Book titles are so challenging that you could easily spend as much time thinking of your title as you spend writing your entire book. Those few words are vital to the sales of your book, however.
If you’re self-publishing, it’s all on you to come up with a great title and subtitle. If you’re writing a book proposal, the traditional publishing house that buys your book will likely change your title. Still, the better your title in your proposal, the better chance you have of capturing the attention of a literary agent or editor. It will show that you’re a professional who has an understanding of the industry.
While there are no hard and fast rules, I’ve found that these title guidelines work most of the time:
1. Make it clear, not clever. Poetic, atmospheric, or provocative titles work well for fiction and memoirs, but not for self-help / how-to / instructional books. If the reader can’t tell from your title what they’ll get from your book, they’ll probably pass you by. “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business” by Charles Duhigg is a good example of a clear title and subtitle combination. So ask yourself: When I read my title and subtitle, can I immediately tell what the book is about? If not, go back to the drawing board.
2. Include at least one promise. The best titles promise readers something in the title or subtitle that they can immediately identify. “You Can Heal Your Life” by Louise Hay and “Think and Grow Rich” by Napoleon Hill are great examples. But be careful not to make an over-the-top promise. I wouldn’t buy a book called “The Secret to Making a Million Dollars in 6 Months” because I wouldn’t believe the author could deliver on that promise. Today’s readers can be skeptical, so keep it real.
3. Make sure your promise isn’t vague. If you promise the reader that they’ll make a million dollars or achieve a state of peace, it’s a good idea to briefly explain your method in your subtitle. Otherwise, their skepticism will take over. Wayne Dyer wrote a book called “Change Your Thoughts – Change Your Life.” The subtitle tells the reader his method for achieving that promise: “Living the Wisdom of the Tao.” We know from the subtitle that he’s going to use Taoism to teach them how to change their thoughts, which will in turn change their life.
4. Pay attention to rhythm and style between the title and subtitle. If your title and subtitle have the same rhythm or the same sentence structure, they’ll sound strange, even when read silently. Here’s another Wayne Dyer example: “Pulling Your Own Strings: Dynamic Techniques for Dealing with Other People and Living Your Life as You Choose.” First of all, notice the promises in that title and subtitle. But also notice how the title/subtitle would have changed if he’d left out “Dynamic Techniques.” You’d have: “Pulling Your Own Strings: Dealing with Other People…” The first word of both the title and subtitle would end in “ing,” which would make the rhythm and sound of the combo a bit static. So try to vary the rhythm and sentence structure from title to subtitle.
5. Use active, dynamic words and phrases, such as Discover, Uncover, Transform, Embrace, Become, Create, Let Go, Practical Guide, Dynamic Techniques, and Powerful Ways. Try to avoid passive words like “relevant” or “effective.” Numbers catch the attention of readers, too, such as: 5 Ways or 10 Strategies. Here’s one that uses this concept: “The 5 Levels of Leadership: Proven Steps to Maximize Your Potential” by John C. Maxwell. The title includes a number, and the subtitle uses the dynamic word “proven” with a promise to “maximize your potential.” (Remember point #2, though: Don’t use the word “proven” unless your principles really have been proven to work.)
6. Avoid tongue-twisters. You hope that you’ll be introduced to speak about your book at some point, so make sure the title and subtitle are easy to say out loud.
7. Check Amazon for titles that are similar to yours. Titles can’t be copyrighted, so it may not matter if someone else’s book has a similar title to yours. But you don’t want to use the same title as a big name author, even if you’re writing in a different genre. I also recommend avoiding using a similar title by an unknown writer if they’re writing in the same genre as you. Why set your readers up for confusion?
8. Test your title ideas with your target audience. There’s nothing wrong with asking friends for their opinions, but people outside the industry won’t know what makes a good book title. It’s better if you ask people who are likely to be your readers. If you already have an online following, for example, you could ask them to take a survey. Then, perhaps give them a short list of your title/subtitle ideas, and ask them: “Which of these titles would you be most likely to buy?” That question, rather than which one they “like” best, will give you the most accurate and useful answers.
Melanie Votaw has written 33 nonfiction books – 10 under her own name and 23 ghostwritten for such publishers as Hay House, Hyperion, Macmillan, Perseus, and more. She has developmentally edited more than 50 books, which have won 32 awards. She runs two robust group coaching programs for self-help authors called “Finish Your Book” and “Finish Your Book Proposal” to offer guidance and help them stay motivated during the writing process. Find her at FinishYourBookCoaching.com and RuletheWord.com.
Melanie will discuss this topic on our weekly teleseminar series November 14, 2018.
Did you know we host an annual Nonfiction Writers Conference? Check it out!