How do you find the best titles for nonfiction books?


Titles make or break you, except in newspapers where one of the editors will write the title to fit into the available space. There, if the item is about “wild dogs chasing widows,” that’s precisely what you write at the top, add your by-line (by Jim Slim), and they’ll decide what to use and what to call it.

Also, if you’re publishing through another house (not self-publishing), expect that they will change your title almost 100% of the time. Read the rest of this blog, but don’t make the sale conditional upon them using your title (or you designing the cover)–it ain’t gonna’ happen!

For nonfiction books, which include at least 85% of the total published, the title (and subtitle) should tell the buyer or reader what the book is about, or its promise, a benefit or two that readers will receive, or maybe something that tickles their fancy.

What you can’t fit in the title you can put in the subtitle, if needed. Just look at ten titles of books for sale like the book you want to title. What are they called? And how does the subtitle boost the title itself? In fact, making a list of the titles/subtitles of all of the published books directly in competition with your book is the very best way to see what other publishers think will sell. The farther you wander from those examples, the weaker the plank.

Teachers Change Lives 24/7 is a book we publish, and it sells great titled as is. (It works so well we are about to publish Principals Change Lives 24/7.) It doesn’t need a subtitle. I’ve been publishing another book for 20 years, updated now and then, where the title alone carries the freight: Treasure and Scavenger Hunts. Bingo.

But we have another fairly new book where the subtitle saved the day: “Finding Middle Ground in K-12 Education” it says at the top of this very popular book. Makes sense, sort of, but what’s it about? The reader must know that immediately or you need a better title. What kind of middle ground? Is that the play yard? Is it some kind of compromise? Of what? By whom? So we added “Balancing Best Practices and the Law,” and every top K-12 administrator and school lawyer came running!

Since I review books in their last-gasp pre-print stages, I’ve had to SHOUT “NO” more than a dozen times for books with titles like “My Story,” “What Your Workers Need to Know,” “The Ideal Meal,” “Crooks for Sale,” and “What I Learned in 40 Years.”

I mean, why would I (or anybody) pay money to buy those books, or invest time reading them, however well the prose is written? Your story? Your message? So what, unless you tell me more, like “Barbers: What I Learned…” or “My Story Winning in Five Olympics.” Or add a subtitle like “Crooks for Sale: I Hired and Fired for the Mafia.” Otherwise, I’m sorry but who cares? That the very same question asked by the distributors who will not-so-kindly refuse to show or sell your book.

Niche books sell best, if in the title or subtitle you mention the niche, like SOPs for Endodontists, The Fourth Grade Teacher’s Science Guide, The Best Burger and Fries Salesperson Five Straight Years… (See the 12-blog series I’m just concluding here at about how to pre-test your niche book, including testing the title.)

Your nonfiction book title (or subtitle) should include at least a couple of the journalists’ “5 w’s and h”: who, what, why, where, when, or how. Especially who and what.

In my seminar about “How to Set Up and Market Your Own Seminar” I talk about seminar titles, and remind them that those work best if they are short, precise, and accurate. Short there means six words or less (a single-decker in an ad), precise meaning that there is only one interpretation that the words convey, and accurate in tone, so if the target is engineers it is more like they talk and think than, say, barn dancers. I think the seminar “Speaking for Money” is an example of all three.

I’ve met writers who were seized by a title and spent a year writing a book to match it. (Article writers are even worse.) Heavens. They have the tale wagging the chapters! Do precisely the reverse. Get a rough idea for a book by figuring who would read it and why, then get writing. Put an empty sheet of paper (or a blank page in the computer) and every time a title seizes you, write it down—and write down two more since you are there. But call your book MY BOOK until it’s done. By then you should have a dozen or 30 titles on your list. Eliminate those that have nothing to do with the book you finally wrote. Then zero in and pick a winner—but let your friends (or people on the trolley) pick from your top five. Pay attention to their choices—but you select.

Fiction I know nothing about other that I usually guess the wrong killer. There doesn’t seem to be much sense there, except that the artwork on the cover usually has a clue to the field where the action takes place. If I see a cop, cross, swastika, or tart, I pretty much know what’s coming.

Finally, nobody can copyright a title. But if you use a title that has already been used it mightily confuses librarians, booksellers, and the well read. For example, I wouldn’t call my how-to book The Bible. But How to Read the Bible has legs.

I hope this helps a bit. Spend a lot of time playing with titles, then pick one only after you have a book that your title will drive readers to.

Best wishes,

Gordon Burgett

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