How To Write Book Titles for People & Robots

by | Jun 16, 2010


In advertising, it’s said, 80% of the effectiveness of your ad depends on your headline. Brian Clark of Copyblogger says

Your headline is the first, and perhaps only, impression you make on a prospective reader. Without a compelling promise that turns a browser into a reader, the rest of your words may as well not even exist. From a copy writing . . . standpoint, writing great headlines is a critical skill.

Book titles, meant to entice a reader into a purchase, need to be even more effective than headlines. But book titles often seem like an afterthought, or maybe a title the author has been carrying around in their head for many years. Titles can be chosen for any number of reasonable or completely frivolous reasons.

But the success of your book might well depend on your book title. Dan Poynter, the author of The Self-Publishing Manual, says

Selecting the title and subtitle will be the single-most important piece of copy writing you will do for your book. A great title will not sell a bad book but a poor title will hide a good book from potential customers. Both your title and subtitle must be a selling tool. They are the hook that help sales.

For instance, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was originally called Trimalchio in West Egg. Don’t you wonder what the book’s fate would have been if Fitzgerald had used his original name?

The Best of the Worst Book Titles

The Bookseller runs an annual award, the Diagram Prize, for the oddest book titles of the year. Here’s a list of the finalists for the 2009 award:

  • David Crompton’s Afterthoughts of a Worm Hunter (Glenstrae Press)
  • James A Yannes’ Collectible Spoons of the Third Reich (Trafford)
  • Daina Taimina’s Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes (A K Peters)
  • Ronald C Arkin’s Governing Lethal Behavior in Autonomous Robots (CRC Press)
  • Ellen Scherl and Maria Dubinsky’s The Changing World of Inflammatory Bowel Disease (SLACK Inc)
  • Tara Jansen-Meyer’s What Kind of Bean is This Chihuahua? (Mirror)

self-publishing, book design templates

The Winner

I’m sure you’ll be interested to know that Daina Taimina’s Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes took home the prize. If you think the book wasn’t worthy, consider the Product Description on Amazon: “Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes is a work of gargantuan proportions whose influence will be measured for decades to come.” So there.

Book Titles Are Serious Business

Rachelle Gardner wrote a useful post with some ideas on how to brainstorm your book titles, and she has several suggestions for practical exercises you can do. Here’s one example:

Nothing is off limits—write down anything you can think of that conveys anything about your book. Use visual words that suggest a scene. Other words that evoke an emotion. A sensation. A location. A question. You should have at least 100 words.

But here’s my idea. Once you get finished finding exactly the right title, stop and think about the world in which your book will be sold. Particularly for nonfiction books, one of the chief ways people will find your book is through search, specifically through online searches.

Since we know that careful study and use of keywords can be influential in how people find our books (as well as our blog posts, articles and other online writing) we can use this information to help guide us to better book titles.

Titles for Humans and for (Search) Robots

Here are some examples of titles that work well for both of your constituencies: the person browsing in a bookstore or at an online retailer, and the robots sent out by search engines to catalog the web. Take a look at these titles and see if you can spot the pattern, the way they were carefully crafted on both ends.

The Devil’s Casino: Friendship, Betrayal, and the High Stakes Games Played Inside Lehman Brothers
In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War
Black Wave: A Family’s Adventure at Sea and the Disaster That Saved Them
Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America
Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression
The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt,
Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance
The Last Empress: Madame Chiang Kai-Shek and the Birth of Modern China
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream
The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America

In each case, a punchy, evocative title grabs attention and attempts to create curiosity, suspense or interest in the reader. Then comes the subtitle. These are typically longer than the title and have two equally important roles to play:

  1. The subtitle has to adequately convey, at a glance, what the actual subject matter and scope of the book is.
  2. The subtitle also has to contain the one or two critical keywords that best represent your book.

While the title addresses the human browser, the subtitle has to flag the search engine robots with keywords that will turn up in any relevant search on your topic. Look through the list above again. In each case, the punchy title is followed by keyword-rich descriptions. Each subtitle is far more specific than its corresponding title. In fact, without the subtitles, many of these titles would tell you almost nothing about the book they were attached to.

As almost all book discovery moves to digital databases and online searches, more and more of your success will rely on your ability to alert searchers—both robotic and human—to the worthiness of your book when they search on relevant keywords for your subject area.

These are the same keywords to use in filling out bibliographic information for Books in Print on Bowkerlink, to incorporate in your catalog copy and any descriptions of the book you write, or any press materials, media releases or sales copy.

This combination of title and subtitle gives you the greatest chance of your book being found by exactly the right people. Put some really good thinking behind your choices—it will serve you well.

Takeaway: For nonfiction books, combine an attention-getting short title with a long, specific and keyword-rich subtitle to achieve the best discoverability for your book.

Resources

Rachelle Gardner on Rants and Ramblings: How to Title Your Book
Roger Parker on Personal Branding: 7 Book Title Ideas for Easy to Write Books
Dan Poynter on Parapublishing: Writing Your Book
Brian Clark on Copyblogger: How to Write Magnetic Headlines
Kelly Wallace on Suite101: Choosing High Ranking Article and Book Titles
The Bookseller: Spoons, Chihuahuas, and Autonomous Robots make Odd Title shortlist

Image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/simthom/

tbd advanced publishing starter kit

22 Comments

  1. Stace

    Hi Joel,

    Thanks for the informative blog post, as ever.

    Speaking of culture differences between English speaking peoples, Barbara Ehrenreich’s ‘Bright-Sided’ is retitled ‘Smile Or Die’ for buyers here in Australia. I wonder if you have any comments on how, or why, titles are sometimes changed for different countries. I’ve no doubt this is a complex science, but I wonder if Australians (and other countries, no doubt) got the brasher title because American audiences wouldn’t like to buy a book including ‘Die’ in its title…?

    If that’s the case, should we be mindful of culture differences when coming up with titles? This is all very complicated.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Stace,

      “Smile or Die” eh? As the home of thrillers, horror films, and every other form of violent entertainment I can think of, I don’t think the word “Die” was the decisive factor.

      But your point is quite good, as our globalized world makes cultural awareness more and more important. I’ve had similar discussions recently with typographers about how the conventions of bookmaking vary from country to country and influence what people consider “readable.”

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

      Reply
  2. mlouisalocke

    Dear Joel,

    In a recent post I did on establishing a brand, I discussed how useful my subtitle had been in making sure that people could find my book, Maids of Misfortune: A Victorian San Francisco Mystery, when searching for my sub-genre (in this case-victorian era mysteries). I am working on my second book-a sequel and the current title is Uneasy Spirits: A Victorian San Francisco Mystery. My question to you and others is there any problem with using the same sub-title over and over again in series books. I had assumed it would be a good idea because it would reinforce my brand-make it clear it was part of a series-but reading the above post I suddenly began to worry it might also cause confusion. Does anyone have an opinion on this?

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Hi Louisa, sorry I missed your comment. I think your line, “A Victorian San Francisco Mystery” is more of a series “tagline” than a subtitle. Often books in a series don’t really use subtitles, and many novels don’t use subtitles anyway. If you call it a “tagline” you should use it on every book in the series. Thanks for stopping by, and thanks for your patience.

      Reply
      • mlouisalocke

        Dear Joel,

        Thanks for the reply-I wasn’t familiar with the term “series tagline” but you are absolutely correct-that is obviously what it is. Learning something new every day! I do enjoy your blog, thanks for the words of wisdom.

        Reply
  3. Sally Collings

    Man, just when I thought the English language was the same everywhere :)
    Please replace the word ‘blurb’ with ‘back cover promotional copy’ in my comments above.
    Happy to swap blurbs with Martha any old time.

    Reply
    • Michael N. Marcus

      >…the English language was the same everywhere.<

      Shaw said that England and America are separated by a common language.

      You drive lorries (on the left side of the road). We drive trucks (on the right). My sedan has a dashboard, hood and trunk. Your saloon has a facia, bonnet and boot. I use gas in my station wagon. You use petrol in your estate. Your bulkhead is my firewall. Your roundabout is my rotary. You use a spanner. I use a wrench. You have tyres. I have tires. You use a torch. I use a flashlight. You have a windscreen. I have a windshield.

      You use single quotation marks where we use doubles, and vice versa.

      You put a period after a final quote mark (which I think makes sense). We put it before.

      You use aluminium. We get by with one less syllable.

      Your labour, neighbour, jewellry, anaesthesia and catalogue use more ink or bits than our labor, neighbor, jewelry, anesthesia and catalog.

      You have lifts and bobbies. We have elevators and cops.

      You use S where we use Z (organize and specialize).

      We practice. You practise.

      I won't even get into the strange British aversion to cold beverages.

      We kicked your butts in 1776 and you burned down our White House in 1814; but we still say we speak English, not American.

      That doesn't seem right to me.

      Reply
      • Sally Collings

        All too true, Michael. Although if you really want to mix it up, come visit us in Australia: you can dodge a few trucks in a station wagon, whizz through some roundabouts to pick up some petrol, then head home for a cold beer and a barbie (lunch, not popular plastic figurine).

        We should all get with the program (or is that programme)?

        Reply
  4. Sally Collings

    Great article, Joel. I’ve flicked it on to one of Red Hill’s authors who is struggling to find The Perfect Title for his book – hopefully between us we’ll hit on a winner!
    Book cover blurbs are also a struggle – figuring out what works and what doesn’t. As a publisher I think it’s easy to lose touch with What Readers Really Want from a cover blurb. Do you have any tips or resources on writing blurbs?

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Sally, what a great subject. The whole world of blurbing is a study in itself, but I think you’ve hit on the key: what are the objections the potential buyer is facing with a particular book? That’s where the social proof (the blurb) is most effective, in my mind. Looks like a blog post, thanks!

      Reply
      • Sally Collings

        I was hoping you’d think so :) I’ve read lots of comments that publishers need to make their blurbs ‘work hard’ etc etc – it’s the ‘how’ that doesn’t get discussed much. Look forward to your post!

        Reply
      • Michael N. Marcus

        In some fields, blurbing has degenerated into corrupt “tit-for-tat” blurb-swapping: if you kiss my ass, I’ll kiss yours.

        There’s also a problem with “insider blurbing” on book covers and first pages, and on Amazon. I saw one rave review (for a bad book) written by a book’s editor, and an in-book blurb written by an employee of the book’s publisher.

        There are also blurbs written by semi-celebs who apparently never read the books, but are just looking to publicize themselves.

        “Expert” blurbs written by people who are experts or famous in other fields mean nothing. Praise for a book on golf club repair by an Oscar-winning cameraman or a professor of African folk art means little.

        For my non-fiction books on publishing and telecommunications, I used blurbs by non-famous people in the appropriate field who read early versions of the book and actually benefited from them — and might lead others to think they could benefit, also.

        My newest humor book, “Stories I’d Tell My Children (but maybe not until they’re adults)” has a terrific cover blurb from a person that few people have heard of. But it’s a great blurb: “This book is so funny that I nearly peed in my pants. My girlfriend didn’t think it was funny, so I got a new girlfriend.”

        I doubt that a blurb by Henry Kissinger, Martha Stewart or Robert Redford would be more meaningful.

        Reply
        • Sally Collings

          Good points, Michael. I should point out though, that in my comment above I was referring to a ‘blurb’ in the sense of promotional cover copy, rather than quotes used on the cover. (This use of the term may be more common outside the US – not sure.)

          Reply
          • Joel Friedlander

            That’s interesting, Sally. Here in the States, “blurb” means only one thing (that I know of) and that is an endorsement by another author or authority or celebrity through a meaty quote, usually printed on the back cover or first few pages of the book. I don’t think we have a specific term to cover the publisher’s “sell” or promotional copy.

        • Joel Friedlander

          But if Martha Stewart blurbed your book, you would print it on the cover, no?

          Reply
          • Michael N. Marcus

            >>But if Martha Stewart blurbed your book, you would print it on the cover, no?<<

            Maybe if I wrote a book about decorating jail cells.

  5. Michael N. Marcus

    >>F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was originally called Trimalchio in West Egg. Don’t you wonder what the book’s fate would have been if Fitzgerald had used his original name?<<

    "The Great Gatsby" and "The Great Gildersleeve" (and King Kong, Roger Rabbit, Peter Piper, Big Ben, Daffy Duck, Donald Duck, Porky Pig, Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny), demonstrate the power of alliteration.

    "The Great Murphy" or "Great Friedlander" would have been much less memorable titles. Search engines dont care, but people do.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      I don’t know, Michael, “The Great Friedlander” has a ring to it.

      But your point is well taken. That’s why I think it’s a good strategy to break them apart, and really appeal to people with the title, which often makes no sense to a search engine (“Freakonomics” “Irrational Exuberance” etc.) and use the subtitle to appeal to the robots.

      Reply
  6. George Angus

    Hi Joel,

    Great article here. This is also another reason to consider self publishing. Often, a new author has no control over the title when they sign with a pub house.

    Once again, practical and sage advice from the master.

    George

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Hey, good point George. Yes, you definitely want to keep control of this element of the book, particularly since you will end up doing virtually all the marketing anyway. Thanks for stopping by!

      Reply
  7. Rich Dailey

    An independent editor and I are into developmental editing on my nonfiction book. The title and subtitle has not even appeared on our radar yet, as we both acknowledge that the narrative is still being shaped and molded. But I know it’s extremely important to the success of the project.

    I’d be interested in your thoughts on title/subtitle length vs. optimum search performance. At what length does the subtitle implode on itself? Seems like there’s a delicate balance to be achieved here between search keyword effectiveness and eye appeal.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Rich, I think you can’t start thinking about this stuff too soon. Your title and subtitle are extensions of your marketing plan which, for most nonfiction books, ought to be in place before you finish your manuscript.

      I’m not aware of any limitations on length, but I do think that this combination of short evocative title and long detailed subtitle seems to work well. And keep in mind that anywhere the book is listed, room will be made for the subtitle, so get those keywords in there. Thanks for your comment.

      Reply

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