PUBLISHED JULY/AUGUST 2019
by Peter Bowerman, Professional Copywriter, Well-Fed Self Publishing —
The perfect nonfiction book title needs a promise.
You discover a nonfiction book-in a newspaper book review, while poking around at B&N, or on Amazon. The title instantly grabs you. Obviously, it calls to some need/desire/hope you have, and it’s enough to have you digging for more details.
What is it about that kind of book title that makes it so effective? And how can you apply that knowledge to your nonfiction book?
Let’s consider a few blockbusters from way back:
- The One-Minute Manager by Ken Blanchard, Ph.D.
- Chicken Soup for the Soul by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen
- The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey
What do they all have in common? They’re promises. They wisely talk about something their target buyer wants and will get from reading it. Take The One-Minute Manager:
OK, no one really thinks you can be an amazing manager in one minute, but the title implies some one-minute aspect of effective management, and that was an intriguing enough proposition to enough people to make it a bestseller.
Do you think the same book titled The Effective Manager would have been nearly as successful?
How about Chicken Soup for the Soul? Talk about evocative. This culturally, etched-in-concrete meme for “feel-better comfort” leaves little doubt as to the promised benefit of reading the book. And its 250 niche versions and worldwide sales of over 500 million only underscores its massive appeal.
Same with The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Anyone committed to excelling in business, love, or life in general would want to know-need to know-what those seven Holy-Grail-like habits are, right? Ergo, it’s a heck of a promise. And the specificity makes it extra-compelling. Take out “7,” and it just doesn’t pop.
In many respects, a title is similar to a product tagline. Consider these iconic slogans:
- GE.® We bring good things to life.®
- Delta. ® We’re ready when you are.®
- Avis.® We try harder.®
- Burger King.® Have it your way.®
- Virginia is for lovers. ®
- Miller High Life.® The Champagne of Beers.®
Notice what they all have in common? Again, promises. They tell you what you can count on.
Years ago, I was noodling over titles for my first book. It was a detailed “how-to” guide to starting a “commercial” writing practice-writing for businesses, where the income potential was far greater than typical “freelance writing.”
I kept the “promise” thing front and center in my thinking. The result? The Well-Fed Writer.
In drawing a pointed contrast to the clichéd “starving writer,” I was clearly signaling to a prospective buyer that we were talking about a far more profitable writing avenue.
I then used the subtitle to reinforce, clarify, and elaborate on the promise of the title: Financial Self-Sufficiency as a Commercial Freelancer in Six Months or Less. It was an additional promise in its own right.
(Note: A good rule of thumb on titles versus subtitles: If your title sounds more explanatory than catchy-and is more than four to five words, max-it’d probably be better as a subtitle.)
In classic sales/marketing parlance, it’s the features-benefits equation. And promises are synonymous with benefits (i.e., what’s important to the reader). As opposed to features, which is all about the book (or product/service/company) itself.
A (really boring) features-oriented title for my book might have been, “Building Your Freelance Career.” It defines what the book is about but doesn’t convey to readers what’s in it for them or why they should bother picking it up.
But not all nonfiction books need a “promise-style” title to be effective. Straight intrigue can work as well, provided the subtitle then does the heavy (explanatory) lifting. Consider Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point and Outliers. The mysterious title’s single word is an interesting one, one that could mean many different things, but which one?
In this case, it’s the subhead that provides a bit more explanation, while only adding to the intrigue: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. For fans of psychology/self-help books, I’d wager that title would have them digging a bit deeper.
Then there’s a recent best-seller: Side Hustle: From Idea to Income in 27 Days by Chris Guillebeau. While the title is somewhat features-oriented (telling what it’s about), it’s also a benefit: The ears of those readers who’ve been considering a part-time side business are definitely going to perk up. And the subtitle? BIG benefit. The promise from reading it is clear.
Some years back, an elementary school art teacher hired me for general consult on her unfolding self-publishing journey. She’d created a wonderful “idea book” for young people to spur their unique creative expression through a host of fun, unusual artistic techniques, complete with necessary supply lists and how-to details.
Early on, she’d named this seven-year labor of love: The Color Book: A Book of Ideas to Inspire Young Artists.
Her rationale: Choice of color is fundamental to a child’s artistic development (and the book was so colorful). I questioned the main title, observing that, while her title made sense to her, given her thinking on the subject, it wouldn’t be self-evident to a buyer.
Just as importantly, that working title was confusing; it could mean a lot of things-color swatches, history of color, etc. Most importantly, it didn’t explain what the book was about and what readers would get from reading it (i.e., the benefit).
I suggested something I thought did far more justice to the book’s promise: Art Sparks! A Creative Adventure to Inspire Young Artists.
Again, a promise. She quickly came to love it, realizing it truly captured her heartfelt mission for the book.
I love this recent one: Book Yourself Solid: The Fastest, Easiest, and Most Reliable System for Getting More Clients Than You Can Handle, Even if You Hate Marketing and Selling by Michael Port.
Any questions about the promise there? Sure, the subtitle is mighty long, but it’s downright jam-packed with words and phrases-and promises!-that’ll speak to any small business owner trying to get some traction.
So, the next time a book calls to you-or doesn’t-you’ll have a better sense of what they did right (or wrong). And if you’re writing your own nonfiction book, maybe these ideas will help you craft a title that sings.
Peter Bowerman is a professional copywriter, self-publishing coach, and the self-published author of the multiple-award-winning Well-Fed Writer and Well-Fed Self-Publisher titles (100,000+ copies in print, and a full-time living for more than a decade; wellfedsp.com). As the Title Tailor, he’s been crafting eyeball-grabbing titles and compelling cover copy for authors since 2002.
A perfect book title needs a perfect book cover. Learn more about why publishers and designers are ditching stock images for Text Only Book Covers.