Titles Are Tools

Are you using them effectively?

The title of your book is your first and best marketing tool. It can and should immediately convey to a potential reader the book's topic, purpose, and style, all in a few words. Cryptic is not a plus here. Imagine someone encountering a link to your book in a tweet or happening upon the cover in the book room at a conference. You want people to see the words of the title and immediately think, “Oooo, I need to check out that book!” because it clearly touches on something they’re already interested in. Don’t assume a random potential reader will spend time trying to find out more information about your book if the title doesn’t speak to them right away. 

The title also matters for SEO (search engine optimization) purposes: you want people searching for books on your topic to end up with your book in front of their face. Chapter titles may get stored as meta data in book databases, so you should craft those with care as well. Most academic publishers list a table of contents on the book’s webpage, and potential readers will peruse it to decide if the book will be useful to them. Some publishers are even moving toward allowing access to or purchase of individual chapters, so it makes sense to use chapter titles to give readers as much information as you can about what they can expect to find in the chapters.

If your title can give away not only the subject matter of the book/chapter, but also your approach to that subject matter—even suggesting your overall thesis—super bonus points for you. Serial lists or pairs of nouns are popular in titles but they often only hint at the relationship between those nouns theorized within the text. For example, my first book was called Lifestyle Politics and Radical Activism. What does the book say about the actual dynamic between lifestyle politics and radical activism? It’s anyone’s guess, based on the title. A stronger title that hinted at the argument might have been something like Radical Activism and the Limits of Lifestyle Politics. Or Radical Lifestyles: How Subcultures Affect Activist Movements.

It’s ok if the first version of the title you come up with follows the format One or Two Words: A List of Two or Three More Nouns or Noun Phrases, Possibly in a Place or Time Period. Many famous, successful books are titled that way. But you might have more luck attracting readers if you take that version as a starting point and push it just a bit further to reveal your actual argument. Try putting some verbs in there and see what happens.

The title alone won’t sell your book to a publisher or kill your chances at a contract. Your preliminary readers (e.g. acquiring editors, peer reviewers) will probably keep reading your proposal even if the title is vague, boring, or obscure. But a strong title could go a long way toward hooking their interest and signaling that you’ve thought about how the end-user will encounter your book product.

We’re workshopping book and chapter titles this week in the Manuscript Works book proposal accelerator. If you’d like to do the same, you can join me and a bunch of other scholars for the fall or January session. More info + enrollment here.