The title of your book is the most important piece of writing you’ll do. Every word counts. A good title makes it easy for readers to know what your book’s all about and whether they want to read it. A poor title fails to hook the reader, and even if your book is brilliant, it won’t sell.
This article helps you come up with a compelling title for your non-fiction book. (Remember, though: if you’re sending your book out to agents/publishers, don’t get too attached to the title. Publishers often change them, with input from their marketing and sales teams.)
Clarity is king
The title needs to clearly convey the topic of the book. You want a reader to know what the book is about after a quick scan of the cover.
Where possible, make your book accessible by avoiding flowery language, jargon and acronyms. Imagine you’re explaining the book to a non-expert in the subject – how can you sum it up?
Here are some examples of clear, does-what-it-says-on-the-tin titles:
- How to Get Rich
- Overcoming Depression For Dummies
- Jamie’s 30-Minute Meals
- The Bike Book: Complete Bicycle Maintenance
- Gardening Secrets: From National Trust Experts
If you’re finding it difficult to clearly describe the book in a nutshell, there may be an issue with the book itself. Are you, the author, entirely clear on the central theme and angle of the book and its target market? If not, you need to develop the book further.
Original but not odd
You’ve already researched, so you know where your book will sit in the market. (You have, right? If not, now’s the time.) The list of competing books can give you an idea of the kinds of titles that are popular in the genre. They may inspire your thinking, and if so, that’s great – just make sure you innovate rather than imitate. If someone else has published 100 Places to Visit in Italy, don’t entitle your book 101 Places to Visit in Italy. If you’ve written a recipe book celebrating yeast extract, don’t call it Marmite For Dummies (that would be infringement of a registered trademark).
So, you need to come up with an original title. That doesn’t mean, however, that you need to come up with something wildly unusual.
Question: what do these books have in common?
- The Theory of Lengthwise Rolling
- How to Avoid Huge Ships
- Greek Rural Postmen and Their Cancellation Numbers
- High Performance Stiffened Structures
- The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification
- Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes
- The Joy of Waterboiling
- The Dirt Hole and Its Variations
Answer: they’re all winners of the annual Bookseller/Diagram Prize for Oddest Title of the Year. This is one prize you don’t want to win.
Your job when crafting a non-fiction title isn’t to be fabulously clever or witty or mysterious. That risks confusing and putting off your target reader. Your job is simply to say, succinctly, ‘This book is about xyz.’
A marketing hook
The title of your book can be a powerful marketing hook:
- You can take the opportunity to use keywords that will help your book be discovered online. For example, Shortcut Your Startup: Ten Ways to Speed Up Entrepreneurial Success is primed to rank in online retailers for search terms like ‘startup’ and ‘entrepreneur’.
- You can use the title to convince the reader that they need to read the book because doing so will make them more knowledgeable, skilled, successful, happy etc. For example, This Book Will Make You Sleep is bound to hook the interest of any insomniac.
- You can identify the target market for the book right there in the title. For example, Essay Writing for A Level Students is reassuringly specific if you’re an A level student preparing to write essays.
Short titles are powerful; think It and Room and Dracula. But these are all fiction books, and for non-fiction you really need to convey more information. If you pick up a book simply called Accounting or Cinema or Wellies, you won’t have a good enough idea of what the book is about. That’s where the subtitle comes in. You can start your title with a short keyword or term and follow on with a subtitle that provides a little more explanation, as in Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World and Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.
The title and subtitle need to be long enough to convey the point of the book and hook the reader. That may mean a title of just a few words, like Stephen Hawking: His Life and Work, or it may mean extending to between ten and twenty words, like Surrounded by Idiots: The Four Types of Human Behaviour (or, How to Understand Those Who Cannot Be Understood).
Some authors use a longer title for dramatic or comedic effect; for example, You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You’re Deluding Yourself. Longer titles are a little riskier, so ask others for honest input. Is the title funny and clever, or do they find it verbose and silly?
With a longer title, also consider how the text will fit on the cover. As I write this article, the Guinness World Record for the longest book title stands at 3,777 words. Presumably, the designer had quite a headache trying to cram all those words onto the cover.
Mistakes happen, even when you’re writing just a few words. Proofread carefully, checking your spelling, punctuation and grammar. And if you’re self-publishing, take care when laying out the cover that the title is on the spine. I once worked for a publisher that did a large print run of a book with a blank spine. Oops!