As I’m getting fan opinions on title ideas for my next book, I’m reminded of the thrills and pains of picking book titles.

#1: Advice is cheap, titles are hard

Everyone is very happy to tell you how to pick a title, and in particular, that you are doing it wrong.

A special joy comes from people you know telling you that your title ideas stink, yet who can’t offer a single viable alternative. “Gee, thanks” you’ll say, to which they will offer “Hey, you’re the writer.” Both complaints are valid of course, but neither solves the problem.

There is plenty of good advice, but no quantity of advice magically generates a title for you:

The other problem is a quick skim of the history of popular books or the current top 100 shows dozens of violations of all the above advice.

#2: This is all very subjective

We all suffer tremendous taste bias on titles. We assume our instincts and likes are matched by everyone. There are many kinds of taste, good and bad, which means there is an unbelievable amount of contradictory  advice about titles, almost as much as there is about writing books themselves.

If we rounded up the wisest book editors and the smartest title creators and gave them a list of book titles for soon to be published books, they’d passionately disagree about which ones worked and why. And most of them would be wrong about the results (See #4).

Insiders love to point to previously published books as examples of good titles, but that’s cheating. What would validate their expertise is a record of what they thought of the title before it was released. If you want an honest opinion from an expert ask them to tell you about books with “great” titles that failed, or books with “bad” titles that did well. There are many of both.

#3: Many titles are cliches

Most advice chases past successes. And the popular advice leads towards books that sound the same. Since this advice is well known many books aim for the same crowded bullseye.  The paradox is they will say: “Your idea is a cliche, so take this advice (which will lead to a different cliche)”

Most genres have crowded namespaces with familiar patterns. Aiming here defeats some of the purpose of the title: to uniquely identify the book. If you follow too much of the advice you hear, soon you’ll be in questionable territory:

  • The Art of Blah
  • Transforming Foo
  • Breathing for Dummies
  • How to Blah and Blah
  • Noun + Number of Noun
  • Somebody’s something
  • The Joy of <thing not generally thought of as joyful>
  • The End of <Something people are afraid of ending>
  • Extreme Coughing
  • The <something important> playbook/guidebook/handbook
  • <Invented word you pray will become a meme>
  • Breakthrough Cheese
  • How to <verb> <adjective> (“How to” is so common it’s abbreviated h/t)
  • Short word: long long long long long subtitle filled with keywords (or see: Gladwell Book Title generator)
  • Outrageous Claim: How something or other will do something or other

Remember that for every cliche there is an original idea for a book title that started it. And you can bet when that author pitched that title, they were told mostly why it wouldn’t work.

But know that cliches can be good if you time them right. They fade in and out year to year, being abused, abandoned and then suddenly rise as cool again. Depending on how many book titles you look at a day, your place, and your reader’s place in that timeline is different. What seems played out to you might be on the rise for your audience.

It can sometimes be effective to use a cliche if you’re going after an audience that hasn’t seen a book aimed that way (e.g. Confessions of a Public Speaker), since it won’t seem cliche to them, as the cliche is a shortcut to expressing the style of the book (e.g. 101 Things I learned in Architecture School).

#4: The title serves many functions

The non-book writing majority of our species has no idea how many different functions the title serves in the machinery of selling books. It will be used for any of:

  • To convince someone to be interested in the book  <— this is the one people think about
  • The cover
  • The Amazon listing
  • Advertising, marketing and branding
  • Any  t-shirts, flyers or other promotional material
  • In presentation slides
  • The domain name
  • In book reviews (and in the title of book review blog posts)
  • The thing the author will say 5000 times in interviews, lectures, radio and tv appearances (should they be so lucky)
  • As a one line bio on TV or for magazine articles
  • As the brand name for other ventures (courses, conferences)
  • The thing readers (hopefully) will say to their friends 5000 times

Each of these has slightly different requirements and you can’t nail them all at the same time. Most are improved with brevity.

#5: Titles aren’t predictive of sales

Two facts about books:

  • There are many great books with dubious titles, and awful books with fantastic titles.
  • Many popular books suck, and many awesome books are unpopular.

Book publishing is not a meritocracy. Even if it were, dozens of decisions influence the outcome. There are many reasons books become popular, or not. Some books become popular in spite of their author’s choices. Other books do everything most things right, and never do very well.

One factor in the overstating of title importance is insecurity and ego. At the time an author and a publisher are deciding on the title they are both at their greatest emotional insecurity: the book is not finished and not released. Their fears only puts more pressure on the decision, not less. Another reason is people other than the writer want to make their mark on the project and the title is the single most prized sentence in the entire book writing enterprise, and it’s easy to express opinions about it (whereas opinions on the text of the book itself requires hours of investment). Many books are chosen by editorial committee and you can guess which ones they are.

Titles of course have an impact on a book’s success. Often its 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.

#6. We feel differently after we read the books

Many titles are meaningless until after you read them. Consider the day any of these were first published: The Mythical Man Month, Catcher in The Rye, Catch-22, To Kill A Mockingbird, Moby Dick, Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, Eat Pray Love. After these books were successful of course the titles seem great. But you wouldn’t have said that before the book came out. Or go further and ask about REM or Led Zeppelin or RUN DMC. What? Names for things sometimes are just names for things. They let us refer to a thing, and that’s it. If we love the thing we eventually love the name. You didn’t marry your spouse purely because of their name, right? Or what city you live in? Or what company you work for?

It’s entertaining to consider the names of many publishers: HarperCollins, Simon and Schuster, MacMillan. These names mean nothing as names since they are the actual names of their founders. What rule of naming was followed here? Sure, companies are different from books, and these companies have done very well. But consider Random House, which was named because the founders wanted to publish “a few books on the side at random“?  None of them exemplify a strategy based on the importance of a name choice in the success of a venture.

#7: What really matters


Of all the advice I’ve read, been given, had thrown at me, or pulled out of of more experienced authors, here’s the core of what matters:

  1. Short. Fits anywhere. Easy to type, write, make into a URL, tweet and text. Unless you are Fionna Apple.
  2. Memorable. The more specific, original and short the title, the easier it is to remember. Or write down. Or type into amazon. A title can be both cryptic and easy to recall: Life of Pi means almost nothing to someone who hasn’t read the book. But it’s just 3 one syllable words.
  3. Provocative. One way to be memorable is to be provocative. To achieve this likely means dividing your audience: provided half of that division is very interested, it’s a win. It’s better to split a crowd than to bore everyone. Many books make a provocative promise that’s impossible to deliver on. You need to decide how close to an infomercial you’re willing to be.
  4. Easy and fast to say.  At parties, on TV, on Radio, the name should be easy to say and enunciate. The fewer the syllables the better.
  5. Author wont get sick of saying it 1000 times. Anyone selling the book, including the author, will say the book title thousands of times. Consider what you will think of the title the 5000th time or five years from now. You want something you’ll be excited about each and every time you say it.
  6. Matches the soul of the book. Only people who have read the book can help here. Many novels make the title pay off after you’ve read it and in some ways make the title more potent than other kinds of titles. Organic titles, meaning titles pulled from something in the book itself (a story, a term, a name, such as The Perfect Storm), can work well.

#8: What to do: Make a big list

The best solution to subjective creative challenges with cheap materials (e.g. words) is to make a big list of candidates. As big as possible. Include anything you like, including cliches. Take your time, over days and weeks. Show the list to lots of people with the goal of making the list bigger. Often there are hybrids and variants that you’ll discover only by growing your list.

When you’ve made a big list and don’t find many new ones, make a specific list of your criteria (see above). Then slowly work to winnow down the list.  Here’s good advice on looking at competitive titles and list creation.

#9: Use modern tools like polling and A/B Testing

When you have a small list of titles you like, get some data. Tim Ferris, Eric Reis and others have graciously popularized the methods they used for applying A/B testing methods for picking book titles. From experiments with their websites, to using sample google ads for book title candidates to compare how people respond. This is excellent. Data should inform opinions. It can’t answer every question but it can verify or disprove assumptions in ways no amount of debate can.

However, A/B testing can never generate the candidates for you. It also never tells you how to break ties. And it can’t tell you anything about how well the title matches the book. You might find a title that gets a fantastic response, but isn’t a good match for the book you wrote.

 #10:  Remember A title is just a sentence

If you’re a writer you will write hundreds of thousands of sentences in your career. Only your name is going on the book: put some confidence in your own judgement.

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26 Responses to “The truth about choosing book titles”

  1. Phil Simon |

    Interesting piece, Scott. $20 says that Lulu’s title tracker ups the “best-seller chances” to encourage you to go with them. I typed in a few thoughts for my fifth book and found that I have a 40% chance of writing a best-seller. I’d bet my house on that number.

    Reply
    • Daniel |

      I tried to Lulu link for my title and it came out to be 23% success. So for fun I did the title: “Derpy Dop,” and that got 69% >_>. Dubious indeed…

      Reply
  2. Esteban |

    Cool post!

    There are three #7, though :-)

    Reply
    • Scott |

      777 for extra luck (fixed)

      Reply
  3. Eric Lawrence |

    Great post, as usual. It appears that you have three sections numbered 7. Typos in Section #4, convine->convince doman->domain.

    Reply
    • Scott |

      Thanks Eric – good to know I can write but I can’t count.

      Reply
  4. Kathy Sierra |

    Fun post, and I agree with most of it. In the end, I believe that for non-fiction, in particular, the title doesn’t really make that much difference IF you are looking at a high-selling book (high-selling for its specific domain).

    A book that is selected ONLY because of its title, as opposed to because the reader/buyer was told about the book, might mean the difference between NO sales and enough to earn out a tiny advance. But to go beyond that, a book has to have been recommended, a lot, through whatever channels make sense for that type of book. So, small to mid sales: title might matter. Big sales: title matters very little (as long as its not all-out offensive, and even then, if it’s REALLY recommended, people will still get it.

    But I absolutely disagree with THIS:

    “other books do everything right, and never do very well.”
    And
    “many popular books suck, and many unpopular books are awesome”

    A book that does not “do very well” did NOT “do everything right”, unless by “well” you mean absolutely numbers. But if by “well” you mean what I assume most people would mean: doing well relative to competitors within its intended audience/market, then a book that does poorly did NOT do everything right. It might, however, have done everything “conventional rules of publishing say they should do”. But that’s a different story, given publishing still thinks of itself as mostly a hits-based business… Put out ten books looking for one hit, etc.

    Same to your “unpopular books that were awesome”. They were not awesome to the people who mattered (prospective readers), thus NOT AWESOME. And “popular books that suck” means we are still not using the right criteria for “suck” and “awesome”.

    I’ll say what I always say: there IS no objective “suck” and “awesome” set of attributes for books. The attributes of suck and awesome (which means the attributes of a successful book) live in the READER. If the reader has a “suck” experience, they aren’t likely to recommend it (or worse, it gets a bad review). If the reader has an “awesome” result, then even if by all OTHER objective measures it is a NON-awesome book, then we just don’t get what awesome means for a reader, and we’re still evaluating on all the wrong things.

    I think the “popular books can suck and awesome books can be unpopular”, just as with any product development, is a story we tell ourselves to feel better about our products that don’t sell. I have a book that died instantly, then later our books sold over two million print copies.

    The one that did not sell obviously sucked. No other way I can spin it. On the other hand, it had far fewer errors and annoying things than the book that went to the top. They were both on the same topic, so market size had nothing to do with it. If the book helps the READER be awesome or do awesome things, the objective “awesomeness” of the book is irrelevant. In fact, the better the reader becomes as a result of the book, the more fault-tolerant they are for all the things about the book that do actually… Suck.

    Suck/awesome is about the reader and the reader’s result, not the book. And though I do feel titles are not that important, I can add to the examples of books with horrible titles that were successful anyway. As I said, two million copies later, people STILL cannot remember the name of our books and series. It was a horrible naming decision, made in the spur of the moment and without realizing we were creating a series instead of just a one-off. I cannot take the name back, but it was one we’ll always regret. But I still don’t think that hurt sales.

    Gee, I guess I have an opinion about this ;)

    Reply
    • Scott |

      Thanks Kathy. I always love your thoughtful comments. I’m pretty sure we agree way more than not.

      You wrote:

      “They were not awesome to the people who mattered (prospective readers)”

      Yes. But the big challenge many excellent authors have is figuring out how to get their books in anyone’s hands.

      An author can do everything right in *creating the product of a book*, writing it for the right audience, at the right time, and still fail at getting exposure for it to the right people at the right time in the right way.

      They might fail for lack of effort, skill or resources, but the book itself can be “awesome” if only the people who would find it awesome were properly exposed to it.

      You wrote:

      “Suck/awesome is about the reader and the reader’s result, not the book.”

      I like the spirit of this – its very user experience oriented, which I dig. I’d say it’s more accurate to say its both – the reader’s suckage/awesomeness is at minimum facilitated by the book. A better book does a better job at enabling whatever experience the reader has.

      Readers themselves credit the books with the experience they have. They say “I read this awesome book” not “I had an awesome experience in my mind while I happened to be reading this thing”.

      Reply
    • Scott |

      Sure. As I mentioned in #3, a cliche title for an audience that hasn’t had a book written about it yet has some power. People in a specific field are drawn to books that take on their subject of interest in a way they haven’t seen before.

      Reply
  5. Sara Peyton |

    “Gone Girl,” “Age of Miracles,” “Broken Harbor,” “Dear Life,” “Flight Behavior,” and “Wild,” are some titles I’ve recently read. But I didn’t buy these books for the titles (or their covers). I bought them because I love the authors and/or heard great things about the book. “Wild,” a memoir, received a brilliant review from the great NYT critic Dwight Garner. Of these titles, “Wild,” is my favorite — who wouldn’t want to write a book named “Wild?” And now it’s a huge bestseller, plus Oprah’s first pick upon her return to bookclubbing. You’ll note, the actual word, wild, neatly fits the criteria you outlined in #7. Honestly if you can come up with your “Wild,” I’d say your book naming job is done. True there also the litter of subtitles with nonfiction — which almost always get in the way — and, if the book’s any good, are righteously ignored. Wild’s is “From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.” I just looked it up. Anyway, good luck on your quest!

    Reply
  6. Joe Wikert |

    Hi Scott. I tend to think that a great title will help a book and a mediocre or even weak title may not hurt it that much. At the end of the day it’s the content that matters the most. But if you can come up with a title that’s both unique and memorable you’ll at least have that working for you.

    Reply
  7. Mary Treseler |

    Good morning Scott. Interesting post. The title and cover matter little with a few caveats: avoid using titles that may confuse a browser and don’t use a title that has already been claimed. Pretty basic. Content is what matters and as long as you don’t offend or confuse people with your title I don’t think it matters as much as we all like to think it does. Provocative and/or memorable titles get bonus points for creativity but do they sell more copies? How could we measure this? I’d like to think SEO should be considered though I think people know the book or author they are in search of or recommendation engines do our leg work and so random sales are rare. I have no idea if this is true of course. I now feel the need to test my assumptions so thank you.

    Reply
  8. Johan Strandell |

    A very minor correction: you link to “Eric Ries” in #9, but the link title is “Eric Reiss”. (Who’s also an author, but I don’t think he’s been an advocate for A/B testing.)

    Reply
  9. Selena Whitney |

    I tried out the Lula site for fun-sies. I used “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”…. The result was 14%. Funny thing…

    Reply
  10. Kaitlyn Brink |

    [...] ideas one’s way. 3. Use this completely random book title generator. 4. Read this terrific article, “The Truth About Choosing Book Titles”, which contains a lot of great information, [...]

    Reply
  11. Warren Redlich |

    Love your #4:

    I’m writing a non-fiction book and am motivated by a few of these:

    The Amazon listing

    The domain name

    As the brand name for other ventures (courses, conferences)

    I own the domain name of the main title (Fair DUI) and write a blog there as well.

    Plus from #7:
    “Provocative. One way to be memorable is to be provocative. To achieve this likely means dividing your audience: provided half of that division is very interested, it’s a win. It’s better to split a crowd than to bore everyone.”

    I’m trying to do that with the second part of the title, tweaking the target into a cliche.

    Love this post!

    Reply
  12. Saul Bottcher |

    Great post, one of the most thorough I’ve found. It’s really important for authors to be aware of the practical and business implications of their title, it needs to be more than just catchy!

    A few more practical considerations that I’ve come across are:

    * One-word titles can result in your book being crowded out of search results by other books whose titles contain that same word

    * For fiction books, subtitles should usually be reserved for conveying information (genre, series #, etc), not “carrying on” the main title.

    * If you’re using a series name as a sub-title, don’t forget to include the book number — it makes people’s lives much easier when searching on Amazon etc.

    * Do you want people to tweet about your book? Subtract the length of your title from 140 characters; that’s how much space you’re giving them.

    I’ve written up some more advice here:

    http://www.indiebooklauncher.com/resources-diy/practical-considerations-for-your-book-title.php

    And a big list of tips for coming up with fiction titles in the first place:

    http://www.indiebooklauncher.com/resources-diy/how-to-pick-a-title-for-your-book.php

    Oh, and I hope that Lulu algorithm is labelled “for entertainment purposes only”… :-)

    Reply
  13. Frank Ralf |

    My favorite bad book title is the German edition of the classic “Peopleware” by Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister from 1987: “Wien wartet auf Dich!”, a line from Billy Joel’s song “Vienna” which is cited somewhere in the book. I’m not sure even back then people recognized the lyrics, much less what it had to do with software engineering.

    And while “peopleware” has since become a concept in itself, the incomprehensible German title kept me from reading the book for years.

    Frank

    Reply
  14. David Grace |

    I’m currently trying to pick the title for my 15th novel. It’s always a problem. I have a huge list of potential titles, most of them inapplicable to the book I’m working on at any given point in time.

    My friends are no help in creating a title. I give them a list of candidates but they want to know what the book is about and I have to remind them that when strangers see the thumbnail on Amazon they don’t know what the book is about.

    Next my friends who do suggest titles do it based on what they think others would like rather than suggesting a title they would find attractive. One friend suggested “Sexy Murder” because he thought that because people are interested in sex and murder that such a title would appeal to OTHER people.

    I asked him to suggest a crime-novel title that would appeal to HIM. Deafening silence.

    It’s not their fault. Mediocre titles are easy. Great titles are the stuff of dreams.

    –David Grace

    Reply
  15. Virginia Roberts (The Heartographer) |

    Thanks for this guide, Scott. I’ve been writing a WIP book for way too long now, and I’m pals with a guy who created some lovely self-publishing software… but it forces you to decide on a title in order to take advantage of sales and discounts for publishing individual books. I can’t handle being forced into that decision early! I so appreciate this collection of wisdom and resources.

    In my line of work, it’s similar to how online dating sites force users to come up with a username at the beginning of the onboarding process, before they’ve had the time to write up a profile, research other profiles, or feel out anything of the site’s vibe. And then they have the audacity to charge you for the privilege of going back and changing it. (Well, some do, anyway.) It’s a backwards system; usernames are basically the titles of dating profiles, heh.

    Reply
  1. [...] ideas one’s way. 3. Use this completely random book title generator. 4. Read this terrific article, “The Truth About Choosing Book Titles”, which contains a lot of great information, [...]

  2. [...] popular like Harry Potter’s New Adventure, but it can be a title that has been used before.  Scott Berkum offers many thoughts on picking [...]

  3. [...] Hyatt refers to this as the PINC test (pronounced “pink”). Your book title should fall into one of the PINC categories. And that’s just for starters. It should also be short, memorable and easy to say, according to Scott Berkun. [...]

  4. […] best article I read on choosing a title, by a million miles, is by Scott Berkun (even though it’s arguably non-fiction […]

  5. […] Berkun – The Truth about Choosing Book Titles Berkun shares thoughts about common advice for writing titles and functions that a title might […]

  6. […] must read “The truth about choosing book titles” at Scott Berkun’s excellent blog, especially the ‘What really matters’ […]

  7. […] “Often its 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 . 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.” (Source) […]

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