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The Four Pillars of a Kickass Book Title

If you’re an author, chances are you want to get your work out into the world as widely as possible. So—what’s the single most important factor in achieving that goal? Is it writing original, never-been-seen-before content? Is it perfecting your gorgeous, or hysterically funny, or deeply moving writing style? Is it crafting the best version of the message you’ve been charged with disseminating out into the world?

Oddly enough, it’s none of these things.

While all of the above are important, here’s the real truth: If you want your book to be actually read, by actual human beings, in a wide and ongoing way, the most important thing you can do is to title it well.

If a title doesn’t telegraph a reading experience your reader wants to have, and let her know the book is actually for her, she will pass the book right by.

This is why I’m devoting this blog to the four pillars of a kickass title. My hope is that by the end of this read, you’ll be much closer to choosing a title that hits your reader’s “I need this book!” receptor, quickly and effectively.

Good to Great

Here at KN Literary, most of our clients don’t actually know what separates a good title from a great one. And why should they? We work with a lot of first-time writers who have a whole lot of expertise in a whole lot of areas, none of which is book marketing.

They haven’t spent hours and hours in title meetings, listening to the yeas and nays of the sales and marketing team. (Excuse me while I fall asleep a little bit, just thinking about it.)

So as a result of this honest not-knowing, I see a lot of sub-par titles come through our doors. Among the top missteps I see everyday:

  • Picking a title that’s vague, and conveys no benefit to the reader.
  • Relying on cliché words and phrases that are already heavily in circulation, especially within their particular genre. (In our corner of the market, we’re talking “love,” “joy,” “oneness,” “awakening,” “happiness,” and so on.)
  • Going heavy-handed on the wordplay—i.e., choosing a title that is so clever/“punny” that it starts to sound corny.

So how do you avoid these pitfalls? How do you take your title from just good, to really freaking GREAT? Focus on these four goals: be fresh, be clever, be specific and be relevant.

Pillar #1: Be Fresh

If you’re writing nonfiction, especially prescriptive nonfiction like how-to or teaching memoir, pick a title that is somehow new and innovative. It’s not easy to say something that’s never been said before, but it’s possible!

Start by ridding your title ideas of clichéd words and phrases—anything you’ve heard a hundred times before. Try writing out a list of words that relate to your book, and then try mixing and matching them to create something unexpected.

If you just can’t steer clear of the tried and true, consider taking phrase your reader will recognize and giving it a good twist. Speaker and coach Nancy Levin did this with her book, spinning the adage “jump and the net will appear” into Jump…and Your Life Will Appear: An Inch-by-Inch Guide to Making a Major Change.

As you can see, Nancy also freshened up her subtitle—taking the highly saleable but well-worn phrase “step-by-step guide” and freshening it up by subbing in “inch-by-inch.”

The idea is to make the title your own, flavoring it with the unique undertones of your book and your particular voice. If you read the title and think, “Someone else could easily have written this book,” you may want to go back to the drawing board.

Pillar #2: Be Clever…But Not Too Clever

This is where many first-time authors get thrown off. They’ve all heard they should find a title that’s “catchy.” And it’s true—you want to choose a title that will stand out. One that the reader will have a hard time forgetting.

But you want these things…in the right way. The best use of “clever” is a subtle one—as the spice, but not the main event.

Bestselling author Gabrielle Bernstein’s book May Cause Miracles: A 40-Day Guidebook of Subtle Shifts for Radical Change and Unlimited Happiness is a good example. She took a phrase that ordinarily conveys something negative (“may cause side effects”) and gave it a fresh, positive twist. She also incorporated a smidge of alliteration, which makes it all the more spunky.

It’s just enough to make the reader do a double-take, and for the title to get stuck in her memory. At the same time, it’s not so heavy-handed that it sounds corny.

Please note that obvious puns and schticky wordplay can work really well online—as the title for a blog post, say. But a book is a whole different animal. Make sure the gravity of your title actually matches the gravity of the content you’ve created. 

Pillar #3: Be Specific

When it comes to nonfiction, great titles are specific, tailored and unique. Many first-time authors make the mistake of aiming to attract every possible reader. When it comes to titling your book, it’s better to be a big fish in a niche market than a tiny fish in open water.

We often hear vague titles from clients who are hoping to hit an audience of “everyone.” Perhaps a client is writing on the topic of forgiveness, but has titled the book, say, Love Is The Answer. While this may be an accurate description of the “solution” the author is offering, it telegraphs nothing about who the book is for or what it’s about. (It’s also a cliché—refer back to Pillar #1 above!) 

If I’m scouring the bookshelf for a way to forgive my ex-husband, this book is not likely to hit my “must have” receptor. The content might be exactly what I’m looking for, but I’d never know it by the title.

It would be much more powerful to specifically state in the title that this book is about forgiveness, letting go, healing troubled relationships, and so on. Often a good subtitle can lend a great deal of specificity to a book cover, but why not let your title start the work for you?

Pillar #4: Be Relevant to Your Reader

Which leads me to the fourth pillar of a kickass title: You want a title that conveys the promise or benefit your reader can expect to receive by reading your book. In other words, the title must be relevant to the reader’s life.

Readers are not altruistic creatures. Especially when it comes to self-help and personal growth! We’re looking for a book that is going to ease our pain, improve our lives, and guide our path. I always suggest listing out the top five benefits your book will provide, before deciding on a title. Then, make sure your title clearly conveys one or more of these benefits.

Often this approach results in a simple title that cuts right to the heart of the matter. My friend Fauzia Burke—online book marketing maven extraordinaire—titled her first book Online Marketing for Busy Authors: A Step-by-Step Guide. There’s zero question what this book is about, and it speaks to the reader in several ways.

First, it tells me what I’m going to get—instructions in online book marketing. Second, it speaks directly to its audience—not just “authors,” but BUSY ones like me! As the ideal reader for the book, I see myself right there in the title. Finally, Fauzia’s title assures me that I will be carefully walked through the process, step by step—I’m not alone in this. Simple, relevant and extremely effective!

Titles are obviously a very subjective art form. But if you follow the four pillars of freshness, cleverness, specificity and relevance you’ll be closer than most first-time authors to crafting a title that sells.

I’m going to leave you with a little inspiration—some of my own personal favorite titles, and why I love them:

Why People Don’t Heal…And How They Can by Caroline Myss

What I love: Caroline starts with the problem the reader is facing—and makes the promise of a solution. The title is so clear there’s no need for a subtitle!

The Afterlife of Billy Fingers: How My Bad-Boy Brother Proved to Me That There’s Life After Death by Annie Kagan

What I love: This title piques my interest, plain and simple—who the heck is Billy Fingers, and what would a “bad boy” have to say about the afterlife? By the way, this is actually an amazing book so you should buy it today.

How to Love Yourself (And Sometimes Other People): Spiritual Advice for Modern Relationships by Lödrö Rinzler and Meggan Watterson

What I love: This title has a hip, tongue-in-cheek vibe to it that transmits the voice of the authors. It’s also just plain funny—while making the point that the first step in any relationship is love for oneself.

When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chödrön

What I love: This title is a subtle spin on the well-known phrase “things fall apart” (first coined by W.B. Yeats and later popularized by Chinua Achebe), yet it doesn’t feel clichéd. In the subtitle we can feel the author’s trademark gentleness in the face of pain. This title really says it all.

I want to hear from you, too! What are some of YOUR favorite book titles, nonfiction or otherwise? Jump over to the Facebook page and let’s chat about titles we love!