Catchy beats descriptive for book titles

When considering possible book titles, two qualities matter: is it catchy, and does it describe the book?

Catchy matters most.

Why catchy?

Consider your potential reader’s first encounter with your book. They may hear about it from a friend. They may read about in a news source, or see it in a television interview. They may hear you talk about it in a speech, or in an online video. Or they may notice it in a mention in social media. They may even — although it’s increasingly unlikely — see it in a bookstore.

Here’s what happens after that first encounter, if you’re lucky: the potential reader says, “Hmm, that sounds interesting.” Then more than likely, they forget it.

If you’ve invested enough effort in book promotion, that target reader will hear about your book several times, in different media. The second time, they’ll again say, “I remember that, it sounded interesting.” And again, they’ll probably forget it.

After three or more encounters, it’s far more likely that they’ll say, “Oh, yeah, let’s get a copy.” And then they will buy it.

Frequency matters. But it only works if the reader can instantly say, “Ah, that book again,” and recall that it’s the same book they heard about before.

If the title of your book is The Anxious Generation or Knife or The Body Keeps The Score or Braiding Sweetgrass, people will likely remember it. Those titles connect to topic of the book, but they’re unique and memorable.

If the title of your book is Essential Product Management or The Leadership Imperative or AI Futures, not so much. Even if someone became intrigued by a title like that, they’d be far less likely to remember it.

But what if the title doesn’t describe the book?

Most book titles don’t describe the book. They intrigue. They raise a question, rather than answer it.

Fortunately, you have the subtitle to do the work of explaining what the book is about.

The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness

Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants

What this means for authors

To pick a title, talk to a friend about your book. Together, find the unique phrase that’s associated with your book — a catchy phrase that stands out.

Ask yourself, “If I heard this, would I want to know more about it?” That’s the point of the title.

The assemble the subtitle to explain the point of the book. Because the subtitle complements the title, you can’t nail it down until the title is set.

Great books with generic titles can still succeed. But it’s a whole lot harder. Go for catchy, not descriptive, and you’ll be off and running.

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One Comment

  1. You make me feel great about The Nine: The Tectonic Forces Reshaping the Workplace. I really like its evocative title. The subtitle serves the very purpose you describe.

    I’ve said it many times before: Writing a 5,000-word chapter isn’t that hard. Finding the three of four words for the title and maybe ten for the subtitle is vexing. It’s great when you nail it, though.