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12 essential characteristics of successful book titles

The right title promises a benefit, is easy to remember, targets your market, and sets your book apart from the competition

The following analysis of title characteristics is based on 3 sources:

  • Publisher's Weekly's list of the best-selling books of the past 100 years

  • Business Week's yearly surveys of the most successful business books, going back 10 years

  • My survey of currently successful business building and career building books

The 12 most important characteristics of a successful title are:

  1. Promise
  2. Targeted
  3. Specific
  4. Positioned
  5. Engaging
  6. Metaphor
  7. Imperative
  8. Concise
  9. Familiar
  10. Alliterative
  11. Restrained
  12. Expandable

1. Promise

Emphasize the change your book helps readers enjoy. Readers buy non-fiction books for a purpose. Focus on the problem you are helping readers solve, or the goal you are helping them achieve.

Compare Graphic Design with Looking Good in Print. The former simply tells what the book is about. The latter emphasizes using design to increase sales.

A popular formula is to partner a short title with by a longer, explanatory, subtitle, as Malcolm Gladwell did with The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.

2. Targeted

Identify your intended readers in your book's title. Prospects will want to read your book because it sounds like it was "written for them."

Consider the subtitle of C. J. Hayden's Get Clients Now: A 28-day Marketing Program for Professionals, Coaches, Consultants.

Robin Williams defines her market by what they're not in her Non-Designers Design Book.

3. Specific

Use numbers to simplify attainment of the promised goal and add urgency. Numbers can provide structure for your information, as Steven Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Individuals shows.

Numbers can also communicate a timetable for success. This helps readers feel their goal is an attainable one, as Jay Conrad Levinson and Al Lautenschlager show in Mi>Guerrilla Marketing in 30 Days.

4. Positioned

The title should set the book apart from its competition.

You can set a book apart from its competition by emphasizing:

  • The market you wrote the book for

  • The symptoms your book addresses

  • Your credentials and qualifications to write the book

  • The technique employed to solve a problem or achieve a goal

5. Engaging

Curiosity, often based on using contradictory terms, can also add interest and engage your market by setting it apart from "duller" treatments of the same topic.

An excellent example of using opposites to arouse interest is David Chilton's The Wealthy Barber that encourage readers to find out "how" and "why" in it's subtitle, The Common Sense Guide to Successful Financial Planning.

Ian Ferrazzi's Never Eat Along is an example of another, curiosity-invoking, "What could he possibly mean?," title.

6. Metaphor

Make it easy for readers to "picture" what you're talking about. Titles with metaphors are also easier to remember. Jay Conrad Levinson's Guerrilla Marketing communicates its promise of describing unconventional ways to achieve success.

Two of publishing's biggest series are built around familiar metaphors; the … for Dummies series and the Chicken Soup for the … series.

The Dummies title succeeds because everyone is a dummy in new and different fields. By poking fun at those who are supposedly "experts," the "Dummies" series creates a community among those who are willing to admit that they don't understand a topic, but want information presented in an informal way.

Likewise, Chicken Soup is a metaphor for relief from pain, what mothers have traditionally served family members feeling needing care and nutrition when they are under the weather.

7. Imperative

Use imperative or action verbs. Imperative titles begin with a silent "you" to communicate in an action-oriented, conversational, way. Notice the implied action in Get Clients Now and Book Yourself Solid, above.

You can also use "ing" verbs to communicate an on-going process, i.e., my early Looking Good in Print best-seller.

8. Concise

Conciseness leads to impact. Think of your book's cover as a billboard alongside a busy highway. The fewer the words, the larger the type size they can be set in. A title with a few, short words can create far more impact longer titles containing longer words.

Combine a short title with a longer subtitle that provides additional details

9. Familiar

State your book's promise in words your readers will immediately understand. The best titles have an almost juvenile obviousness, or transparency. Readers should be able to understand your book's promise at a glance, like Michael Port's Book Yourself Solid.

10. Alliterative

Use repeated constants, or "hard sounds," to strengthen your title. A classic example is Norman Vincent Peale's Power of Positive Thinking.

Another example of repeating consonants is my Loo-king Goo-Duh in Prin-Tah that sounds forceful when "spoken" in your reader's mind.

11. Restrained

Use a single, strong, modifier to drive home your message. A single word can be enough to make a big difference. Consider the difference between The 7 Habits of Effective People and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The simple addition of "Highly," by itself, does a better job of adding to the title than additional words would do.

12. Imperative

Choose a title that you can expand into a series. A strong title creates a brand that pre-sells the success of the books that follow.

Robert Kiyosaki's Rich Dad, Poor Dad, was quickly followed by titles like Rich Dad, Poor Dad's Guide to Investing and Rich Dad, Poor Dad's Guide for Teens.

Combining ideas

Few of the above title criteria are mutually exclusive. Try creating titles that incorporate multiple essentials.

For example, start with a short, clear, metaphor or curiosity title that communicates a promise of change. Support it with a longer, explanatory, subtitle that elaborates on the benefit or targets your intended reader.

Website availability

Is the website address available? When you begin to get serious about a title, see if the website URL is available. Register it as soon as possible. If the exact title isn't available, try adding words like "online," as I had to do with www.designtosellonline.com.

Moving forward

Moving forward

Use the Title Planning Assessment, below, to evaluate the various proposed titles for your book.

Equally important, use the Title Planning Assessment as you evaluate the titles of existing books and- -in particular- -competing titles.



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