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Testing Titles – A PMA Roundtable

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No pricey focus groups. No
broad-scale surveys. No cookie-cutter market research. Instead—as the
accounts below show—PMA members who responded to emailed questions about
book titles devise affordable, common-sense procedures for determining which
set of words is likely to work best.



In a Tightly Targeted Market


When I began my title search, I
was, fortunately, contributing to an online community board for partners of
people with borderline personality disorder (BPD). They had walked (and some
were still walking) the journey of the on-again, off-again abusive love
relationship. So I had a ready source of potential readers to test my titles


Initially, I tested my title on
personal friends who were in BPD relationships; then I tested it with
mental-health professionals in terms of what their clients would relate to; and
finally, I took my title to the online support group, eventually honing that
group down to five seasoned writers.


I’ve learned that good titles
don’t just appear magically—or quickly. They take time and a considerable
amount of projecting into the minds and hearts of targeted readers. What words
capture their imaginations? Which title grabs their attention and speaks to the
needs they have that we can fulfill?


My first title contained what I
would now consider a bare outline of what I finally chose. Each revision got
tighter, more descriptive, more powerful, and, yes, more emotional. And then my
wonderful editor, Tony Stubbs, suggested the perfect visual backdrop—a
geyser, bursting forth with incredible energy from the earth, free at last,
after being held captive for so long. And <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Breaking Free from Boomerang Love






Field Testing with School


We conduct 250 to 300 days of
workshops throughout the year with school districts around the United States
and in Singapore. The workshops center on the work in our books. Through them,
we gather tons of qualitative information about the hot topics and, more
important, the needs of our current and prospective buyers.


We try out titles by using them in
workshops for up to two years. Our recent release <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>The 21st Century Mentor’s Handbook
Paula Rutherford was field tested and refined in New York State’s Greece
Central School District, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles Schools, and St. Vrain
Valley School District in Longmont, CO, for a year before printing.


The title of another Paula
Rutherford book—Why
Didn’t I Learn This in College?
—has definitely helped
sales. It makes potential buyers open the book and see that it contains
information that a new teacher needs. We have sold over 100,000 copies since



ASK Publications and Consulting



A Three-Step Tactic


My books (<span
class=95StoneSerifIt>Facial Danger Zones
,Aesthetic Laser
, and Save Your Face) are all nonfiction, health-related titles
designed to teach. I have tried to find a title for each that:


·      Attracts the interest of the
specific potential readers in the niche for which the book is intended.

·      Stimulates their curiosity about
what is in the book.

·      Motivates them to buy the book by
transmitting a message that if they don’t buy the book, they may be missing
something important. (To transmit the message “You had better read this book so
you will know how to avoid these nerves when doing surgery” to a medical
student or surgeon, I chose Facial Danger Zones rather than a purely descriptive
title such as Detailed
Anatomy of the Facial Nerves

·      Is simple, straightforward, and
large enough to stand out on a bookshelf six to ten feet away.


I always test my titles by
presenting them to many people from my target audience. I first tell associates
and friends what the book is about and ask them what they think of my proposed
title. Then I ask them what they would propose for a title. Finally, I make a
mockup of the probable title and print it out and ask their opinions again.


It is very important to remain
flexible and not be married to your own idea. If you seek advice, you need to
be open to accepting it.


I have learned that a brief,
catchy title that people can remember and tell their friends about can make a
book stand out and result in lasting sales. There are many good books on the
anatomy of the facial nerves, but <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Facial Danger Zones
has become a classic
in my field, is still selling 10 years after its publication, and is being
reprinted this year. I credit the catchy, easy-to-remember title, as well as
the quality of the content, for this success.


R. Seckel




Victory Through Voting


I had catchy words and really good
art by Gahan Wilson. But my original title, <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Green Weenies and Diligence
, left people
wondering what the book was about. And the original subtitle, <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>A Glossary of Insider Terms
and the Lingo of Business
, was far from enticing or exciting.


I circulated a list of about a
dozen alternative subtitles, along with excerpts from the book, to business
friends who matched the profile of our target customers and asked them to vote
for their three favorites and three runners-up. They all voted, and many gave
me new ideas and words. One came up with the word <span
. Several said they felt that the
word insider
could spawn bad feelings in the wake of Enron and other accounting debacles.
Since my book was intended for executives and professionals, and I planned to
offer it to businesses as a premium, I was worried enough about this to ask for
comments. Three people expressed concern, but more than half my panel said they
saw insider
as intriguing and felt the upside of using it was stronger than the downside.


I then circulated the new proposed
subtitles, and asked for a new vote. What won was <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Green Weenies and Due Diligence: Insider Business
Jargon—Raw, Serious and Sometimes Funny
. Go figure.


Without the testing, I never would
have gotten the word raw,
which hit a good nerve, or vetted the use of <span


One hidden advantage to testing
titles in this way is that you amass support and endorsements for the book and
build a grassroots following, which was helpful when I launched the Web site
about five months ago, offering a free weekly Green Weenie with a Gahan Wilson
illustration to subscribers. We are currently getting about 1,000 visits per
month, with subscriptions growing.



French Publishing



Coming to Consensus


As a career police officer, I
recognized that law enforcement is inefficient and ineffective in terms of its
true mission. As the chief of police for a city near Seattle, I built a new
model for policing. The model was premised on highly successful business
principles and on developing partnerships between the police and the
communities they serve. After applying the model, I felt there was a book in
it. I discussed the book with publishers and elected to self-publish.


Finalizing a title proved
difficult. I wanted a title that not only expressed the effectiveness of the
model but also drew readers to it. After trying numerous titles, I gathered a
number of peers, business people, and friends together for a lengthy
conversation that included many suggestions. We settled first on <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>Beyond Tradition
but other books were already using that. Then, since the themes of leadership
and changing tradition are important in the book, we chose <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>Leading Beyond Tradition: A
Breakthrough Strategy for Law Enforcement


I found it much easier to finalize
a title with the assistance of peers and those who would be impacted by
applying the model. It has proven successful in its short tenure.






Do Booksellers Bite?


I test titles on my friends and
bookstore clerks. If my random friends comment favorably or raise good
questions, I know I’m on the right trail. If the bookstore clerks bite, I know
I’ve got something possibly salable.


How to
Be a BITCH with Style: Being in Total Control of Herself
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>helped sales and raised questions and conversation.
Still does. Gets your attention and holds it.

Titles are critical, and you do have
to take the time to make them exactly what you want. But, more important, they
are your first contact with the people you hope will buy your book and tell
others about it. So I call a title your first PR hook.






Asking Again and Again


When I am trying to come up with a
title, I ask the attendees of the weekly writers’ group I belong to: What one
word describes this book? Then I get to see people familiar with my book hash
out a title.


Like a carpenter, measure twice,
cut once. In fact, I like to measure more than twice, because it can be very
expensive to go back and redo things. During the galley phase, I continually
ask people about the title. I frequently get responses about what people do not
want, and less frequently hear what they do want. By collecting don’t-wants and
wants, I get an idea of a middle ground, which I then test again.






Testing Can Only Help


I struggle to make sure the title
reflects the book’s contents. Months before completing the first draft of my
second history of modern-day black journalists, my manuscript did not have a
title. It’s time to make a decision, I told myself. On a Saturday evening in
winter 2003, as I was driving along to see the movie <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>25th Hour
a multiplex, I came up with Rugged Waters: Black Journalists Swim the Mainstream.


That was a title I tested. I ran
it past five people who were reading chapters from the first draft. Most of
them liked it, or at least understood what the book was attempting to say.


When the book was published, an
activist or two at the Harlem Book Fair sneered at the word <span
the subtitle. They were rebels who did not believe in assimilation. Yet another
person stopped at the table, looked sympathetically at the cover, and said, “I
always wondered how you guys do it” (as in, joust with left-leaning activists
on the street and right-leaning bosses in the office, yet walk a middle or
mainstream path). That person purchased a copy.


It can only help to test titles
with peers and friends to see if the words are clear, and whether they spark



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