Secrets to Developing the Best Title for Your Nonfiction Book

how to title your nonfiction book

Today’s post by Jody Rein and Michael Larsen is excerpted from the fifth edition of How to Write a Book Proposal, published by Writer’s Digest Books.

“A good title is the title of a successful book.” —Raymond Chandler

One New York editor said to Mike, “If the title is good enough, it doesn’t matter what’s in the book.” Everything Men Know About Women proves her right. The book sold more than 750,000 copies. Its 120 pages are … blank!

If you’re pitching your book to agents or editors, the perfect title for your book will define your subject and grab their positive attention. It should be a label they can confidently share with colleagues in editorial board meetings and use to convince the powers-that-be to release money to acquire your book. You don’t want to offer agents or editors a string of titles to choose from; pick the one you think is best. (You can share the others later.)

In How to Drive Your Competition Crazy, Guy Kawasaki tells the story of how nobody at a private boys’ school signed up for a course called “Home Economics for Boys.” The class filled up immediately when the school changed the name of the course to “Bachelor Living.”

The title and subtitle of your promotion-driven book must work together to entice readers to make a purchase. Titles are short, simple, visual, metaphorical, and resonant, creating an emotional response. Titles grab the gut. Titles sell. Subtitles are straightforward, designed to clearly express what your book will do for readers. They might define a desirable activity or skill to be learned, a systematic approach to learning it, and, perhaps, a time within which the reader will acquire the skill.

The following title/subtitle combinations effectively tell and sell. Emulate them to develop a great title for a prescriptive or platform-driven book.

  • The 90-Second Fitness Solution: The Most Time-Efficient Workout Ever for a Healthier, Stronger, Younger You by Pete Cerqua with Alisa Bowman (Atria/Simon & Schuster)
  • Black Belt Negotiating: Become a Master Negotiator Using Powerful Lessons From the Martial Arts by Michael Soon Lee with Sensei Grant Tabuchi (Amacom Books)
  • Smart Women; Foolish Choices: Finding the Right Men/Avoiding the Wrong Ones by Connell Cowan and Melvin Kinder (Signet)
  • The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun by Gretchen Rubin (HarperCollins)
  • The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brené Brown (Hazelden Publishing)
  • You Can Draw in 30 Days: The Fun, Easy Way to Learn to Draw in One Month or Less by Mark Kistler (Da Capo Press/Hachette)
  • Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth (Scribner/Simon & Schuster)

Narrative nonfiction and memoir titles

“There are many paths to success in publishing; some come easily, but most require blood, sweat, and tears. And a really great title helps a lot.” —Laurie Abkemeier, literary agent

Memoir titles can be metaphorical and even mysterious but must still grab the heart and head—and occasionally the funny bone. Some memoirs have wonderfully wacky titles. Memoirs are almost always subtitled “A Memoir” or “A Memoir of XXX.” Notice how each of the following successful memoir titles expresses a concept that is personal to the author yet at the same time evokes a sense of place, time, or experience that is universal and recognizable.

  • Girl Walks Out of a Bar: A Memoir by Lisa F. Smith (SelectBooks)
  • The Glass Castle: A Memoir by Jeannette Walls (Scribner/Simon & Schuster)
  • Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance (HarperCollins)
  • Boys in the Trees: A Memoir by Carly Simon (Flatiron Books/Macmillan Publishers)
  • Bettyville: A Memoir by George Hodgman (Penguin Random House)
  • Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir by Jenny Lawson (Penguin Random House)

If we wrote a book about historical narrative nonfiction subtitles, here’s what we would call it: Narrative Nonfiction Subtitles: The Fascinating Behind-the- Scenes Tale of Those Never-Ending, Keyword-Laden Phrases that Editors and Authors and Agents Discuss Endlessly and in the End, Nobody Ever Reads.

Titles of historical narrative nonfiction works are evocative but less personal than those of memoirs. Their subtitles are often a mouthful. That’s because they must educate the reader about the book’s subject matter—which often is a little-known event—and why the subject itself matters and why the approach is relevant. For your proposal, don’t spend too much time wordsmithing the subtitle, which the publisher will undoubtedly change. Aim for clarity, and remember to describe not only your topic but also why it will be meaningful to readers today. Some popular titles in this category include:

  • Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand (Penguin Random House)
  • The Seashell on the Mountaintop: A Story of Science, Sainthood and the Humble Genius Who Discovered a New History of the Earth by Alan Cutler (Dutton/Penguin Random House, reissued by Author Planet Press)
  • The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown (Penguin Random House)
  • The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair at Changed America by Erik Larson (Penguin Random House)
  • Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach (W.W. Norton & Company)

The titles for biography and other information-driven literary nonfiction are more straightforward, often focused on the “tell” over the sell. Ron Chernow didn’t need anything fancier than his title Alexander Hamilton to secure a spot on the New York Times best-seller list, a Pulitzer Prize, and the world-changing attention of Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Profanity Soapbox

Every subject area, from parenting to cooking, now boasts a few books with profane titles. It’s so common that the shock value has diminished considerably and, in our opinion, left in its wake a society that’s a little more accepting of rudeness and cheap laughs. Even though, okay, some are pretty funny.

10 Prompts for Great Titles

For inspiration, ask yourself these questions.

  1. Does my title compel people to read the copy that follows? Example: Guerrilla Marketing for Free: Dozens of No-Cost Tactics to Promote Your Business and Energize Your Profits by Jay Conrad Levinson (Mariner Books)
  2. Does my title capture the essence of my book with a memorable image, symbol, or metaphor? Examples: Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese (Random House), Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissinger (Da Capo/Hachette)
  3. Does my title sell a solution rather than a problem? Example: Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead by Brené Brown (Avery)
  4. Does my title carve out a unique spot in the marketplace? Example: The Only Negotiating Guide You’ll Ever Need: 101 Ways to Win Every Time in Any Situation by Peter Stark and Jane Flaherty (Crown Business/Penguin Random House)
  5. Does the title of my book match the title of the talks I will give about the book? The same title for both creates synergy.
  6. Does my title use or co-opt proprietary nomenclature? Glennon Doyle Melton, author of bestsellers Love Warrior and Carry On, Warrior, is on her way to being forever associated with the word warrior.
  7. Can I brand my book and my attitude with a catchy metaphorical or tangentially related phrase? Two perennially best-selling examples: Swim with the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive: Outsell, Outmanage, Outmotivate, and Outnegotiate Your Competition by Harvey Mackay (HarperBusiness/HarperCollins), What Color Is Your Parachute?: A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers by Richard N. Bolles (Ten Speed Press/Penguin Random House)
  8. Can I use a variation of my title for other books? Series like The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman (Northfield Publishing Company) show that the right title helps create enduring brands.
  9. Does my title capture how my book will benefit my readers? Will it inform them, enlighten them, entertain them, persuade them, inspire them, or make them laugh? Example: Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up by Marie Kondo (Ten Speed Press/ Penguin Random House)
  10. How to write a book proposalDoes my title use wordplay to help make it memorable? Try out these techniques. Rhythm: If Life Is a Game, These Are the Rules by Chérie Carter-Scott (Penguin Random House); Alliteration: Amazeing Art: Wonders of the Ancient World by Christopher Berg (HarperCollins); Verbal and visual puns: $ellmates: The Art of Living and Working Together (one of Mike’s favorite ideas that needs a writer); Wordplay: Tongue Fu! How to Deflect, Disarm, and Defuse Any Verbal Conflict by Sam Horn (Griffin/St. Martin’s Press); Two contrasting or opposing phrases: Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus by John Gray (HarperCollins); Humor: I’m Not as Old as I Used to Be: Reclaiming Your Life in the Second Half by Frances Weaver.

If you found this post helpful, I highly recommend How to Write a Book Proposal, Fifth Edition by Jody Rein with Michael Larsen.

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