Coming up with a good title for your book can be quite a challenge. If your title and subtitle are confusing, you’ll lose out on sales. But if they’re boring, you’ll have the same problem. Somewhere in between confusing and boring is where you’ll find the gold.
This article will provide some title tips that I’ve used in my career in the book industry, but bear in mind that these are primarily for books that teach. If you’re writing fiction or a memoir, these tips won’t apply to you.
Also, if you’re writing a book proposal in the hopes of landing a traditional book contract, your title will probably be changed before your book is in print. Still, the better your title in your proposal, the better chance you have of selling it to a publishing house.
If you’re self-publishing, it’s all on you to write your title, so take the time to make it great. Those few words can make a huge difference in the number of sales you receive.
While there are no hard and fast rules, I’ve found that these title guidelines work most of the time:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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? If you find a relatively unknown novel with your title, however, you can certainly use it for your non-fiction book.
- 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.