Straight talk about how to come up with a book title

It’s time to come up with a title for your book. “I want something iconic,” you’re thinking. “Like Lean In. Or The Tipping Point. Or Made to Stick.”

You are deluded.

And your delusion is leading you astray.

These books sold because of huge promotion (Lean In) and incredible ideas and writing. You think they are great titles because they are good titles for great books.

Do you think a book called Lean In by John Paul Nobody would be successful? Or a book called The Tipping Point by Nevah Herdava? Not likely. Not unless they were fantastic books.

Here’s the truth: except in rare cases, titles don’t sell books.

You might have come up with that kind of rare title (You Are a Badass). If so, it probably came to you in a dream, or while you were writing. It’s wrapped around the concept and the prospective reader’s brain so tightly that no other title is possible. For me, Writing Without Bullshit was such a title. (And no, the lesson of this paragraph is not that you need to use profanity.)

But that’s probably not where you are. Based on my experience with many authors, where you are is this:

  • You have a book concept, and maybe a proposal or part of a manuscript.
  • You have tossed around a bunch of possible titles and subtitles. You are not overjoyed with any of them.
  • You’re looking at The Long Tail and The 4-Hour Workweek enviously and wondering if you can come up with a title that great.

What your book title should do

The job of the book title is not to sell the book.

Read that again. The job of the book title is not to sell the book.

Unless your book title is Naked Pictures of Kim Kardashian, people are not going to invest their time, which is more important than their money, in your book, just based on the title.

No, the first job of the book title is to get someone who might be interested to want to know more about the book.

Start with your audience. If your audience is lawyers, the job of the book title is to get lawyers interested. Tortious Interference might be a good title for them, even if no one else knows what it means.

It matters if the audience is investors, or business strategists, or new college graduates, or salespeople. You need to talk their language.

If someone in that audience becomes interested, they will read the subtitle. The job of the subtitle is to intrigue them further (as I explain below). So a title that gets you to read the subtitle, and subsequently to become interested in the book, and maybe buy it, is great.

The book title has a second job. It is a name for the book, a “handle.” This is important for word of mouth and reviews.

Let’s say you have written a book called Truth and Influence (the likely title of my next book), and the book is about what it takes to be a thought leader.

If someone picks up the book and likes it, they need to be able to tell their friend, “Your podcast is on fire! You really should read Truth and Influence. It’s about people like you.”

Then the prospective reader might read somebody else’s Facebook post about the book. They might read a review on a blog. They might hear it mentioned in a LinkedIn video. They might read a review in a newspaper. They might see the name mentioned in a roundup of books about this topic. They might see it as a recommendation on Amazon because it is on a topic related to a book they were perusing. They might see you give a speech about it.

Eventually, after a few repetitions of hearing about it or seeing it mentioned, they might become intrigued, read more about it, read the description on Amazon, and actually buy it.

This only works because the these mentions connect the concept (in this case, thought leadership with integrity) and the title in the potential reader’s mind.

Consider some of the titles I’ve mentioned earlier and some others and you see how this works.

Lean In = How women should do leadership

You Are a Badass = Get over your fears and do your best work

The Long Tail = An innovative theory about how things sell online.

The 4-Hour Workweek = Be successful with less effort.

Getting Things Done = Be more productive

The titles don’t necessarily tell the whole story (what does “lean in” or “the long tail” mean without the context of the book?) But they have the quality you need — they connect your audience with your idea, they are catchy, and they become handles for that idea.

When you see Serena Williams’ face, you think of incredible tennis talent. This is not because her face has anything to do with tennis, it is because by repeated association you think of tennis when you see it.

Similarly, with these books, after enough mentions, you associate the title with the concept.

Your title should intrigue, and connect with the idea. Unless you’re really lucky, it’s not going to explain the idea, but that is not the objective.

The objective is to intrigue, and be a good handle for the idea as people talk about it.

About subtitles

The subtitle, in conjunction with the title, should explain a little more. It should give the prospective reader enough context to make a decision to read the book, or at least to consider reading it, so that successive mentions, or the flap copy, or an endorsement by Oprah Winfrey, or whatever else happens next can push them over the edge.

Look at the full titles/subtitles of some of these books, and what they’re telling you:

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead

You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life

The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More

The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich

Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity

The titles and subtitles might get you to the buy the book. But they’re more likely to just move you down the path to buying, so something else can push you over the edge.

The myth of bookstores

These are business books. Unless and until they become breakout bestsellers, most people who buy them are going to buy them online.

The cover matters there. The title and subtitle matter there. The description (which is probably the same as the flap copy) matters.

But don’t base your calculus about the title on what happens in a bookstore, because that’s not the most important buying modality these days.

Base your calculus on what happens when someone hears about, reads about, or shares about the book. The title has to be an intriguing handle related to the idea. The subtitle needs to explain it further. That’s got very little to do with bookstores.

How to come up with a title

Here’s one way to do it. (It’s the way I do it.)

Get the author or authors and an experienced book editor in a room, or at least on a shared video call. The author knows the content, the editor knows the process.

Invite a third person. The third person must be intelligent, but not very familiar with the book content. He or she must also not be married to the author, since we need honest feedback. The third person is the sounding board.

Now have the author or authors explain the book idea to the rest of the group. Poke them, get them off balance. Say stuff like “What do you really mean? I don’t get it.”

Listen for unusual words. Use a thesaurus. Take notes in a shared space everyone can see, like a whiteboard or Google Docs.

Write some descriptions of the book. Again, look for words that stand out.

If you have a good idea of a title, Google it. Search Amazon for books with the same title. Search the URL.

The objective of these searches is not to find out if a combination of words is unique, because it’s probably not. It’s to make sure there isn’t somebody selling the same concept with the exact same words. If those searches don’t show somebody competitive squatting on the words in the title, you might have a winner.

Now sleep on it. If you still like it the next day, or the day after, you’ve got your title.

It’s probably not Lean In. But if you’ve written a good book and do some good promotion, the title will do its job: It will become synonymous with your idea in the minds of your specific audience.

That’s all it needs to do.

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