Choosing the title of your book is probably the most important decision you will make when it comes to selling more books. Your book title alone will be responsible for a large percentage of your sales—so choose your book title wisely!
Bestselling authors and publishers have known for hundreds of years that the title of the book will do more to increase sales than any other single decision you make about your book.
How to Choose a Great Book Title
Whether you’re a non-fiction writer or a novelist or anything in between, a good book title is as necessary as a good newspaper headline. Without a good title, no one is going to open the book in the first place (or click on the link for ebooks)!
For example, would you rather read “Think and Grow Rich” or “Contemplate and Increase Your Wealth Gradually Over Time as You Become a More Successful Person?”
You probably know that the first book has been a best-seller for almost a hundred years whereas the second one has such a long and boring title that it’s likely very few people would ever read it even if the content of the book was the same as Think and Grow Rich!
But why is the first title a “good title” and the second one not?
It’s all about what the customer wants! But what does the customer really want in a book title?
Luckily for us, someone already did the research!
Haldeman-Julius’ Book Title Testing
Emanuel Haldeman-Julius was an American author, editor and publisher in the early 1900s and he sold more than 200 million books in about 20 years. He had a unique way of testing his book marketing – he would change the titles of his books and see which titles sold better. In fact, Haldeman-Julius would take his books that didn’t sell well to “The Hospital” where he would change their name and republish them in hopes of attracting more sales.
So if you’ve already published a book with miserable sales figures, maybe it’s time to take it to The Hospital!
Here are some examples of name changes from The Hospital that dramatically improved book sales:
Los Precieuses Ridicules sold nearly zero books a year. When changed to Ridiculous Women, it sold over 10,000 copies a year.
Gautier’s Fleece of Gold sold 6,000 a year. When changed to The Quest for a Blonde Mistress, over 50,000 were sold annually.
Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme when changed to The Show Off, took sales from slightly above zero to 10,000 annually.
The Mystery of the Iron Mask sold a respectable 11,000 a year but when changed to The Mystery of the Man in the Iron Mask, over 30,000 were sold that year.
The King Enjoys Himself sold 8,000 but The Lustful King Enjoys Himself sold 38,000.
None Beneath the King sold 6,000 while None Beneath the King Shall Enjoy This Woman sold 34,000.
Ten O’clock sold 2,000 but What Art Should Mean To You sold 9,000.
Art of Controversy sold zero while How To Argue Logically sold 30,000.
Casanova and His Loves sold 8,000 but Casanova, History’s Greatest Lover sold more than 22,000.
Apothegems sold 2,000 while Terse Truths About the Riddle of Life sold 9,000.
Will o’ the Mill and Markheim (both in one volume) sold almost zero copies but Markheim’s Murder sold 7,000.
Pen, Pencil and Poison sold 5,000 while The Story of a Notorious Criminal sold 15,800.
Haldeman-Julius drew a few conclusions from his book titles that I think all authors should know and understand today:
Use Descriptive Titles, Not Poetic Titles
Pen, Pencil and Poison is a good example of this – it’s purely a poetic title and its sales were miserable. The Story of a Notorious Criminal is much more descriptive and the reader actually knows what the story is about before she opens the book. Your customer must have a basic understanding of what the book is about or they will not buy it!
Use Simple Language, Not Esoteric Words
Not sure what esoteric means? Then don’t use it in your book title! Avoid words that only a few people might understand. Instead, use simple words and clear language so that even the most humble readers can understand and relate to your book.
Even if you’re writing a book on rocket science, you can sell a lot more books by writing in plain English for curious readers like me. And if you’re not writing a book on rocket science, what’s your excuse for using big words no one can understand?
If a Book Doesn’t Sell Well, Change The Title
Haldeman-Julius and his incredible publishing career has proven, beyond a doubt, that a book title is crucial to making sales. If a book has distribution and marketing but is still not selling well, then the title should be changed thoughtfully to increase sales.
In this book, I’m going to teach you how to get the distribution and marketing. And if you try all the marketing strategies we’ll be discussing and your book still doesn’t sell well, then don’t be afraid to change your title! I think you will be delighted with the results.
Now let’s talk about a few other important ideas you should consider when choosing a best-selling title for your book.
Book Titles Are For Readers
You’ve probably heard the acronym WIIFM before – it stands for “What’s In It For Me?” and it’s the question every person asks when looking at a book and reading a book title. If the book title doesn’t immediately answer the question or at least give you a visual image of an answer, you are likely to move on.
At the core, each of us are lazy in our thinking when it comes to buying something. We would much rather read a book title and instantly decide to read it or not than spend a few precious seconds or even minutes wondering what it’s actually about. If your book title confuses your customer they won’t buy!
“The confused mind always says no” is an apt saying.
Think and Grow Rich immediately tells the reader “I’m going to help you get rich!” and the reader believes it instantly – only based on the title of the book! The book could contain absolutely useless information but the title alone will tell the customer that it’s going to help him get rich. Do you now see the power of a good book title? A good title provides instant credibility even before the customer reads the first page!
Even a worthless book with a good title will sell more copies than a book full of useful information with a bad title. And you can quote me on that!
For any non-fiction book, the book title (or subtitle) must immediately tell them what results the book will give them.
Make sure your book title answers the readers question WIIFM if your book is non-fiction. And even for fiction books, it can still be an important piece to choosing a best-selling title.
Use Mystery in Book Titles
Another important feature of a good book title is mystery. Mystery is more important for fiction than non-fiction but it can still be very useful for non-fiction.
For example, Think and Grow Rich has quite a bit of mystery to it. Even though the title makes you believe you will learn how to get rich, you must immediately be wondering questions like,
“Well how is thinking going to help me get rich?”
“Is thinking really what I need to get rich?”
“How rich is the author?”
…and a host of other questions about what the book is going to offer you.
Notice that every question you have about the book based on the title presupposes that the book will help you get rich. You ALREADY assume that the book will help you get rich – now you’re just wondering HOW! That’s the mystery – and the ONLY WAY to solve that mystery is to buy the book and read it!
This is, I believe, the most powerful combination for a best-selling non-fiction book – a title that tells the reader what’s in it for them and then gets the reader to think about the mystery of how it works and buy the book to find out!
Great Fiction Book Titles
Lulu.com has a great tool for analyzing potential book titles and giving you a “percent chance of becoming a best-seller.” The tool is based on a study done by Lulu of over 700 best-selling novels and it’s incredibly accurate for predicting the success of novel titles.
To use it, simply type in the potential title of your book and pick the correct options from the drop-down menus that best describe your book.
Although the tool is meant for novelists, I’ve found it incredibly useful for nonfiction authors like myself as well. There are universal principles that determine what makes an attractive book title regardless of the genre.
According to Lulu’s study of best-selling novels, the title “Sleeping Murder” is the best book title ever written with an 83% probability of becoming a best-seller.
Why is this title so powerful?
Again, I believe, because of the WIIFM/mystery combination. You know the book is about murder so anyone interested in murder mysteries or thrillers will be immediately interested. Second, there’s quite a bit of mystery to it (as there is in most good fiction titles).
How Long Should Your Book Title Be?
The Lulu study found that title length does NOT effect a book’s likelihood of becoming a best-seller. This means you can have a short title or a long title or something in between. The key is whether or not the title catches the reader’s interest and gives them that inner urge to buy it to satisfy their curiosity.
A great copywriter and marketing expert once told me that any headline you write should be as short as possible while still communicating the whole message. I believe book titles are the same way, with the exception that for Kindle books you want to add some keywords in your title if at all possible to improve search traffic internally from Amazon as well as from Google and other search engines.
The Process of Choosing a Book Title
Here’s the basic process we go through when choosing a book title.
1. Do Book Market Research
Find the top comparable book titles in your market. Create a list of their book titles and subtitles, and take careful note of:
- The words and phrases they use in their book titles and subtitles
- The words and phrases used in their book descriptions
- The words and phrases used by readers in their book reviews
Studying all these resources should give you a great list of key words and phrases you may want to include in your book title.
2. Brainstorm Title Ideas
After you’ve done your research, brainstorm as many book title ideas as you can.
3. Pick Your Best Ideas
Go through the notes in this article to make sure you weed out any book titles that won’t get you the best results and sales.
You should be left with at least 3-5 pretty good ideas. If you still don’t have enough good title ideas, keep brainstorming, do more market research, and ask for input from friends, colleagues, and anyone who’s creative.
4. Survey Your Audience
If you still haven’t found a clear winner for your new book title, consider surveying your readers or audience. You can use a free survey tool like SurveyMonkey or even just create a free Facebook poll and ask for input.
Trust the Process
Choosing a title for your book should be a process NOT a procedure. A process takes time. It takes iteration after iteration. You’ll probably have several working titles before you finally settle on the right one for your book. A procedure is something you do just once and it’s over with. That’s not how choosing a best-selling book title works most of the time!
Are there instances of an immediate perfect book title coming to an author like Archimedes’ Eureka moment in the bathtub? Absolutely! But they are few and far between.
Don’t worry about your book title! You WILL find the right title if you put your mind to it and take your time.
Take out a piece of paper or your journal and just write down some possible book titles. Typical of early brainstorming, you should not discard any possible titles at this stage – just let the potential titles flow onto the paper. At this stage, it’s good not just to think of titles but also phrases and keywords that could be good. For example, “How to sell more books,” “Become a best-seller” and “book business guru” all came to mind when I first started brainstorming the title for this book.
Many best-selling authors now recommend that you think of the title BEFORE you even write the book. I think this is complete bullshit to be quite honest with you.
For self-published writers like you and me, we don’t need to worry about finding the perfect title before writing our book. What we need to worry about is writing the book and getting that part done first and foremost!
Because I’ve found in my personal experience and in working with hundreds of self-published authors that the biggest obstacle we have to our success is actually writing the book. We procrastinate, delay, put it off and blame “writer’s block” for our lack of progress.
Don’t let finding the right book title be another stumbling block to your success! Write the book NOW and get it done with. There’s always time to figure out the right title. Choosing a book title is a creative process in itself just like writing the book, and it will take time to unfold.
Tom Corson-Knowles is the founder of TCK Publishing, and the bestselling author of 27 books including Secrets of the Six-Figure author. He is also the host of the Publishing Profits Podcast show where we interview successful authors and publishing industry experts to share their tips for creating a successful writing career.