How to Choose a Book Title That Sells
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Choosing a nonfiction book title that sells can be as hard as naming your first-born child, but the decision must be far more deliberate and less emotionally driven. Your book is not your baby, it’s your product, and its title is the most important piece of marketing copy you’ll ever write to support its success. To boost your book’s sales, you’ve got to grab your target reader’s attention, describe the book’s contents accurately, spark an emotional connection, and inspire genuine curiosity—all in a few seconds.
Now, when I say “title,” what I really mean is the title and subtitle, which should be thought of as a package. They need to work together, both in terms of how they “sound,” and also the jobs they must do. A good title / subtitle package should:
- Describe the book’s content clearly and accurately while emphasizing its benefits.
- Indicate who the book is for, and what they will get out of reading it.
- Set up the reading experience to come.
- Be memorable and distinctive.
The title alone may hit some of these targets but not others, which is OK as long as the subtitle compensates for it, and vice versa. For example, if the title is a direct and literal description of the book’s contents, you can afford to play with a bit more wit and emotion in the subtitle. If the title is oblique, poetic, or metaphorical, you must write a straight subtitle that clearly tells the reader what to expect from the book.
Here are some tips to follow when writing a book title package.
1. Sell the benefits
Make a clear and direct statement about what the reader will learn or gain from reading the book. Don’t be vague or use jargon; just make the boldest promise that you can authentically make, in plain English.
2. Make every word count
Brevity conveys confidence. Take out all filler words, and never repeat words if you can avoid it. Do be sure to include important keywords that will help your target readers find your book in searches.
3. Call the reader by their name
Use words that hold a mirror up to your target reader so they instantly recognize themselves in your book and sense that you understand their needs. Using phrases like “busy mom’s survival guide,” “leader’s playbook,” or “how high achievers can…” will instantly strike a chord with the people you’re trying to reach.
4. Meet the reader where they are
Many nonfiction books aim to educate a reader who doesn’t understand the root cause of their problem. That’s a great reason to write a book, but the title package is not the right place to challenge a person’s worldview. If you want to change a reader’s mind, you must first get them to buy and read your book, so give it a title that scratches the itch they’re consciously bothered by, and let the content inside resolve their problem in a deeper way. In other words, sell the painkiller, but deliver the cure.
5. Establish your voice
If you’re a witty writer, your title should be witty, too. Are you intellectual, nurturing, laid back, or a go-getter? Then be sure to go-get that across in your title package. Start converting your readers into fans of your writing style before they’ve even cracked the cover.
6. Have fun with wordplay
Your book title should have a nice ring to it. Double meanings, alliteration, a clever twist on a popular saying, rhythm and rhyme are effective, commonly used ways to express an author’s personality and make a book title package more memorable. Avoid passive voice like the plague. (Oh, and avoid cliches like “like the plague” like the plague.)
Don’t rush to name your book before you’re really clear on its contents, or get fixated on a phrase that has some personal meaning for you that readers will never be able to get. This is marketing copy, not a place for pet phrases, inside jokes, or obscure references. But you also shouldn’t wait until the book is written and ready to publish before working out its title package. If you’re lucky, you may come up with a line or phrase that is so memorable and clever, and that sums up your book so concisely and accurately, that it works as a catchphrase or theme that you can employ throughout the book itself.
A great example is our forthcoming book Lifting Heavy Things: Healing Trauma One Rep at a Time by Laura Khoudari. This title package is brief, catchy, clever, clear, and full of personality. The title itself checks the “wordplay” box in that it has two meanings, both of which are key themes in the book: It refers to Laura’s practice as a strength trainer who literally lifts heavy things, and also to the heavy lifting that healing from emotional trauma entails.
“Lifting heavy things” is a reinforcing refrain that Laura echoes throughout the manuscript, creating a cohesive reading experience that readers find very satisfying. In the subtitle, the phrase “healing trauma” clearly tells the reader who the book is for (folks with unprocessed trauma) and what they will get out of reading it (tools to help them heal). The gentle humor in the second half of the subtitle, “one rep at a time,” conveys Laura’s witty and approachable writing style.
Titling your book is always going to be a bit of an emotional experience, but applying logic to the process will bring you better results than going on gut instinct alone. Take some time to brainstorm word combinations, analyze your ideas against this list, and keep working on your title package until it leaps off the page. Your hard work will pay off in copies sold and lives changed.
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