Don’t Have Time Right Now?
Shockingly, there’s little useful guidance out there about book titling. What advice exists is usually of little help:
- Trite (“Go with your gut!”)
- Superficial (“Browse bookstores for ideas!”)
- Or worst of all, actively harmful (“Don’t spend too much time on it.”)
They’re all wrong.
Just like companies that spend millions on naming new products, and media companies that spend time testing different titles for blog posts, you should spend substantial time and energy finding a great title.
This is a very important decision, one you need to get right to ensure your book has the best possible chance of success.
In this comprehensive guide to picking the perfect book title, I will walk you through how to think about book titles, then tell you how to pick yours, and how to test it.
Here’s what we’ll cover in this Scribe Guide:
- Attention Grabbing
- Informative (Gives an Idea of What The Book is About)
- Easy To Say
- Not Embarrassing or Problematic For Someone To Say It
Step 1: Get Clarity On Your Book Goals
Step 2: Brainstorm Several Potential Titles
Step 3: Make Sure This Title Is Not Already Popular
Step 4: Pick Your Favorites & Test Them
Test #1: Imagine People Saying The Title
Test #2: See What People Click On
Why Do Book Titles Matter?
Your book title is the most important marketing decision you’ll make. Period.
The title is the first thing the reader sees or hears about your book—even before the cover in most cases—and getting it right is the single most important book marketing decision you’ll make. The title forms the basis of the reader’s judgment about your book.
Let’s be clear: A good title won’t make your book do well. But a bad title will almost certainly prevent it from doing well.
The iconic example of the importance of a book title is the title change that led to an obscure book becoming a #1 best seller.
In 1982 Naura Hayden released a book called “Astro-Logical Love.” It bombed.
She then took the exact same book, changed a small amount of the content, and changed the original title to a different title, “How to Satisfy a Woman Every Time…and Have Her Beg for More!”
That book became a massive cultural phenomenon and #1 best seller. Same book, same content, just a different title (I would argue a perfect title).
The takeaway for you is simple and clear: Spend time figuring out the best possible title for your book, because it will largely determine what people think about your book, and thus, your book’s success.
The 5 Attributes Of A Good Book Title
A good title should have all of these attributes:
- Memorable & Searchable
- Easy & Not Embarrassing to Say
There are a million things pulling on people’s attention. The right title helps you stand out and make that important first impression. A boring title is a killer.
There are many ways to grab attention. You can be provocative, controversial, exciting, make a promise, etc. The point is your title should make people stop and pay attention to it.
Here is what #1 best-selling author Tim Ferriss says about titles:
“The 4-Hour Workweek also bothered some people and was ridiculed by others, which I took as a positive indicator. It’s not accidental that Jay Leno parodied the book on-air—the title lends itself to it, and that was by design. You can’t have strong positive responses without strong negative responses, and beware—above all—the lukewarm reception from all. ‘Oh, that’s nice. I think it’s pretty good,’ is a death sentence.“
2. Memorable & Searchable
It’s much easier to get a reaction out of someone and then be forgotten, than it is to get a reaction and also be memorable.
Remember, a book’s title is not only the first thing a reader hears about your book, it’s the one piece of information that a reader has that leads them back to the book itself.
If your book is recommended to them by a friend, and they can’t remember the title, then they can’t go find it in a bookstore or on Amazon. Best-selling author Scott Berkun says it well:
“Often [the title] is all a potential buyer ever gets to see, and if they can draw interest the book crosses its first of many hurdles in the improbable struggle of getting noticed. But titles only help so much. Most people hear about books the same way they hear about new bands. Or new people to meet. A friend or trusted source tells them it was good and it was called <NAME HERE>. The title at that point serves as a moniker. It’s the thing you need to remember to get the thing you want to get and little more.“
This also means you want the book title to be easily searchable. In the world we live in, search is how people find things now. If your title does not lend itself to easy memorization and searchability on Google and Amazon, that is very bad.
3. Informative (Gives an Idea of What the Book is About)
This is the least crucial aspect for fiction books, but very important for non-fiction. The title, including the subtitle, should give the reader some sort of idea of what the book is about.
People aren’t going to do your work for you; the easier you make it for them to understand the subject, the more likely you are to draw in the people who’d find your book interesting.
A good test is to ask yourself this: If you were to tell someone the title of your book at a party, would they have to ask what it’s about?
If so, that’s probably a bad title.
Don’t out-think yourself on your title. A title that is overly clever or unclear signals the book is for people who immediately understand the word or phrase—which makes people who don’t get it right away feel dumb (and less likely to buy the book).
By using a word or phrase that is either not immediately understandable by your desired audience or doesn’t convey the point of the book, you’re putting a huge obstacle in front of your success.
Though your book title should be informative and easily understood, it doesn’t need to spell out the whole book idea. Take Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling Outliers for example: this title does a great job of cuing the content of the book without describing it outright.
4. Easy & Not Embarrassing To Say
Having an easy to say title is a concept called cognitive fluency. It means people are more likely to remember and respond to words and phrases they can immediately understand and pronounce.
Without going too far into the psychological literature, the point is this: Don’t try to be sophisticated at the risk of being obscure.
It’s a basic fact of human psychology—people don’t like to feel socially awkward. If a book title is hard to pronounce, or more importantly, if it’s a phrase that sounds stupid when said out loud, it makes them far less likely to buy it, and chances are they won’t talk about it to other people.
One of the most important things to think about when picking your book title is word of mouth. Think about how people will feel about saying this book title out loud to their friends. Does it make them look smart or stupid?
The worst possible title is one that makes someone feel silly saying it out loud. For example, if the book title is something like “Why Racism Is Great,” no one is ever going to tell their friends about it, no matter how good the book is, because they have to then face the scrutiny of why they bought that book in the first place. Social context doesn’t just matter some; it matters a lot.
Take this list of bad book titles, and imagine saying any of them out loud to your friends in a serious way—you’d never do that.
Generally speaking, shorter titles are best. A short title is not only more memorable and easier to say for your target audience, it also gives space and flexibility for a better book cover. One word titles are the best.
People get lured into crafting titles that are exacting and long-winded in an effort to make the title signal the book idea and audience. In the title, stick to the core idea. If you want to get wordy, then leave that to the subtitle.
If you can, aim to keep the main title around 5 words or less. The subtitle can offer context or tell a bit more about what the reader will learn. Cameron Herold’s book Meetings Suck has a pithy title, with a subtitle that helps the reader see why the need the book: Turning One of the Most Loathed Elements of Business into One of the Most Valuable.
Want to see the difference between a short title and a long title? Just look at this cover art:
How To Come Up With A Book Title
Step 1: Get Clarity On Your Book Goals
Your goals for your book determine what type of title you pick.
If you want to build a brand out of your non-fiction book, your title options are quite different than if you want to publish a racy thriller.
Let’s examine all the functions your book title can serve, and the places for potential use, before we walk you through the precise process of thinking up title ideas:
How A Book Title Can Be Used
- To sell the book to readers
- Establish the author’s authority in a subject
- Be a hook for the author to get media visibility
- Branding for a company, author, conference, or course materials
- Advertise/market the book
- Used in speeches, slides, or other in-person activities
- Used in reviews, blog posts, articles, etc.
- Something the author has to say in all their press appearances
- Become a defining part of an author’s future bio
- Decorate the cover
- Identify the Amazon/B&N listing
- Start a line of books
- Use on t-shirts, flyers, or other promotional material
- Brand a main character or character’s name (Harry Potter)
The point of this whole list is simple: Know which of these objectives apply to your book, and make sure your title can serve those objectives.
For example, if your goal is to build a brand, make sure your book title is your brand. Dave Asprey’s first diet book is called The Bulletproof Diet, because that’s his brand: Bulletproof. The book is about selling everything around the book, not just the book itself.
If your goal is authority in your field, make sure the book title sounds authoritative to whom you are trying to speak. Whimsical doesn’t work in serious academic fields, whereas serious doesn’t work in comedic fields.
If your goal is to get media attention and raise your visibility, make sure the book title l appeals to media and makes them want to cover you.
Step 2: Brainstorm Several Potential Titles
Brainstorming for titles is not a specific thing you do for an hour, but rather a long term process. It may take you months and hundreds of book title ideas to finalize your title.
But you start by simply brainstorming titles. Literally start a file and write down every working title you can think of for your book.
I know that telling someone to brainstorm is like telling someone to “be creative.” There is no best way to brainstorm, but there are a lot of best practices.
This is list every possible way we know of to find a good book title, complete with examples (remember, these techniques are not just for your main title, they will be the basis for your subtitles as well). Most of these are for nonfiction titles, though some can be used for novel titles.
Also, don’t be afraid to put bad titles on your brainstorm list. Bad titles actually help you–because they will get you to a good title. Here are some best practices:
Use Clever or Noteworthy Phrases From The Book
This is very common in fiction, and can work well with novel titles. It also works well with non-fiction books where the concept of the book can be summed up quickly or with one phrase.
- The Black Swan
- Lecturing Birds On Flying
- I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell
Use Both Short and Long Phrases
We usually start with a really long title and work our way down to much a short title. The goal is the main title be as short as possible—no more than 5 words—and have the subtitle offer the context and put in important keywords.
Use Relevant Keywords
For non-fiction especially, search matters. You want to make sure that when someone searches for the subject or topic of your book, it will come up on Google and Amazon. But it’s a balancing act, because you don’t want to sacrifice the authenticity of the work for what looks and feels like a search string query.
If you are unsure of this, go look on Amazon and see how often subtitles and titles use additional keywords to attract more search engine traffic.
- The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons In Personal Change
- Mindset: The New Psychology of Success
- Predictable Revenue: Turn Your Business Into A Sales Machine With The $100 Million Best Practices Of Salesforce.com
Make a Promise of a Benefit
Some of the best titles promise to help readers achieve a desired goal or get some wanted benefit. They specifically call out an end result that people want:
- How To Win Friends and Influence People
- Getting Things Done
- Think And Grow Rich
Be Simple and Direct
Some of the very best titles are just basic statements about what the book is. There is nothing wrong with this, it can work well, especially for strictly instructional books.
- Getting Past No
- Steve Jobs
- The Power Of Habit
Target an Audience
As we said, people use titles to judge if the book is for them. Part of helping people understand this can be targeting them in your title. You can target specific audiences by naming them or by describing their characteristics. This works especially well if you have a series of books, and then do versions targeted to specific niches.
- What to Expect When You’re Expecting
- Physics For Future Presidents
Offer a Specific Solution to a Problem
This is very popular in the self-help and diet spaces.
You tell the reader exactly what problem your book solves in the title. This is similar to the promise of a benefit, but not the exact same thing; a benefit is something additive, like being sexy. A solution to a problem takes away something negative, like losing weight.
- Man’s Search for Meaning
- 6 Ways to Lose Belly Fat Without Exercise!
- Secrets of Closing The Sale
Use Numbers to Add Credibility
Specifics, like numbers, add credibility and urgency to your titles. The can provide structure for your information, or they can make hard things seem easier. Specificity enables people to engage the idea in a more concrete way, and gives bounded limits and certainty on time frames as well.
- The 48 Laws of Power
- The Five Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts
- The 21 Irrefutable Laws Of Leadership
Pique The Reader’s Curiosity (But Withhold The Answer)
Using statements that seem to be impossible, unusual contrasts, or paradoxes can make readers curious about what is in the book. The idea is to make a claim or statement that seems a little far-fetched or fantastical, but promises delivery. This is very popular now with headline writing on sites like UpWorthy and ViralNova.
The iconic recent example of this with books is one we already mentioned, The 4-Hour Workweek. Everyone wants to know how to work 4 hours a week, except it seems impossible, so you pick up the book to see what that guy is talking about.
- Networking Is Not Working
- 10% Happier
- Who Moved My Cheese?
Use Metaphors or Symbols Associated With The Themes in Your Book
Humans think in symbol and metaphor. Using these powerful devices can help you create a title that really resonates.
The iconic metaphor-based series is “Chicken Soup for the Soul.” The title signals the warm, nurturing feeling that our culture associates with chicken soup and connects it to something else–stories that nurture your soul.
- Lean In
- The Untethered Soul
Alliteration is the use of the same letter at the beginning of all or most of the words in your title. This makes things easier for humans to remember.
- The Mighty Miss Malone
- A Storm Of Swords
- The Pop-Up Paradigm
Alter a Popular Phrase
This is common in book titles and tends to work well—taking a famous phrase and altering it in a way that makes sense for you book. This works because it’s close to something people know, but not exactly the same thing.
- The War of Art
- Assholes Finish First
Slang can work really well, especially if it’s used in a way that is non-intuitive but also novel.
- Ain’t Too Proud To Beg
- No Mopes Allowed: A Small Town Police Chief Rants and Babbles about Hugs and High Fives, Meth Busts, Internet Celebrity, and Other Adventures
Try cliche formats (or reversing them)
There are a ton of book-naming tropes that can work well if used correctly:
- The Art of [TOPIC]
- The Myth of [TOPIC]
- Confessions of [TOPIC]
- How to [TOPIC]
- The Joy of [TOPIC]
- The End of [TOPIC]
- The Art of Racing In The Rain
- The Myth of Male Power
- Confessions of An Economic Hitman
- How to Train Your Dragon
- The Joy of Sex
- The End of Science
Done poorly, these kinds of titles can seem cliched and cloying instead of fresh. This technique is best used when it offers a twist—but isn’t so far out that it confuses the reader.
Consider Coining a Phrase or New Word
This is very helpful, especially if you want to create a brand or company or extended product line out of your book, or brand a character name. The problem with this is that it’s not an easy thing to do. Many authors try to create new words; few succeed, so try this sparingly. The most important element of this technique is that the word is easy to say and understand.
Use Amazon/Goodreads/Wikipedia For Inspiration
If you’re feeling stuck, you can always go look at how other books are named.
- Wikipedia’s list of best selling books of all time
- Goodreads list of best book titles
- Amazon’s current best selling books
Use Copywriting Manuals For Ideas
If you are truly stuck and cannot think of anything, read some books about copywriting. They are not specifically about book titling, but copywriters have to understand the sell triggers, and they will give you tons and tons of examples. These are three of the best out there:
- POP!: Create the Perfect Pitch, Title, and Tagline for Anything
- The Ultimate Sales Letter: Attract New Customers. Boost your Sales.
- Advertising Headlines That Make You Rich: Create Winning Ads, Web Pages, Sales Letters and More
Step 3: Check Copyright, Trademark, Keywords and Popularity
First off, let me very clear about this: you cannot copyright titles.
Technically, you can call your book “To Kill A Mockingbird” or “Lord Of The Rings” or even “The Holy Bible.”
That being said, copying a popular book makes it VERY hard for your book to stand out, and pretty much guarantees a lot of negative reviews from people who are not getting the book they expected.
That being said, you can trademark a title, if it is part of a larger brand. For example, the term “Bulletproof” is trademarked in the health and fitness space by Dave Asprey. You (probably) can’t title a book “The Bulletproof Diet” because it infringes on a trademark (not the copyright).
If this is confusing, and you have a book title you think might be a trademark infringement, then talk to an IP attorney.
Also, make sure you check that the title and subtitle have the right keywords you want to address your market, and aligns with any domain and brand issues you have.
Step 4: Pick Your Favorites
At this point, you should have a long list of title ideas. Once that’s done, you can move on to the next step: picking your titles.
I cannot emphasize how important this next step is:
Everyone has opinions on book titles. Most of those opinions are stupid and wrong.
Even people who get PAID to come up with book titles (editors, publishers, etc.) are usually bad at it.
Test #1: Imagine People Saying The Title
Here’s a great test as to whether or not you have a good book title: imagine one of your readers talking about your book at a party to other people.
If you can see them confidently saying the book title aloud, and the people listening nodding and immediately either understanding what the book is about based on that (and perhaps a sentence or two of explanation), or asking for a further explanation because it sounds interesting, then you’ve got a good title.
If you imagine any other reaction than this one, you need to re-think your title, and probably change it.
Remember, so much of book marketing boils down to word of mouth, and word of mouth is all about people signaling things to other people. You want your book title to inspire and motivate the right people to talk about it, because it lets them signal the right things to their friends.
Test #2: (optional) Test Actual Clicks
Here’s one of the keys to testing your titles: test both the main title and subtitle and test them in many different iterations. Usually what you’ll find is most things test about the same, while there will be one thing that clearly tests better as a title and another that clearly tests best as a subtitle.
This is a great piece about the step-by-step process of using Google Adwords to test a title.
If you have a large audience already, you can also use Survey Monkey.
For real customer feedback, I recommend using Pickfu.
I would also recommend Google Survey. This is real market testing of real people and can be done fairly cheaply.
How Not To Test Your Title
Most of the things authors do to test their titles are very, very bad.
For example, posting on social media is NOT TESTING YOUR TITLE. In fact, posting on social media is about the worst possible way to test a title.
Why is this?
Well, your social media friends are probably not your audience, and a tweet about the title won’t help you. And even worse, everyone on your social media has an agenda relative to the author that will often put you off-kilter.
Friends and family don’t work. Generally speaking, they want to make you happy. They don’t want to give you an objective answer. Or they want to make sure you look good, but they don’t know what will actually make you look good.
Furthermore, oftentimes colleagues will be critical—because they are jealous. It happens a lot, and they will give you bad advice, even if only unconscious.
And some authors will go to their marketing teams for title advice, which can often lead you way off-kilter. Do you know the saying that a camel is a horse designed by committee? When you start getting opinions from lots of different sources, you get the “camel effect” hardcore.
Does Your Book Need A Subtitle?
If you’re doing a non-fiction book, yes, probably so.
The way we like to frame it is that the title is the hook, and the subtitle is the explanation. The subtitle is the promise of the book.
Books need a subtitle if it’s necessary to contextualize the subject alluded to in the main title. Typically, the subtitle tells the reader some combination of what the book’s central premise is, who the book is for, and what promise the book delivers on or need it meets.
Some examples where subtitles help contextualize the title and deliver the promise of the implied title:
- The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape The 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join The New Rich: See how the title hooks you by being interesting, and the subtitle explains the premise? Very well done.
- Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead: It’s a bit long, but the same thing is going on here; the subtitle contextualizes and frames the title, which is clear, easy to understand, and say.
- Kitchen Confidential: This originally had a subtitle, “Adventures In The Culinary Underbelly,” but it was later dropped. No subtitle was needed on this work of non-fiction, because the meaning is clear, especially when paired with a picture of a chef on the front (and because it became very famous, which helps).
- The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11: This is an example of a book where the subtitle is very important. That title could mean many things, but the subtitle quickly signals what the book is about and who it’s for.