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Authors stumble when it comes to titling their work. “Titling,” mind you, not “naming.” Naming says what it is to you, the author. Titling tells readers what it might be to them. Subtle but important distinction.
On the traditional publishing side, we’d lump title, subtitle, and cover design under the general heading of “packaging.”
(So if anyone ever told you that you have a nice package, they were talking about your book. Don’t have a book? Write a book.)
So the book is a package, and the author’s work is the stuff inside the package, like ground-up pig-lips in a sausage casing.
(Some days I struggle to coin metaphors but today it’s coming easily.)
Authors usually enter the publishing process thinking of the whole book, inside and out, as Their Work. This a belief system that is both perfectly understandable and destined to end in sadness and chaos—like pick-up artistry, or libertarianism.
Accepting for the moment that a fundamental divide exists between package and contents: the publisher decides what to put on the outside of the package to get fickle browsers to open it. (Imagine herding cats who listen to NPR.)
The Platonic ideal of a reader’s first physical encounter with a hardcover business book goes like this:
- Spine (assuming it’s not sitting face-out on the shelf): “Hmm, that title and subtitle look interesting. I do want to thrive and not just survive. Wait a second—that rhymes! (slow clap)”
Front cover: “Snappy cover design. Gold foil means it’s about making money while wearing cufflinks.”
Back cover: “A blurb from Gordon Gekko? He went to jail for making a lot of money. I’m an American so that means his advice is even more valuable now—he can tell me how to avoid getting caught. If he’s a fan of this book, I’m going to open it up.”
Front flap: “According to the flap copy, this is the first book that will actually show me how to be successful. I’ve wasted my life reading the wrong books! Where’s a window? Ow! Is this Heaven? Oh wait, I’m on the first floor. I guess I’ll continue on to the rear flap.”
Rear flap: “Look at that author photo. He’s jauntily flung his suit jacket over his shoulder. Roguish smile. I guess that means that he’s relatable—when he’s not laying off thousands of people. This book must contain no-nonsense advice and warm, humorous anecdotes. Color me interested.”
If bookstore browsers makes it through those first five steps, they head to page one and the author takes the baton. Up until that point, the onus is on the publisher to lure, cajole, promise, beg, whatever it takes to get the mark into the tent. (Yes, publishers are carnival barkers.)
The cover is a billboard: “Juicy Hamburgers Exit 17.” People are zipping by at 70 miles per hour and you have a second or two as they glance up to capture their interest. They’re distracted and annoyed. The kids are screaming, the Bluetooth is acting up, everyone has to pee. Sure, your restaurant may offer a lot more than hamburgers, but you can’t throw your menu up on that billboard. You have a second or two for a few words and an image. Contrary to the belief of many of the authors I’ve worked with, it is not dishonest to highlight one aspect of a complex book in its title.
Your cover is a billboard, not a menu.
It’s only fair to expect readers to bring the full integrated effort of their brains to the task of reading your book. But browsers aren’t your readers yet. So you’re not getting the full-court press, mentally speaking.
OK, I Googled it. “Full-court press” is a real expression.
Back to my point: when browsing, we’re using a very limited portion of our attention. Researchers find that when we’re in a state of distraction, our cognition is on par with someone who is more than slightly intoxicated.
A similar conundrum faces user experience designers, a professional class I see as kindred spirits to editors and publishers. In fact, one UX designer went so far as to create The User is Drunk, a service whereby he tries to use your site after tying a few off.
OK, I Googled it. He tests your site after tying a few on.
The thinking here is that the experience he has while drunk will approximate the experience the average user will have when browsing in the real world, distractedly flipping between tabs while listening to podcasts and eating a bowl of PopCorners.
Creating a title while sober to capture the attention of a drunk person is surprisingly difficult. It’s like writing a children’s book, or discussing politics with your parents. You have to channel a different mindset.
Some key points when it comes to your title:
The title and subtitle are a promise to the reader. What will the book do for them?
Forget competing titles—the vast majority of readers are not aware of any other book on your subject, no matter how popular
Don’t forget competing titles—that said, you want to make sure your title is distinct
Vague and mysterious titles are fine if they’re memorable and only if the subtitle makes the promise of the book crystal clear
Make sure it’s something you can Google, with an unusual word or phrase—”Get Successful Today” isn’t odd enough to rise in the search rankings
If you’re stumped, just write out in under 10 words what your book will do for the reader—your title is probably in there somewhere, with a little re-jiggering and an adjective swapped in from the thesaurus
Once you have a title you like, run it by people. Not 10 titles, not 50. Just pick the one title you like and get reactions. Rinse and repeat.
Screw A/B testing.