Titling your bestseller

What’s the secret for titling a serious nonfiction book? There is no secret. A host of writers—in books, blogs, and articles—give you the recipe without hesitation. And many of them are full of confidence that their titling formula will create a bestseller. One blogger proclaims “the five proven ways to create a bestselling book title.”

All of these writings are helpful, but of course no one knows the secret. The formula for success is still too mysterious. Even so, I find it helpful that publishing experts come at the challenge of titling from different angles. That way, when you’re wracking your brain to come up with a great title—clear, catchy, and cool—you have plenty of ways to approach the job.

One observation: Many writers err by deriving rules by studying and citing bestsellers. Problem is, bestsellers jump off the shelves for many reasons, sometimes least of all because of great titles. Oprah Winfrey sells lots of books, for example. Her current one: What I Know For Sure. Boring title, don’t you think? It will sell like crazy anyway

In any case, here’s a list of seven ways to come up with the best possible title:

1)   Start with keywords. Study titles in your genre. Catalog keywords relating to your book. Favor nounsand verbs. Invent metaphors. Use images and symbolism. Play on current figures of speech and look for double entendre. Mix and match until you come up with a shortlist of titles. The best ones have poetic resonance—appeal both to the intellect and emotions. After sleeping on your favorites, choose a shortlist of the clearest and catchiest.  Click here to read Rachelle Gardner’s description of this approach.

2)   Heed marketing. Search for market-savvy titles, those that readers will remember, make them curious, promise superior value, build your brand, make a good domain name, and of course reflect your message. Rob Eagar offers his “five proven ways.” As examples of questions to ask, he notes: “Is the title sticky, memorable, and easy to say out loud?” “[Is there] an answer to the reader’s ultimate question, ‘What’s in it for me’?” and “Would a reader feel cool if someone saw them reading a book with that title?”

3)   Mind your priorities. Keep first things first by considering Derek Lewis’s 5 Cs approach, a Maslow-like hierarchy of priorities in titling a book. Lewis advises authors to achieve Clarity before anything else. If you can do that, go up a level to make your title Compelling (pique emotions), Convenient (easy to say/remember), Clever (intriguing), and if you can do all of those, “Congruous” (useful for a book series).

I named my book on how to write a book, Stairway to Earth, a compelling, convenient, and clever metaphor. Lewis makes me wonder, though. Should I have instead named it by its subtitle, How to Write a Serious Book? The subtitle is obviously clearer. As Lewis says, “When all else fails: just call your book what it is.”

4)   Play to reader aspirations. Kathy Sierra, co-creator of Head First books, maintains that readers buy nonfiction books because, in some way, they expect the books to make them better—or to use her words, to give them “superpowers.” How is your book going to make readers better? Will they come to a new realization? Travel vicariously to enlightening places? Learn to build their own boat? Absorb critical lessons for building the next billion-dollar online company?

As Sierra says, “How is this [book] helping the reader kick ass?” The classic book reflecting this titling approach would be Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People—a title that’s not so compelling, convenient, or clever, but it sure does suggest you’ll acquire some appealing superpowers.

5)   Heed marketing—again! Marketing, not writing, creates bestsellers. Rededicate yourself to marketing goals. Roger Parker, with his “10 Commandments of Nonfiction Book Title Success,” offers another set of titling guidelines. An author, he says, should identify target readers so the title sounds like the book was written for them; differentiate the book from the competition—as simple as showing a solution that differs from what is offered by other authors; and choose a web-friendly title for online marketing.

Several authors have written books about the Benghazi disaster, for example, but Mitchell Zukoff, in his 13 Hours uses a title that implies a particularly close-up, action-packed account of the embassy attack, a key differentiating factor.

6)   Get feedback. Engage others to judge your ideas. Like all of us, you’ll be blind to many of your weaknesses. Your titles may be obtuse, convey unintended meanings, or come across as yawners or clichés. Besides polling your friends, take advantage of online tools. PickFu.com offers instant online feedback via its app for surveying a balanced mix of Americans. PickFu works by having you ask responders to choose between two titles, A or B. You then ask a second set of responders to choose between C or D. You ask a third set to vote for one of the two winners. PickFu charges $20 for fifty responses, and you get respondents’ comments.

If you’ve published previous books, today’s instant polling may make you wonder about past decisions. For example: Which title is best, Merchants of Virtue (the title I chose for my 2011 book) or Merchants of a New America (the one I didn’t)? A poll four years ago would have told me. If this kind of polling sounds like it would work for you, click here to read Tim Grahl’s description of how A/B voting works.

7)   Test salability. Make your book title the heading of an ad on Google by using Google Adwords. Make your subtitle the ad text. See which ad gets the most click-throughs. Bestselling author Tim Ferris followed this approach in titling The 4-Hour Workweek. Before the test, he favored one title, but he deferred to Google users and chose one that earned more clicks.

You can go a step farther, and after people click on your ads, you take pre-orders on a landing page for the chosen book. Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, took this approach. He logged book orders for months while writing the book, and then just before publication, he settled on the title that rang up the most pre-publication sales. Though complex, his process gave him actual data on which to base his titling decision. Of course, before you ask people to vote (or click) you have to come up with your shortlist of preferred titles. You also have to determine which search terms will trigger the display of your ad—a task aided by “Google Adwords Keyword Planner.”

Whatever your approach, give your unconscious mind plenty of time—months, at least—to come up with a shortlist of a half dozen promising titles. Feed your unconscious by frequenting bookstores. See which titles prompt you to pick up a book in your genre. Without looking at covers or authors, record appealing titles. After this window shopping, wait for the magic of your unconscious to suggest titles a day or week or month hence.

For fun, also try Lulu’s Titlescorer app. Using actual data on the wording of fiction titles and subsequent sales, it computes the probability that your chosen book title will become a bestseller. According to Lulu, Stairway to Earth, if it were a novel, would have a 63.7 percent chance of becoming a bestseller. This score suggests I did make the right choice, after all. But of course, whether this app works for nonfiction is unknown.

Again, if you can’t come up with a great title, go with a clear one. Clarity, as most writer teachers will tell you, is an author’s best friend. You may not wow your readers, but people will buy your book because it makes a clear promise—maybe even a promise of superpowers. For a great story on mixing of all these methods, click here to read about Jurgen Appelo’s experience. Appelo wrote Management 3.0 Workout, and he details how to apply titling science to succeed at a task that really ends up being an art—and not a secret at all..

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