, and that is a positive goal.
If you can add some promise to the reader into your title, it makes it even better. In the example above, there is a clear promise made to the reader that this book would teach them how to do something important to them.
Here are some examples of bestselling (fiction) book titles that were changed from the original less compelling title:
- All the President's Men (At This Point in Time)
- The Great Gatsby (The High-Bouncing Lover)
- Roots: The Saga of an American Family (Before This Anger)
- War and Peace (All’s Well That Ends Well)
- Gone with the Wind (Tomorrow is Another Day)
It is also important to avoid cute or alternative spellings, wordplays, or other literary creativity in the title. These become misspelled when people look for your book and somebody else’s book very well may be the result they end up with.
Now you know the importance of picking a good title for your book and some of the key questions to ask yourself as you develop your title. In my next post I will discuss subtitles, which are really an extension of the title and provide clarity for the prospective reader.