Roger C. Parker – How to write better titles for your books and blog posts
Nonfiction Authors Association Podcast | March 22, 2023
‘The title of your book has to promise value. Titles are the only way that prospective readers can judge whether or not a book is worth reading.’
-Roger C. Parker
The interview is on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music, and all the usual podcast channels and will also be streamed on Youtube, Facebook, LinkedIn
About Roger C. Parker
Let me help you discover the profits and fresh perspectives that writing a nonfiction book can deliver. I’ve written over 40 books, including Looking Good in Print: A Guide to Basic Design for Desktop Publishing plus several Dummies titles. How can I help you? firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-866-6046.
Nonfiction Authors Podcast: Roger C. Parker
Find the video podcast, show notes, links, quotes, and podcast transcript below.
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- # Book Title Tweet by Roger C. Parker
- Looking Good In Print by Roger C. Parker
- Inbox Detox by Marsha Egan
- Tim Ferris’ Four Hour Work Week Adwords article
- Quiet by Susan Cain
In this episode…
- How Roger got his start as a published author.
- Strategies for crafting an eye-catching book title.
- Two reasons why book titles and blog post titles are so important.
- List making techniques to use when brainstorming book titles.
- Seven simple tactics that always work when brainstorming book titles.
- How to blend titles with subtitles.
Hello and welcome to the interview series for the Nonfiction Authors Association. Today’s session is with Roger C. Parker and we will be talking about how to write better titles for your books and blog posts. I’m Carla King, your host, and I’m happy to have you with us today. This interview will last only 30 minutes and you can find the replay on our Nonfiction Authors Association website and social media platforms including YouTube, and wherever you listen to podcasts.
This week enjoy a Top Replay from the archives.
Stephanie Chandler 0:27
Today’s session is with Roger C. Parker. He’s an author of numerous best selling nonfiction books. And I’m excited because we’re going to discuss strategies for writing better titles for your books and your blog posts, which is something I know I’ve personally always struggled with. I’m Stephanie Chandler, your host. Very happy to have you joining us. Roger C. Parker is one of my favorite nonfiction authors and presenters, and he’s written 41 books, with worldwide sales of 1.6 million copies. His books include the New York Times Bestselling Looking Good In Print, and several of the For Dummies series. He’s the founder of Published And Profitable, and is also a frequent contributor to our Nonfiction Authors Association blog. If you haven’t seen it, please stop by. Rogers latest book is # Book Title Tweet: 140 Bite Sized Ideas For Compelling Article, Book, and Event Titles. And Roger will be sharing ideas for choosing titles for your nonfiction book. Roger, it is great to speak with you again. Welcome, and thanks for joining us.
Roger C. Parker 1:35
Thank you, Stephanie. I always enjoy talking to you.
Stephanie Chandler 1:39
Well, that feeling is mutual. You’ve done so many great things for authors. And I just want to throw out a plug for your website. publishedandprofitable.com is just an unbelievable encyclopedia resource for authors. So I hope you all check out Roger’s site–publishedandprofitable.com. So Roger, I’d love to start by–can you share with us a bit about your journey as an author?
Roger C. Parker 2:06
Well, I’d like to say that writing a book was an option. But it wasn’t an option. Writing my first book was a matter of necessity, it was a matter of survival. I had achieved a lot of success in retail advertising, but I was relatively unknown. And I couldn’t get–or basically, the truth comes out–I didn’t want another advertising job. I wanted to be self-employed. And the only way I could do this was to write a book that would establish a national presence. So I got my start by writing a premium book–or a work for hire book–for a corporation. I made them an offer they couldn’t refuse. I identified the shortest book I could write that would get my name established as a published author, knowing that this first 72 page book would lead to a trade published book. And within one week–absolute one week–of the premium book appearance, a publisher called me and asked me if I would be willing to do a trade book. And that led to Looking Good In Print. That sold over 300,000 copies in 30 different countries, and it was onward and upward from there.
Stephanie Chandler 3:30
Wow, that’s incredible. And you do this full time, which few authors can say that they truly work full time as authors. So I just wanted to segway from that into–having written over 40 books–I can’t even imagine–and coming up with book titles. I know for me, for my clients, it’s always tricky. I usually go through many iterations of a title before I land on one. And oftentimes it’s days before I go to press. So can you give us some insight into why titles are so tricky, yet also so important?
Roger C. Parker 4:17
Well, the insight–and I think you touched on why your titles are always good–is that you try out a lot of them. But in general, the title of your book has to promise value. Titles are the only way that prospective readers can judge whether or not a book is worth reading. Nonfiction titles are especially important. Biographies and history books aside, readers buy nonfiction books to solve problems. This is especially true in times like this, where discretionary expenses are carefully considered before buying books. So the title of your book has to promise to solve a reader’s problem, or help readers achieve a goal. Your book has to resonate with your potential reader by offering a compelling benefit or reward for buying.
Fiction books are read for style and pleasure. But nonfiction books–especially those that are in the business category, or in self help–they’re chosen to help readers solve a problem or achieve a goal. In addition, there’s even more. Book titles play a big role in determining the success of your book cover. The shorter your title, and the shorter the words in the title, the bigger the type on the book cover will be–creating a billboard effect. Finally, in this day and age, it’s imperative that your book title is search engine friendly. It has to be loaded with the keywords and phrases your buyers are searching for, since more and more books are located by searching either on Google or on Amazon–even before readers enter a bookstore. So people buy books by their covers, and covers are created by good titles.
Stephanie Chandler 6:34
I love that you point out the billboard effect of a short title, but also the importance of long subtitles. Subtitle is where you can really get your keywords into the message, and build this promise statement into your book. How is your life going to improve because you read this book? It’s just spectacular advice. And kind of flashing back–I was just watching an interview with Brene Brown, and her book Daring Greatly just has this beautiful billboard cover. I love what they did with it. It’s simple but really powerful. So great point, Roger. Blog post titles are also as important. I really believe that. And how is that different from the importance of a book title? Why are blog post titles so important?
Roger C. Parker 7:29
Two ways. One is that if book sales are limited by discretionary income, blog readership is limited by time. I mean, none of us can possibly read every blog post that’s published each day in our field. So what we have to do is look at the blog post titles, and either make a read or non-read decision. So the element of promise–and I love your term, by the way, promise statement, that’s just such a wonderful phrase. So when time is at a premium–if you want your blog posts to be read, your blog posts have to have a strong promise statement. That in the time it will take a reader to read your blog post, they’re going to be rewarded by learning something that’s either going to help them solve a problem or achieve a goal. And then also, if you really hit a homerun with your blog post title–like a book title–you have a brand that can last for years. When you come up with a blog post, or a book post title, like Guerilla Marketing, for example–one that says everything you need to know, you have a brand that’s as important–or far more important–than your name.
Stephanie Chandler 9:00
That’s so true. I’m thinking about Marsha Egan–she’s a client of ours. And she wrote an article several years ago called Inbox Detox, on how to get control of your inbox. And it went viral. It launched a whole new revenue stream for her business, a whole new brand, all around that email that drives us all crazy. So you’re absolutely right–that is so powerful when you can create article and blog posts titles that capture people. I like to tell my clients to do prescriptive titles as well–0 ways to do something better. Those seem to really capture people’s attention. So lead us through some of your strategies for crafting titles.
Roger C. Parker 9:51
I think the main strategy is to start with lists. There are three types of lists you should make when starting to choose a book title. First, start by making a list of your ideal readers. Who do you want to read your book? What are their characteristics? What are their pain points, their goals, their problems? The more you identify and understand your readers, the more you can target your titles to their needs. Second, make a list of the benefits that your readers will gain from reading your book. And three, make a list of the competing books in your field. Your title has to position your book apart from the other books in your field. No one wants to buy a ‘Me Too’ book–your book has to be obviously different. And to do this, you need to know your competition.
Here’s seven simple tactics that always work. One is to target your readers in your title. For example, What to Expect When You’re Expecting–that’s an evergreen book. It’s always a best selling nonfiction book. It’s been that way for years, and will be, because it targets the market. It says ‘Hey, if you’re expecting, this is what to expect.’ And also, the repeated words ‘expect’ and ‘expecting’ contribute to the resonance effect.
Use conversational language. So many people try to be creative and come up with something fresh and unique, but what they really should be focusing on is conversational language. What to Expect When You’re Expecting uses the same words that women would use for their best friend talking about changes in their life. Add specificity.
The third idea is to add specificity. And you touched on this a moment ago, when you talked about prescriptive. Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People–that’s a far more resonant title than just, The Habits of Highly Effective People. The habits–are there three of them? Are there a hundred of them? I couldn’t find the time to read seven. Another way of thinking in terms of specificity–Guerilla Marketing In 30 days. I mean, that’s just a wonderful concept–30 days. ‘I don’t know how to market now, and I’ve heard something about guerilla marketing. But I can master it in 30 days, and Al is going to tell me what to do in day one, day two, day three.’ So you know when you can expect the success.
Another approach–number four–would be to engage your prospective readers’ curiosity. Another evergreen title that I love to talk about is called, The Wealthy Barber. Wealthy barber? The terms are in opposition to each other. The readers want to know–how can a barber be wealthy? So it’s engaging right from the start. It’s a memorable, engaging term. Be outlandish, be provocative. And consider Tim Ferriss’ The Four Hour Workweek. You look at that, and you’re working a 60 hour workweek, and you say, ‘The four hour workweek? This guy–what’s he smoking? And how can it be true?’ So you turn the cover over to see how it could be true, or you read a little more. So be provocative, be outlandish, and just break through the boredom barrier, and make your title stand out.
Wordplay. Pay attention to the way your title sounds. Alliteration always works, as countless movie titles and TV shows. Words that work is an example. Or use a gerund, like Writing White Papers, to imply that action has begun. Or start your title with an imperative verb, Speak and Grow Rich. Own your title. Create a title based on familiar words used in new or different ways.
YOUtility. Jay Baer has recently written a book about content marketing, and helping your market accomplish goals. And we all know what utility is. But he’s created a memorable brand that he owns by making it Y-O-Utility. Nancy Duarte has written a great book about presentations called slide:ology. We know what ‘-ology’ means–it means the study of something. So own your title by basing it on another word. And finally, position your titles relative to their competition. Are you writing for experts or for dummies? If you’re doing a cookbook, is it for New England seafood lovers, or for Pacific Northwest salmon recipes? So position your titles for your readers and for the level of expertise that they have.
Stephanie Chandler 15:56
Wow. Roger, I can always count on you to just give us great information. That was fabulous. I wanted to jump on the mention of Tim Ferriss and his Four Hour Workweek. I read somewhere that one strategy that he used when coming up with titles he came up with–I think it was two or three sample titles, and then he invested in Google ads to see which titles got the most clicks. Have you heard about this?
Roger C. Parker 16:27
Actually, yes. He’s a scientific author. He doesn’t write what he wants to write. He writes what readers want. And he extensively tested not only the titles of the book, but the titles of each chapter. I mean, he hasn’t been rewarded with great success, because he’s a scientific person who tested it all. There was an article in Fast Company about this. And if anyone wants to do this, ask Stephanie or me and I’ll send Stephanie the link for this blog post.
Stephanie Chandler 17:13
Well, that’s fascinating. I hadn’t heard all of that. I just thought that was a really smart way to figure out how the public reacted to his title. We do have a question from Westminster BC on the line.
[Caller 1] 17:30
Hi. My name is Tamela.
Stephanie Chandler 17:37
Tamela, welcome. What question do you have for Roger?
[Caller 1] 17:40
Thank you so much. I do have four questions. So please tell me what I should shut up. I have no problem with that. But they’re actually referring to what you said. And I didn’t catch them. First off, may I please have your website? I didn’t catch that exactly.
Roger C. Parker 17:58
It’s Published and Profitable. Spelled out publishedandprofitable.com.
[Caller 1] 18:07
Beautiful. Thank you so much. You were talking in the beginning about a book that you really loved. And it was an author that was a female, and before the conference call began. Again, I didn’t catch that.
Roger C. Parker 18:25
Susan Cain? Is that it, Stephanie? Her book is called Quiet.
[Caller 1] 18:34
That was it. Thank you so much. And then also, I certainly would love to get that blog post link that you were just discussing prior to my phone call to you.
Roger C. Parker 18:46
Okay, it’s a pretty long one. So if you just drop a note to roger@publishedand profitable.com, I’ll immediately send you the link. You could search the name Tim Ferriss on my blog, Published And Profitable, and that post would probably show up. But either way.
[Caller 1] 19:12
Beautiful. Last one, if I have time. There was a book that you referred to–something like bearing it greatly. I apologize.
Stephanie Chandler 19:19
Oh that was Daring Greatly by Brene Brown.
[Caller 1] 19:24
Daring Greatly. Okay, you know what–I’m done. Other than thanking you both very much.
Stephanie Chandler 19:32
Thank you. Alright. Very good. So, all this great title stuff. We talked briefly about subtitles in books. Can you just talk a little bit more about–how do you blend those punchy titles with the subtitles?
Roger C. Parker 19:45
Well, you think of it as a tease, or a setup. You have a short title that can be very, very big on a page–like Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, or Predictably Irrational, by Dan Areily. Now Predictably Irrational is perfect because it’s opposites. It’s engaging. How can something be predictable if it’s irrational? But then there’s a subtitle that explains what the big words or what the title is. In the case of Dan Areily, it’s the hidden causes of irrational behavior. ‘Oh, okay, now I get it.’ So you want to think of it as a billboard, followed by a footnote. Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg–you mentioned that book, Stephanie. The Power of Habit–wow. Short, big. And then he goes on to explain that your daily routine–the habits of your daily routine–determines your success.
So I think that the title makes the statement, presents the challenge. And the subtitle amplifies a search engine appeal, repeats the benefit, or determines or adds some qualifiers. For example, Looking Good In Print. The subtitle, which was so important, was, ‘A guide to basic design for desktop publishing.’ See, the big thing is, there have always been books about graphic design. And they’ve always sold three to five thousand copies. They always cost 50 bucks, and they were like, Great Letterheads of The Western World, or, How to Use Type For Posters. Well, basic design meant, ‘Oh, I don’t have to know anything. It’s basic.’ And then for desktop publishing, we were all–in those days–being given copies of PageMaker, and they told us to make per day newsletters. So the subtitle explained wha’s looking good in print, which was what the benefit statement was all about.
Stephanie Chandler 22:41
Fabulous. And I’m curious what your experience is in writing a new book. Do you develop the title before you write? Or is it a process? You have a working title, and it changes during the writing process. How does that work for you?
Roger C. Parker 22:54
Well, what works for me–and again, I hit a home run the first time out, without knowing what I was doing. Because I was arguing for different titles. And so I made my list, I came up with all of the ideas. But then, when you put in time, and invest the time thinking about titles, sleeping about titles, talking about titles, dreaming about titles, it’ll happen accidentally. I mean, that’s what happened with me with Looking Good In Print. I was writing a memo to the publisher about a different title. And I was just, ‘Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, the nice graphic book,’ or something like that. And then the words Looking Good In Print came on the screen by themselves. And the subtitle immediately followed–a guide to basic design for desktop publishing.
Now, the only reason I’m sharing this is–I thought this was my own strike, or my own little breakthrough. But I was talking in one of my interviews with Sarah Susanka, who wrote one of the finest book titles ever called The Not So Big House. And The Not So Big House turned into a series of nine books about designing houses for living, rather than for architectural awards and prestige. And she had the same thing–she wrote the whole book, and as she was writing the introduction, she found that The Not So Big House just showed up on the screen. So I encourage you–start early working on your titles, make your list, try out different titles, test your titles and subtitles, analyze titles everywhere–magazine covers at Barnes, blog RSS feeds, television and movie titles. Analyze the titles of the Top 100 Amazon books, sensitize yourself to what works best, and then just wing it, because then it’ll come out. It will come out, and it’ll be great.
Stephanie Chandler 25:35
And you recommend sharing those titles with others to get their opinions?
Roger C. Parker 25:39
Yes and no. Sharing a title with family and friends isn’t gonna do any good, because they’re prejudiced. They want to be supportive. But you can’t depend on experts either. There are no expert radars that can help a professional in the book industry predict a title’s success. The only people you can trust are your prospective book buyers. And they’re likely to be found among your current clients and prospects. So you have to test your titles. But now it’s so easy because all you have to do is use free online resources like SurveyMonkey to test your title.
Though my closing comment is this–I interviewed Paul Brown, he was the co-author of a book that was a best selling book for about 15 years in the business field. The book was originally titled The $323,000 Customer. It was written by one of the leading automobile retailers in the country, who found that the lifetime value of treating customers right gave him a $332,000 figure for the value of a good customer. Everybody involved in that book loved the title. The publisher loved it, the editor loved it, both co authors loved it.
However, they ran a focus group–they surveyed their market. They had a group of people come in who liked business books, and asked them what they thought of the title. And the buyers–or the prototypes of the buyers–they hated it. They found it confusing. None of them had $323,000 to buy a customer. But out of that focus group came the ultimate title for this evergreen book–Customers For Life.
That’s why, when you do your title search, don’t just say, ‘Here are three titles. Which do you like the best?’ You have to start by saying, ‘This is what my book is about. Here are my three titles. Do you have another title that you would like to share?’ Because very often, that other title suggested by someone that you survey–someone on your email list, someone who shows up through a pay per click ad–they’ll come up with the title you need. So your wife or friends–they’re involved. They’re part of the problem. You need to find people like your ultimate, or your ideal clients that you can survey.
Stephanie Chandler 28:51
I love using social media for things like this–’What do you think about our new book covers? Vote on your favorite.’ That kind of thing. I could certainly see where you could do that with titles as well. Roger, you’re amazing. I can’t believe how quickly this time flew by. Where can our listeners learn more about you?
Roger C. Parker 29:14
The best place is Published And Profitable–there’s a blog there with about 1500 posts. And that will also lead you to my other guest posts on Stephanie’s post, and the Content Marketing Institute posts, and personal branding blog. Published And Profitable–that’s a good starting point.
Stephanie Chandler 29:37
And I just want to encourage everyone to follow through and check out Rogers stuff. He’s somebody who’s got a tremendous amount of information to offer. He does it in a low hype way. I’ve always had great respect for you, Roger, and just thank you so much for your time today.
Roger C. Parker 29:53
Thank you, Stephanie.
Carla King 29:56
And thank you to our listeners for joining us today and every week. For a list of guests and topics just check our schedule on the site, use your favorite search engine, or better yet, sign up for our mailing list at NonfictionAuthorsAssociation.com.
Quotes from our guest
‘The title of your book has to promise value. Titles are the only way that prospective readers can judge whether or not a book is worth reading.’
‘When you put in time, , and invest the time thinking about titles, sleeping about titles, talking about titles, dreaming about titles, it’ll happen accidentally.’
‘I encourage you–start early working on your titles, make your list, try out different titles, test your titles and subtitles, analyze titles everywhere.’
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