So you just finished writing and now you want to know how to pick a best-selling title for your book?
Or perhaps you decided on a book title months ago, and you’re happy to publish what you’ve got.
Lots of new authors rush picking a book title for their book.
That’s a real problem because crafting a book title is one of your most important creative choices if you want to make a living as a writer.
The Power of a Great Book Title
Emanuel Haldeman-Julius found success in the early part of the twentieth century by creating and publishing the Little Blue Books series of pamphlets, which sold 300 to 500 million copies in the United States and around the world.
His company, Haldeman-Julius Publications, sold these books for a dollar, mostly through mail-order.
If a book or pamphlet sold less than 10,000 copies in a year, Haldeman-Julius either withdrew the title from sale or took it into ‘The Hospital’.
There, he often picked a more appealing title for the book in question and relaunched it. Here are several examples of title changes from The Hospital that increased sales:
- The Mystery of the Iron Mask sold 11,000 copies in a year, while The Mystery of the Man in the Iron Mask sold over 30,000.
- The King Enjoys Himself sold 8,000 copies a year, but The Lustful King Enjoys Himself sold 38,000.
- Ten O’Clock sold 2,000 copies a year, while What Art Should Mean To You sold 9,000.
Art of Controversy sold no copies, while How To Argue Logically sold 30,000.
You want to sell more copies of your book, right?
It’s not much use editing your work until it shines if your title doesn’t grab the attention of would-be readers.
Step 1: Research Related Popular Book Titles
Many authors traditionally pick self-explanatory book titles. Or they pick titles that rely on a central metaphor.
For example, Dale Carnegie wrote one of the most popular self-help books of all time: How to Win Friends and Influence People.
Then, there’s one of my favourites: Stephen King’s non-fiction book On Writing.
You know almost immediately what both books are about from the titles alone.
What Literary Authors Do
Literary authors traditionally pick book titles rich in resonance. They also pick titles that rely on a central metaphor from their books.
For example, consider Truman Capote’s 1966 classic: In Cold Blood.
It’s a non-fiction book about the murders of four members of the Herbert Clutter family in Kansas. This was a high-profile case in the 1960s, but you still need to read a little of Capote’s book to discover what he’s writing about.
A more recent example is Joan Didion’s 2005 memoir: The Year of Magical Thinking.
It’s an intriguing title, but it gives little away about the book. However, in the introduction, Didion explains the title encapsulates her year of intense grief after the death of her husband John Gregory Dunne.
You should know your genre, who your ideal readers are and what books they read.
Now, you can pick an intriguing non-fiction book title that lends itself towards resonance.
However, Capote, King and Didion are (or were) famous authors who could sell books on the strength of their names.
So why compromize?
Today, many successful authors write a book title that invokes a central metaphor, and they also write a subtitle that sells the benefits of their book.
Step 2: Summarize What’s in It for Your Readers
Consider Tim Ferriss’s first book: The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich.
In his book, Ferris explains how he uses outsourcing websites to simplify his life, but that’s not in the sub-title. Instead, he sells readers on how they can escape the pain of the nine-to-five and follow their dreams.
To distil the benefits of your book, write down a list of five to ten things readers will understand or achieve by the end of your book.
Focus on your readers’ pain points and how your book will help them overcome these problems.
Features are your research, chapters, interviewees, ideas, word count and so on.
Benefits, on the other hand, are what your readers get out of your book. They represent a problem-solved, kind of like painkillers.
Step 3: Write Your Book Title and Subtitle
Haldeman-Julius had two rules for writing a compelling book title. His first rule was to make the title describe the book. He explains:
“The title should contain some dominant word which clearly indicates the subject of the book… If human nature can be put into the title, well and good. Every effort should be made to tie up the book with real life, or with the average person’s desire for romance, adventure, and fun.”
His second rule was to make the title as distinctive as possible “so as to compel attention and awaken interest.”
Picking the Right Title
Writing a clever metaphor or a title rich in meaning is tough work, but it’s your job if you want to become a better writer. You can simplify things by making a big claim in your title.
Try and encapsulate your book’s controlling idea in a few words, or make a promise to your readers.
Your title needs to convince people why they should read your book over all the other books clamoring for their attention. Of course, you must back up your claim or promise within your book too.
Dale Carnegie’s big claim is clear: he’ll teach you how to find more friends and persuade people.
Picking the Right Subtitle
Your subtitle should be more specific and focus on benefits, rather than features.
It should overcome objections potential customers have or be specific about your book’s controlling idea.
Brainstorming Your Titles
Go about writing ten or 20 variations of your title and subtitle. Ask yourself does each variation:
- Describe what the book is about?
- Explain what’s in it for the reader?
- Consider what readers look for when they type in the names of books into stores like Amazon?
If you write and test multiple titles, you stand a better chance of writing one that grabs readers by the eyeballs.
Step 4: Optimize Your Book Title for Search
Haldeman-Julius would have loved the powerful tools authors can use today to find out what readers search for.
The trick is to identify search terms or keywords and work them into your title, subtitle or book description. Once you do, you should attract more clicks to your sales page and sell more copies of your book.
I interviewed SE expert Dave Cheeson about book titles and more, and he told me:
“The book that ranks number one for a search term gets 27% of the clicks. The book that ranks number two gets only 13% of the clicks. If you truly want to show up for that keyword, you either need to add it to your subtitle or put it in your description.”
Lots of free and paid tools can help you do this.
In the Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) platform, you’ll have to select seven keywords about your book.
Chesson, says the best approach is to find seven or more popular, relevant keywords and use at least one of these in your title or subtitle.
“When I’ve nailed those seven, I ask which one of those seven is the best representation of my book?” says Dave.
You can find the best keywords using an SEO tool for authors like KDP Rocket or even Google Keyword Planner.
These tools enable you to find popular search terms or keywords and check the popularity of relevant books.
Step 5: Test Your Book Title
It’s easier today to test your book titles before publishing your book. If you make the wrong decision about your book title, you can always retest your choices and start again.
Let Amazon Help You
You can find popular book search terms in Amazon for your genre by typing in a few words into the search bar and letting Amazon auto-populate it for you.
Go to Amazon and type in ‘How to’ plus ‘your book’s topic’, and you’ll see related book titles that rank highly on Amazon.
Keep a swipe file of popular book titles related to your genre or topic and add to this over time.
Alternatively, study the most popular titles in your niche by using Amazon.
It will recommend other titles based on what readers bought on the various sales pages and even via email. This information is a gold mine if you’re self-publishing.
Tim Ferriss used Google AdWords to test titles for his first book. His preferred choice was Broad Bends and White Sands but after running an ad campaign, he found readers preferred The 4-Hour Workweek.
Today, you can test book titles using Facebook ads.
Create two Facebook ads, each one based on a different book title.
Then, target these ads at would-be readers of your book or fans of your author page. Let these run for three to five days, and see which one attracts the most clicks or likes.
For this to work, you’ll need a modest budget (say $5 a day), a mockup of your book cover(s) and some understanding of how to create and track ads.
Run a Poll
Once you have two or three book titles you like, you can run a poll. This is a great way of getting instant market feedback.
If you have a mailing list of readers or you’re working with beta readers, you could poll them using Google Forms or SurveyMonkey.
You can also post on a relevant Facebook group or use a premium service like PickFu.
I used the latter to A/B test two book titles, and I got more than 100 responses explaining why one title was more compelling than another. This feedback helped me improve the title in question.
If you still need help, consider using one of these headline and topic suggestion tools .
Capture the Attention of Book Buyers – Pick a Best-selling Title
As an author, you need to write a title that convinces book buyers to click through to your sales page, download a sample and buy your book.
Like with a book cover, you can research and test book titles using tools that Haldeman-Julius and others would have loved.
So, find the middle ground between writing a title that does your book justice and one that readers will search for or remember.
Then, watch those book sales roll in.