Guest Expert: Roger C. Parker
The following Commandments are based on identifying the characteristics commonly found in successful nonfiction book titles.
Used by themselves, and in combination with each other, these following can help you choose a nonfiction book title that accurately describes why readers should pay attention to your book, is easy to say, and easy to remember.
Why nonfiction book titles matter
The title you choose for your nonfiction book plays a “make or break” role in its success.
Choose the right title, and you establish instant rapport with your intended readers. The right title clearly indicates who should buy your book, why they should buy it, and how they will benefit from your book.
Choose the wrong title, however, and your book becomes invisible! Just as the headline is the most important part of an advertisement, the title is the promise that attracts readers (and search engines) to your book and engages their interest.
Here are 10 time-tested ideas you can use to choose the right nonfiction book title.
1. Make an obvious promise.
Choose a title that clearly describes the change your book will help readers enjoy. Readers buy non-fiction books for a purpose. The best titles promise to solve a problem or help readers achieve a desired goal. Your readers are looking for help, not entertainment!
Compare the following two titles:
- Graphic Design Tools & Techniques
- Looking Good in Print: A Guide to Basic Design for Desktop Publishing
Which do you think sold best 20 years ago, and continues to sell? Hint: the first title simply tells what the book is all about. The second title emphasizes the benefits that readers will enjoy, expressed in a familiar, conversational way.
A popular formula is to partner a short title with by a longer, explanatory, subtitle, as Malcolm Gladwell did with The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.
2. Identify your target readers.
Identify your intended readers in your book’s title. Prospects will want to read your book because it sounds like it was “written for them.” You can target your market by naming them, or describing their characteristics. Either way, the more obvious you are, the better. Here are some ideas:
- As an example of an obvious title, consider C. J. Hayden’s Get Clients Now: A 28-day Marketing Program for Professionals, Coaches, & Consultants.
- Or, you can identify your market by describing what they’re not, the way Robin Williams did in her Non-Designers Design Book.
- You can also identify your market by describing the circumstances they’re experiencing, i.e., Cooking for Two.
3. Be as specific as possible.
Use numbers to add credibility and urgency to your titles. For example:
- Use numbers to provide structure for your information, as in Steven Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Individuals. In this type of book, once you’ve identified the habits, secrets, keys, or steps, your book is well on its way to completion.
- Numbers can make big goals appear easy to achieve, by breaking them into a series of easy-to-accomplish tasks, like 6 Steps to Take Your Marriage from Good to Great.
- You can also use numbers to emphasize how quickly readers can attain the change they’re looking for. In this case, the numbers communicate a timetable for success, as in Jay Conrad Levinson and Al Lautenschlager’s Guerrilla Marketing in 30 Days.
Numbers can add urgency to a book title while making it memorable, as 21 Pounds in 21 Days: The Martha’s Vineyard Diet Detox shows.
4. Differentiate your book from the competition.
Nonfiction book titles should position, or set a book apart from its competition. You can set a book apart from its competition by emphasizing:
- The market you wrote the book for
- The symptoms your book addresses
- Your credentials and qualifications to write the book
- The process or technique employed to solve a problem or achieve a goal
One of the best examples of positioning is the …for Dummies series, i.e., Red Wine for Dummies. The success of the series, with more than a thousand titles, is obvious. In the red wine example, if you’re an informed wine buyer, you wouldn’t be interested at all in the title. But, if you’re just developing your appreciation for red wine, you’ll immediately gravitate to the title.
The …for Dummies series succeeds because everyone is a dummy in new and different fields. By poking fun at those who are supposedly “experts,” the “Dummies” series creates a community among those who are willing to admit that they don’t understand a topic, but want information presented in an informal way.
An example of book positioning based on emphasizing process is: Prevent & Treat Cancer with Natural Medicine.
5. Engage your reader’s curiosity.
Curiosity, which can be created by using unexpected words or contradictory terms, can also add interest to your book and help set it apart from “duller” treatments of the same topic.
An excellent example of using opposites to arouse interest is David Chilton’s The Wealthy Barber. The contradiction between “wealth” and “barber” compels readers to to find out “how” and “why” by reading the subtitle, The Common Sense Guide to Successful Financial Planning.
Another example of a curiosity-invoking, “What could he possibly mean?” title is Ian Ferrazzi’s Never Eat Alone.
6. Use a metaphor to make titles easier to understand and remember.
Metaphors make it easy for readers to “picture” what you’re talking about. They’re also easier to remember. Jay Conrad Levinson’s Guerrilla Marketing communicates its promise of describing unconventional ways to achieve success.
Another example of a successful metaphor-based series is the Chicken Soup for the … series. Chicken Soup is a metaphor for relief from pain, arousing memories of the meal mothers and grandmothers have traditionally served family members in need care and nuturing when they’re under the weather.
7. Choose the right tone of voice.
The verbs you use in your book title plays an important role in the way readers will approach your book.
- Imperative or action verbs. Imperative titles begin with a silent “you;” they communicate in an action-oriented, conversational, way. Notice the implied action in Get Clients Now and Book Yourself Solid.
- Gerunds. Or, you can use “ing” verbs to communicate an on-going process, i.e., my Looking Good in Print or Michael Stelzner’s Writing White Papers.
8. Be as concise as possible.
Conciseness leads to impact. Think of your book’s cover as a billboard alongside a busy highway. The fewer the words, the larger the type size they can be set in. A title with a few, short words can create far more impact longer titles containing longer words.
Use the minimum number of words needed to explain what your book is about, e.g. Content Strategy for the Web. Nothing more is needed.
Combine a short title with a longer subtitle that provides additional details. An example is the 2-word title and 17-word subtitle used in Skinny Bitch: A No-Nonsense Guide for Savvy Girls Who Want to Stop Eating Crap and Start Looking Fabulous.
9. Write the way your market speaks.
State your book’s promise in words your readers will immediately understand. The best titles have an almost juvenile obviousness, or transparency. Readers should be able to understand your book’s promise at a glance, like Michael Port’s Book Yourself Solid or Scott Belsky’s Making Ideas Happen: Removing the Obstacles Between Ideas and Reality.
Nonfiction book titles can never be too simple or too obvious., e.g., Michael Larsen’s classic and always popular How to Write a Book Proposal and How to Get a Literary Agent.
10. Choose a web-friendly book title.
Choose book titles that contain the words your market uses when searching for resources on the Internet. Even if your book is intended for trade publication and sale in bookstores like Barnes & Noble or Borders, your market is likely to search online before visiting their local bookstore.
Titles like Writing White Papers enjoy a decided advantage over books with more “creative” titles that won’t be visible to search engines and those that use them to locate resources.
When you begin to get serious about a title, see if the website URL is available. Register it as soon as possible. If the exact title isn’t available, try adding words like “online,” as I had to do with www.designtosellonline.com.
Combining the 10 Commandments
Although the above 10 characteristics of effective nonfiction book titles are listed individually, the best titles usually include 2, or more, of characteristics combined together.
For example, start with a short, clear, metaphor or a curiosity title that communicates a promise of change. Support it with a longer, explanatory, subtitle that elaborates on the benefit or targets your intended reader.
While researching the competition and analyzing best-selling nonfiction books in different categories, take the time to identify the different techniques used in the titles you run across.
For example, what are the Commandments used in, The Dirt-Cheap Green Thumb: 400 Thritfy Tips for Saving Money, Time, and Resources as you Garden.
No formulas, but…
I’ve always loved nonfiction books and nonfiction book titles, and have long enjoyed deconstructing them.
The main lesson I learned writing #Book Title Tweet: 140 Bite-Sized Ideas for Compelling Article, Book, and Event Titles, it’s that while there are no universal “formulas” to nonfiction book title success, there are techniques and tools you can use- -like surveys- -to improve your chances of choosing the right nonfiction book title.
Happy book titling!
Roger C. Parker, is a “32 Million Dollar Author,” book coach, and online writing resource. His 38 books have sold 1.6 million copies in 35 languages around the world. About his ‘Looking Good in Print’ the New York Times said, “…the one to buy when you’re buying only one!”
Roger has interviewed hundreds of successfully branded authors. He distils his experience in this book and shares what he learns at Published & Profitable, and on his Writing Tips blog.
His latest book is #Book Title Tweet: 140 Bite-Sized Ideas for Compelling Article, Book, and Event titles.