Literary Lighthouse: Crafting Effective Book Titles (& Sub-Titles)

One question I get often is  “How do I make sure I craft the best title for my non-fiction book?” It’s a great question and shows that an author is clued in to how important is their book’s title (and sub-title!). Why is it so important? I think there are a few reasons, and maybe others have other ideas. (If so, please comment!) Here are a few of the most important:

  1.  First, the obvious: Every book needs a title, or nobody would know how to assess the book for interest.One job it has is to label, or to explain what it’s about. But it’s not the only job!

2.  It’s also a strategic combination of a few words that will hopefully entice the reader into looking further into the book, and hopefully ultimately purchasing it. It’s an important part of the branding and marketing strategy.

3. It’s an opportunity to compete favorably with and differentiate itself from its shelf neighbors…all the other books on the same topic. (And yes, there will nearly always be these!) That’s why doing a competitive analysis before you start writing is an important part of your planning.

Of course, the title and sub-title aren’t the only parts of the book cover that serve these purposes; they dovetail with the rest of the book design  components (format, size, and design elements like font choice, graphic elements and marketing text).

But the title and sub-title need to be written well before the book design decisions are made, because those decisions should emanate from this all-important text…as should the writing of your book.

THE book title PACKAGE

I like to think of the title and sub-title as two distinctly different and important parts of the “title package.” My experience with non-fiction is that the main title (as short as possible) most often is the “teaser”; the thematic branding that jumps out at the browser from across the aisle in the bookstore, or in the list in an online browser or store. It’s the bait that dangles in front of the fish. It’s often a metaphor, or a common phrase that many will recognize.

The sub-title is often longer, and tells the reader what the book is actually about; it acts more as the “label” part of the title package. It’s the workhorse. Now that we’ve got you hooked, here’s what you’re going to get. The sub-title often gives richer and clearer meaning to the main title.

Cowley's book title compels with a common question.

Cowley’s book title compels with a common question.

For example Robert Cowley’s very successful multi-edition book of conjecture has this compelling title: What If?  The sub-title comes in behind and explains, Eminent Historians Imagine what Might Have Been.

See how the 1-2 punch of the title package works? First we are baited with the a question many people ask many times in their life. Hmmm…what’s this about? Then our eyes are drawn to the sub-title, which explains the book’s concept to us, so we can accurately judge what the book is about and determine if we want to investigate beyond the cover based on our interest.

I think it’s counter-productive to try be too cute  with a title package that doesn’t complete its jobs by clarifying the book’s purpose. At best you might lose browsers’ interest because they can’t figure out what your point is; at worst they could purchase the book and then be angry it isn’t at all about what they thought it was…a form of misleading advertising, if you will.

The role of titles in branding

You can look at a book’s entire cover design as its ‘brand,’ that which shows the character and voice of the book and its author. But the title package carries a great deal of the brand weight.

We know that memorable in branding is important, hence the value in brevity. So even if someone doesn’t remember the lengthy sub-title of Cowley’s book, it’s certainly simple to remember the main title, What If?. Mission accomplished!

Brands are all about three things, most marketers will tell you: mark, promise and experience. And this all relates to reaching out to, and capturing your ideal audience. Not everybody – just the folks you honestly can imagine reading your book. So, of course, you need to know that before you start contemplating your title, too!

The Chelsea Handler book brand is clearly the woman herself.

The mark  can be textual or graphical, but in the What If?  cover design it’s clearly the single major element– the main title. (Often a clue to the brand’s mark will be to look for the single biggest element on the front cover, whether it’s a graphic, text or a photo). For famous authors, appearing on the cover of each of their books is the brand mark. People recognize their faces and that’s what draws them to the book. A great example of this are tv political pundits and celebrity entertainers who write books.

The promise tells you what you’re going to get in the book. For non-fiction books, it tends to be in the sub-title, as we looked at earlier with the What If? book. What If? could refer to many different things, but the sub-title hones in to clarify and inform what the book is actually about. Sometimes the promise tells the reader how they will benefit from the book, as in a FreshBook title, Eating Myself Crazy: How I Made Peace with Food & How You Can Too. (my highlighting)

The experience tells the reader what they’ll feel from the book. They can tell this by a variety of obvious and more subtle hints on the cover, but they should all work together to show and tell what kind of experience you intend for the audience. You can see from the title and graphics of the Chelsea Handler books above that these books promise a comical experience, while the What If? book presents a more serious and contemplative feel.

When should I write my title?

There are differing opinions on this: Some say you can’t write the title until you’ve effectively written the whole book.

My approach is the opposite: I say if you have a solid enough theme, brand, outline and sense of your audience (in other words, if you’ve done your pre-book writing homework), you will already be able to craft a title that works, or at least a pretty close version.

A well-crafted title & sub-title can be an important focal point in writing your book.

A well-crafted title & sub-title can be an important focal point in writing your book.

I believe it’s critical to do this before you write the book, because it provides a wonderful focus for you as you write. I liken it to a lighthouse lamp; a directional beacon that keeps you on point and helps you dismiss any extraneous content that doesn’t serve the point. I’ve seen authors really flounder as they try to write and organize their book without at least a working title. It reminds me a little of the thesis statement our high school English teachers were so adamant about in our essay writing. Now I get it!

And, always keeping in mind your intended audience, it can be a great idea to A-B test several versions of your title with small groups of those who fit your audience avatar to make sure you pick a title that actually will resonate with them, instead of one you just think will.   If you want to guess about something, guess how many cups of coffee your boss will need this morning before he becomes a human. But not about the relate-ability of your book title; it’s just too important.

If you want to dive  deeper into the subject of writing titles and book branding, and many other preparatory activities for book-writing, check my courses for writers at the FreshVoice Academy.


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