7 qualities of an engaging book title

Your book’s title is important to its impact. If the title is not a grabber, the prospective reader will not open the book.

So–how to name your book? As I’ve mentioned, a lot of the advice that applies to copy writing applies to book titles. Here are 7 characteristics of a successful title; make sure your book’s title has at least one of them:

  1. Make it the answer to a question. Questions are memorable. And they are “open loops’; the reader’s brain seeks an answer, a place to find closure. A good title addresses a question that is plaguing the reader. “But Is It Art?” by Nina Felshin includes the question in the title. “Plants and Landscapes for Summer-Dry Climates of the San Francisco Bay Region” by East Bay Municipal Utility District Conservation Staff answers a very specific question.
  2. Cover of Make it targeted. You need to know exactly who you are addressing with your book. And your book’s title must promise to address a major pain that they are experiencing, like “Flat Belly Diet!” by Liz Vaccariello; or “The Official SAT Study Guide,” by the College Board. These speak to people lacking a flat belly and to those studying for the SAT.
    The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich
  3. Make it address primal issues. Life and death, health, love, children–these are emotion-fraught topics. Even if your book is technical, your title will draw more attention if it mentions mortality, sex, or body functions, even if these are used only metaphorically. “The Age of Virtual Reproduction,” by Spring Ulmer. “I Miss You: A First Look at Death,” by Pat Thomas and Leslie Harker.
  4. Make it a promise of a benefit. “Beyond Anger–A Guide for Men: How to Free Yourself from the Grip of Anger and Get More Out of Life,” by Thomas J. Harbin.  “Think and Grow Rich,” by Napoleon Hill.
  5. Make it a “how to.” When looking for a book, people are often trying to find out how to do something. Good titles: “How to Make People Like You in 90 Seconds or Less,” by Nicholas Boothman; “Mushrooms: How to Grow Them,” by William Falconer.
  6. Make it a command. How about “Wreck this Journal,” by Keri Smith? “Do the Work,” by Steven Pressfield? “Cook Like a Rock Star,” by Anne Burrell and Suzanne Lenzer?
  7. Make it almost familiar. “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” William Shirer, harked back to “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.”  “An Inconvenient Book,” by Glenn Beck and Kevin Balfe, played off of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.”
What are your thoughts about successful titles? About how to create them? Comment below!
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You can “just start writing,” but you won’t wind up with a book

You want a house. You have a lot. You’ve got a general idea of what the house should look like. So you think, “Time to act! I’ll just jump in.” You head off for the lumber yard. “Let’s see, I’ll probably need some 2×4’s. Oh yeah, and some cement. Some nails–I’ll get 50 pounds, and come back if I need more”…

A house? You think this track leads to your dream house? No way.


[Model T 18 #C G 26   At a Lumber Yard. R.E. B...
Image by New York Public Library via Flickr

Very simply, because you have no idea what goes first, and what goes next. Never mind permitting and all the stuff that has to happen before construction. How about a foundation?

You get the idea.

Your book is the same.

Just start writing, and you’ll have… a bunch of writing. But it won’t be a book.

A book has structure. Create the structure first. Then write. That’s the quickest way to produce a book.

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Write a good book. But–what’s a “good” book?

A good book, in my definition: A book that keeps its promise.

What is the book’s promise? That it will answer the question implicit in its title.

Let’s look at some examples I’ve randomly chosen from current non-fiction best-seller lists:

  • CHANGE YOUR BRAIN, CHANGE YOUR BODY, by Daniel G. Amen. The promise is clear: Read this book, and you will learn how to change your body by changing your brain.
  • The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, by Michael Lewis. How the US economy was driven over a cliff; here’s what happened. You have to go below the title to learn what the “Doomsday machine” is, but there is a promise: Read this, and you’ll learn what happened.
  • HOW TO NEVER LOOK FAT AGAIN, by Charla Krupp. “How-to” books have obvious promises.
  • Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell. Why some succeed and others don’t. “How to succeed” is not implied here; the promise is that you will understand the “why.”
  • Have a Little Faith, by Mitch Albom. A true story, surprising in many ways, answers questions evoked by the title: How? Why?

You get the idea. By virtue of these books having made it onto best-seller lists, you can rest assured that they kept their respective promises to their readers.

Your book is an offer, in the sense of a deal: “Read me, and you will get what the title promises.” Sounds obvious. But if you examine books that didn’t make any best-seller lists, you’ll find many among them that disappoint.

People who don’t keep promises are not respected in our society, and with reason. You can’t trust them.

If you write a book to enhance your professional stature, to “credentialize” yourself, to serve as a “trojan horse” in your prospects’ offices and homes, pay attention to this point. You cannot afford to let down your readers; they will not easily forgive you.

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