The Secret to Writing a Perfect Nonfiction Book Title

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Early 2017, I was paying the price for my sins...

I mean, I had WASHED the laundry. I had DRIED it. What was so wrong about letting it sit in piles? We could pull it out to wear just as easily on the floor as we could in dressers, right?


My wife disagreed. I resigned myself to 90 minutes of shirts and socks.

But in the midst of a mundane task, my wandering thoughts found redemption. In an instant, vague musings about writing again resolved into a statement of truth:

Leaving the laundry half done, I scampered upstairs to start the outline.

(Still sorry about that, babe)

After 10 years of writing professionally, I’ve had to come up with titles for books, magazine articles, newspaper blurbs, and advertisements. I can promise the lightning bolt moment I had up there with my underwear is the exception, not the rule.

Most of the time, you will have to grind to find that perfect title/book fit.

Here’s my process for doing so successfully.

Step 1: Find out what will make people want to read

This does not have to be a complex question.

After all, why are you reading this particular post? You saw the headline, decided it applied to you, and made the choice to see what this is all about. Suddenly you are 258 words in.

Title writing doesn’t have to be difficult, but it DOES have to be targeted. Most of the time, a book’s title needs to deliver on this simple (and boring) prompt:

Simple, right?

Step 2: Generate a big list of titles

Write up a list of titles which will immediately inform the reader of the first half of that formula up there.

“I’m writing a book about ___(what)__ for __(who)__”

Let’s say I’m writing an electrifying book about employee engagement. This book would be targeted for people who work in the heart-pumping field of Human Resources. Potential titles could be…

  • Hook your Employees
  • Win over your Workers
  • A (Real) Guide to Employee Engagement
  • Bigger than Benefits
  • Get Your People Excited
  • No More Corporate Zombies

Though it looks easy, here’s what’s happening in my mind while writing:

  • I’m using domain knowledge about my target audience.
  • I’m hinting at goals they want to hit.
  • I’m using no more than 6 words.
  • I’m using language my ideal reader will understand and empathize with.

These are key principles to writing great titles

Step 3: Write an informative subtitle

The subtitle is the ugly, overlooked younger brother of the title.

Luckily for us, since he couldn’t get any dates in high school, he resigned himself to forever being the title’s sidekick.

The subtitle helps us fill out this part of the formula

…so they can accomplish __(goal)___.”

For my boring corporate book, maybe I am trying to help our sad HR folks get their employees to recommend working at the company. My subtitle could be any of these:

Subtitle Options:

  • Learn how to activate your employee base
  • Drive engagement, instill purpose, and have your team raving about your company
  • A Human Resource Manager’s guide to lifting his company’s Net Promoter Score

Again, nothing fancy here. I’m making this all up as I go along. The more specific you can be with your language, the more likely you are to get the right people reading your book.

A Title lays down the hook.

A Subtitle helps readers decide if the book is for them.

Done pretending to care about the tragedy of HR?

Good. Me too. Let’s look at some other examples:

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If you were to fill out the formula for Brian’s book, it would look something like this:

Piece of cake, isn’t it?

Here’s another example, one you might know…

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Even though this title follows the formula less, the ingredients are still there:

I typically hate using popular books because they are BAD teachers.

Chip and Joanna Gains could have called their book “Dancing with Goats in Summer,” instead of “The Magnolia Story,” and they still would have sold a zillion copies. Yet if you tried “The Pecan Tree Story” just to follow in their footsteps it’s likely you would fall on your face.

But Ferriss makes the cut because his title is good. His subtitle is informative.

Unlike, say… this book:

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At a glance, can you guess what this book is about? The title is a single word. The subtitle tells you nothing. As a matter of fact, you’d have to suffer through three paragraphs of Amazon description to learn something incredible:

Wow! Now that’s a story I want to read.

Why did this book succeed? Because it was bought by Random House. Because it got the proper marketing. Because once you crack open this book, it actually is a stunning story. Because the cover is stunning.

But not because the title is good.

Or at least, it isn’t worth copying if you don’t have big resources pushing the book to success.

I like this memoir title a lot better:

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Tiffany’s book wasn’t released by a big publishing house. She didn’t get enormous media outlet exposure. She doesn’t have a TV show. But still her memoir a success. Although Tiffany had momentum for sales in the form of her social media following, she did her due diligence and wrote a great title.

Now it’s your turn.

Follow the process, review the examples, and come up with your own titles. If you get panicky about picking one, just call it “a working title.” You can change it at any time.

As usual, I’d love to see what you come up with.

Put your ideas in the responses below!

Much love as always ❤

— Todd B

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An optimist who writes.

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