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O Romeo… ‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy:–William Shakespeare
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague. …
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;”
While a flower’s name won’t affect its fragrance, a book’s title can drastically affect how many copies it sells.
So how can you develop an amazing title for your book?
Over the years, I’ve observed an ironic quirk among authors: The better an author is at writing a book, the worse they seem to be at titling their book.
Authors Need an Outside Perspective on Book Titles
Here are a few prime examples. First is the original book title, followed by the publisher’s final title.
- All’s Well That Ends Well -> War and Peace
- Tomorrow Is Another Day -> Gone With the Wind
- The Dead Un-Dead -> Dracula
- Private Fleming, His Various Battles -> The Red Badge of Courage
- Something That Happened -> Of Mice and Men
I could go on and on. If you search online, you’ll find many more examples.
You know too much about your own book to decide what’s best to feature in your title. It is hard to read the label when you are standing inside the bottle.
The title, more than almost any other component of your book, needs an outside perspective.
How can you get an outside perspective on your book’s title?
- If you are traditionally published, a team at your publisher will chime in on book titles.
- If you are indie published, a paid mastermind group with other successful authors can give you useful feedback.
- You can also test your book title ideas on your readers using a Facebook Split Test and then use the data to help you decide. But before you test them, you must created two good titles.
What is the purpose of a book title?
Back in the 18th century, the purpose of a book’s title was to describe the book’s contents.
- An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith
- On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection by Charles Darwin
- The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life by Charles Darwin.
Things have changed in the last 200 years. Instead of publishing a few hundred books each year, authors and publishers now publish a million books every year. It’s no longer possible to read every new book, and a million books per year is a lot of books competing for attention.
For these reasons, the purpose of a book title has changed, and the shift has confused authors.
If your book title describes the contents of your book, you will get lost in the noise. Your title must attract attention rather than describe contents. Click to Tweet
Book titles rarely sell books on their own, but they can attract attention and generate curiosity.
This leads us to the first goal you should aim for when developing your book title.
Goal #1 Evoke Curiosity
Your title should make the reader curious about your book. Online, you want the reader to click on the cover. At a physical bookstore, your title should compel them to pull it off the shelf.
You want your readers to say, “I know something about that, but I want to know more.”
- Why is it all quiet on the western front?
- What is the red badge of courage?
- Who is Dracula?
The Curiosity Gap
The science behind evoking curiosity is called The Curiosity Gap. Readers are not curious about things they already know. For instance, you are not curious about what your middle name is. You already know it.
But readers also aren’t curious about things too far outside of their realm of knowledge. Chances are, you are not wondering who was the highest-paid cricket player in 1979.
People are curious about things that are just beyond their current knowledge.
While you might not be curious about your middle name, you might be curious about my middle name. You know I am a “junior.” I say “Thomas Umstattd Junior” in every podcast intro, but I always skip my middle name. Why? Why, in seven years of recording this podcast, have I never once mentioned my middle name?
I admit this is a lame example. If you’re new to the podcast, you probably don’t care, but that helps illustrate the point.
Not everyone is curious about the same things because not everyone knows the same things.
The more I learn, the more curious I become.
Know Your Target Readers
To develop a title that generates curiosity and cross that curiosity gap, you must get to know your target readers.
Are you writing a vampire book for people who read a lot of vampire books, or is it for people who typically read romance? Twilight is a better title for romance readers, while Vampire Diaries is a better title for hard-core vampire fans.
If you have a broad target audience, you will have a harder time crafting a curiosity-generating title. Often, authors who struggle to create a book title haven’t done the work of getting to know their readers.
You must get to know your readers in real life if you want to appeal to their curiosity. You must write for real human beings.
Goal #2 Encourage Word-of-Mouth
Word-of-mouth recommendation between readers is one of the most powerful ways for news about your book to spread. But if people can’t remember your book title, they won’t be able to talk about it or recommend it in a clear way. And if they can’t talk about it, it won’t sell.
We shorten the title of Adam Smith’s book to The Wealth of Nations. We shorten Darwin’s title to The Origin of Species. The shorter versions are easier to remember and say. The longer your book title is, the harder it is to remember. (Also, the phrase “Favored Races” in Darwin’s book is obviously highly problematic.)
The trend is toward shorter titles. Now, that doesn’t mean your title has to be a single word like Twilight, Emma, or Blink, but shorter names are easier to remember than longer ones. Don’t be afraid to create a one-word title.
Your short and curiosity-generating title must also be clear. If you have a bad cell telephone connection and mention your title to the person you’re calling, will they write down the correct title?
What if someone is listening to your interview on a radio station with lots of static? Will they be able to catch your title?
Avoid using words that are hard to spell or are easily confused with other words. A book titled “Plain Secrets” sounds just like “Plane Secrets” to a radio or podcast listener. Is it a book about travel or a romance that takes place in Kansas? The homophone creates confusion.
Simple ideas spread faster. If your title requires an explanation in order to make sense, you have a bad title. Sometimes authors are too clever with their titles. A title that only makes sense after reading your book is generally a bad title. Your title must intrigue someone who has not yet read your book.
Your title should also be unique in an interesting way that causes people to remark. It can’t be too foreign, but it also can’t be too familiar. If you want people to talk about your book, its title must have an element of remarkability.
When I was in college, a successful CEO of several companies gave a guest lecture. He recommended a book called The Simple Truth (Affiliate Link). This CEO was not the author, but he had purchased a case of the books and brought them along. He said the book was so good that if any student read it, he would ensure that the student received an interview at one of his companies.
I read the book, and it was amazing. It totally transformed how I interacted with my clients. Later, I made it required reading for some of my employees, and it made my employees better at their jobs simply because they read it.
Here is the kicker. If you search for “The Simple Truth” on Amazon, hundreds of books with that exact title appear in the search results. Many of them are business books! The unremarkable title of this remarkable little book makes it nearly impossible to recommend.
Sometimes a title can be so good it is not good anymore. If many other books have your title, keep brainstorming ideas. You are not done.
However, your title can’t be so unique that people don’t know your book is for them. You’ll also want to avoid words that are so unique that no one would be searching for them.
Authors must learn to manage the tension between familiarity and remarkability. One strategy is to use a single word in your title to connect with a concept that is already popular with readers of similar books.
For example, when George R. R. Martin started writing epic fantasy, the number one series was the Wheel of Time. One element of those books was the Game of Houses, also known as Daes Dae’mar. It was the political intrigue that acted as the backdrop for what the story was really about.
Fans of epic fantasy saw a book titled Game of Thrones and immediately knew it would be like the game of houses in the Wheel of Time books. Daes Dae’mar is a side aspect of Wheel of Time, but it is the focus of a Song of Ice and Fire.
In this way, the book title was familiar to fantasy fans in just the right way. It was both subtle and specific.
Goal #3 Rank in Search
Most people buy most books through a search engine online rather than browsing physical bookshelves. Even a reader at the library is using a computer search engine to look for books. Your book must rank when people type search words into Amazon’s or Google’s search engine.
If you want to learn how Amazon’s search engine works, listen to episode 226 How to Rank in Amazon Search Results with Dave Chesson.
The title is the most important part of your potential for ranking in search engines. When it comes to how your book ranks on search result pages, Amazon and Google both give the title a lot of ranking points. In your title, include keywords that readers are likely to type when searching for a book like yours.
How do you include keywords when your title needs to be short and catchy? There are several ways.
Identify The Keywords You Want to Use
What words are readers using when they look for your book? Publisher Rocket (Affiliate Link) is a tool specifically designed to help you research and identify the words your target readers are using.
The temptation with Search Engine Optimization and keyword research is to paint a red dot around where the arrow lands rather than doing the research to identify a target first.
Put a Keyword in the Title
It’s not always possible to include a keyword in your title, but you will have a much stronger title if you can include at least one. Titles that include keywords are easier for readers to find.
For instance, when people want to read about changing their habits, they search for the word “habit.” So it’s not surprising that a book like Atomic Habits included the word “habit” in the title. This is perhaps the most important keyword people use when searching for books on habit change.
By using the word “habit” the author got an edge in search results, which led to an edge in sales and reviews. It started a virtual cycle that made his book the most popular book on habits.
The author could have easily used words like motivation, discipline, behavior, custom, or pattern, but those would have been too clever. Most readers are not using those words in their first search on how to change a habit.
Use a Subtitle
While book titles are getting shorter, the combined title and subtitle are actually getting longer.
A good example of this is Boundaries by John Townsend and Henry Cloud. The title is simple, memorable, and easy to say. But the subtitle is long and full of searchable keywords: Boundaries, When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life.
The subtitle uses a lot of keywords that people would type when searching for such a book.
If you are tempted to put “a novel” as your subtitle, don’t do it.
Which title do you think would sell better? “Eregon: a Novel” or “Eregon: A Dragon Riding Adventure?”
Unless you are writing literary fiction, you can usually do better than “a novel” as your subtitle.
Use a Series Name
In fiction, sometimes a subtitle doesn’t work. In those instances, use a keyword-rich series name.
For example, the book The Bake Shop “(An Amish Marketplace Novel Book 1)” uses the series title in the subtitle. Notice that the keyword “Amish” is included because readers of Amish books are using the word “Amish” when they type their search.
Doing it Right
Here is an example of a novel with a unique yet familiar book title and a keyword-rich subtitle and series name: Moon Dance: A Paranormal Mystery (Vampire for Hire Book 1).
Let’s break it down.
Title: Moon Dance
It’s a remarkable title because it’s new but also familiar. The title is reminiscent of New Moon, which was one of the Twilight books. You want to create a title with this kind of subtle connection. If the title were “Twilight Dance” it wouldn’t have worked because it’s not subtle enough. It’s too “on the nose.” You want a subtle connection that people can’t quite put their finger on.
This title is short, easy to say, and unique. The only other books that appear in search results with that title are a children’s book and a nonfiction book about fertility.
Subtitle: A Paranormal Mystery
This “genre as subtitle” is a very good strategy for search rankings. Why put “a novel” when you can specify what kind of novel it is. “Moon Dance: A Novel” is not nearly as compelling as “Moon Dance: A Paranormal Mystery.”
Series Name: Vampire for Hire
This series name includes the keyword “vampire,” which is a powerful keyword for readers of this genre.
Notice that the subtitle and series name have different keywords so that they can work together. Someone searching for a “vampire mystery” is likely to find this book because the words “mystery” and “vampire” are in the title of the book on Amazon.
Solid SEO is a major reason Moon Dance has sold so well and made the author very wealthy.
Goal #4 Heal a Pain
One tactic that works incredibly well for nonfiction is to use the title to include a promise to heal the reader’s pain. It can work for fiction, but it’s harder to pull off, especially for genre fiction.
Step #1 Identify the Reader & Their Specific Pain
Identify a point of pain in your reader. To know the pain, you must know the reader. Authors who regularly interact with their target audience can identify pain points easily. Pastors, doctors, counselors, and consultants know their readers’ pain points because they interact with them personally.
Here are some examples.
- A young woman who is pregnant for the first time and nervous about how her body is changing.
- The specific pain? She doesn’t know what to expect, and that scares her.
- A mom who is at her wits end about her child’s bad behavior.
- The specific pain? She feels trapped with a terribly behaved child.
- A man struggles to connect with people.
- The specific pain? He feels lonely and powerless.
Step #2 Promise to Make the Pain go Away
Here are some titles that make a clear promise: “Read this book, and your pain will go away.”
- A woman who is pregnant for the first time and nervous about how her body is changing?
- What to Expect When You’re Expecting
- A mom who is at her wits end about her kid?
- Have a New Kid by Friday
- A man who feels lonely and powerless?
- How to Win Friends and Influence People
Step #3 Deliver on Your Promise
If your book can deliver on the promise, word-of-mouth marketing can take off, and sales will soar.
The book Getting Things Done didn’t take off simply because it made the promise that if you read the book, you would get more done. It took off because it delivered on its promise. People read the book, applied the principles, and actually accomplished more! It delivered on its promise. That’s why the book outsold its own sales record for years and also why it has over 4,000 five-star ratings across its two bestselling editions.
Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity delivered on it’s promise.
Making promises and alleviating pain works better for nonfiction books. It can sometimes work with fiction, so keep it in mind as a possible strategy for developing your novel’s title.
Now that you know how to create a title that works, you must remember one more important step. It is critical to get an outside perspective on your title. A publishing industry professional or an experienced and successful author will be able to tell you if your label matches what you’ve put inside the bottle.
You can connect with label-reading friends by joining the Novel Marketing Facebook or MeWe groups.
You might even want to start your own group, so you can return the label-reading favor.
Most authors want to join someone else’s writers group. When everyone thinks someone else will do something, it doesn’t happen. The result? Most authors are not in writers groups, even though writers group membership is one factor that separates bestselling authors from authors struggling to make it.
Don’t let that be you!
In this course, you will learn how to start a writers group.
Thomas has started nearly half a dozen writer’s groups over the last ten years, and he has learned a thing or two in the process.
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Learn more at AuthorMedia.com.
Shelleen Weaver, author of the children’s book Love Bird: Fruit Fables Series Book 1
The squirrel family has a new neighbor who is rude and mean. They devise a plan of action to restore peace to the backyard and learn that love is more than a fuzzy feeling.
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For those of you wondering and still reading, my middle name is Gregory. I am Thomas Gregory Umstattd Jr, but I omit my middle name to avoid being mistaken for my dad. I call myself Thomas Umstattd Jr., and he goes by Tom G. Umstattd, CPA. His firm has a sign on one of the busiest highways in Austin, and it would be easy for folks to get us confused if our names were more similar.
You never told us the actual author of the book: “The Simple Truth”
Sorry about that! It was Alex Brennan-Martin and Larry Taylor
This is good and timely. You are right, an author can’t see the title from inside the bottle. I write and publish fast. However, in my first 10 books I put far less effort in the title and subtitle as I should have. Working on this and involving others to help me. Thank you for this post.
Thx for this great info. Can you please tell us the author of the simple truth? Thx!
Alex Brennan-Martin and Larry Taylor. I’ve added a link to the book to the blog post.
Thank you for your insightful article. I once wrote 23 scripts of a series, each of them titled with one word. When a story developed over two episodes, their two one-worded titles made perfect sense combined. Equally well, it worked with a story stretching over four episodes. However, to come up with my novel’s title has been so arduous.
As always, this was a great and informative episode. Any thoughts on the recent trend in fiction of vaguer, emotive titles, such as “Small, Great Things,” “Things I Never Told You,” “Truly, Madly, Deeply” as opposed to more concrete titles like “Redeeming Love,” “The Bridge,” “Jane Eyre,” and “Where the Crawdads Sing.” I find it harder to remember the exact title of some of these newer books where the title is more of an idea. Why do you think publishers are choosing these titles?
Thomas, I love your work. You make it simple and to the point. I have been following you for quite some time. I have learned so very much. I am currently working on the name for my wip I plan for this book to be a trilogy. At this point I plan to name the series A Place called Wilbur.
Keep the blogs coming
Thanks. This in-depth study of titles is especially helpful as I’m working to change the title of my husband’s book of prayers. My working title has been Pastoral Prayers: the How and the Why. But a beta reader suggested that this sounds like the readers would only be pastors. So I now have a sheet of possible titles to consider.
Great column Thomas! I’ve been helping a new author come up with a title, and your advice is spot on.