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Liz Smith Alexander

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3 Elements of a Compelling (Nonfiction) Book Title
by Liz Smith Alexander   
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Last edited: Saturday, July 30, 2011
Posted: Saturday, July 30, 2011

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Here are 3 Elements of a Compelling (Nonfiction) Book Title



 Coming up with the right title for your book is rather like naming a child. You either experience instant recognition (“Look at him — he’s definitely an Arnold!”) or spend days, months even, trawling through books of children’s names hoping you’ll find just the right thing. After all, there’s nothing worse than naming your newborn Zachary only to decide a few weeks’ later that he’s really a Robert.

Settling on a compelling title for your nonfiction book is equally as important — and challenging. You need a title before you can start marketing your book. And, as you know, marketing ideally starts long before the book is actually published. Even at the point of starting to write.

At least when you have your title bolted down, you can put “Coming Soon: (insert title here)” on your webpage, or “Author of the forthcoming book (insert title here)” under your email signature, as I’ve seen a number of marketing-savvy new authors do.

You’ll find all sorts of advice on how to come up with the right book title (by which I mean both the main title and the subtitle). Here’s my system. Easy to remember. It’s just SEO backwards:

O stands for “opt-in” identifier. It will help your reader if your book title prompts their awareness by saying, “Yes, this book is written for you.” How does that happen? Well, think of the two main categories of goals: eliminating something we don’t want, and getting closer to what we do want.

Your book either helps readers avoid or eliminate a problem, or shows them how to achieve a dream.

If I dream of being an “artist” or creative, then I know there will be something relevant in The Artist’s Way.

If I’m in a position where I need to “change people’s hearts, minds, and actions” then I know Guy Kawasaki’s latest book is speaking to me.

If I don’t feel I have enough credibility, then this book by Kouzes and Posner titled Credibility is going to grab my attention.

The “opt-in” identifier  part of your title should speak to the reptilian part of the brain which seeks pleasure and avoids pain.

E is the emotional hook. While the “opt-in” part of your title makes the reader aware that this is a book for them, the emotional hook is going to prompt them to look more closely. The most persuasive messages take us to the “feeling” place.

Words like “triumph,” or phrases like “Powerful Lessons in Personal Change” speak to the feel-good factor that your book title should have.

Sometimes an entire title shrieks “feel good” as with Dale Carnegie’s classic How To Win Friends and Influence People.

The emotional hook speaks to a different part of the brain — the limbic system. Use it to specify how your readers will feel once they’ve read your book. In Michael Gerber’s The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work, it’s the last part of the title: And What To Do About It that  promises relief.

Finally, S is the surprise…the “special sauce.” Your reader is made aware of your book (the “opt-in” identifier), gets an emotional message (the “hook”) and now you really want to seal the deal by piquing their interest with something new, unusual, contrarian or unexpected.

What was an “outlier,” other than an obscure statistical term, before Malcolm Gladwell?  

Doesn’t the word Freakonomics — which let’s face it isn’t a real word — make you stop in your tracks, wondering what it means?

Seth Godin takes this element to the nth degree…what the heck does Poke The Box mean?

Stephen Pressfield piques our interest by turning around Sun Tzu’s ancient treatise on military strategy The Art of Warand titling his book The War of Art.

By including an element of surprise in your title, you’re prompting that part of your reader’s pre-frontal cortex called Broca’s area. In his book Less Blah Blah, More Ah Ha, Ken Brand describes Broca’s area as akin to the guys behind the velvet ropes at fancy clubs and restaurants. If you’re predictable and ordinary, don’t expect to be let in. The same is true of Broca, which helps us filter out anything we already know or have heard before. Why bother filling your limited awareness with boring stuff?

If you can combine all three elements – O, E and S — in one title then you’ll have captivated the reptilian brain’s focus on pain or pleasure, the limbic system’s emotion center, and surprised Broca in the neo-cortex.

My favorite example of all three in one captivating title? Tim Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich. 

The “opt-in” pain/pleasure is “Escape 9-5″ and “Live Anywhere.”

The emotional hook is “Join the new rich” (anything to do with money tends to have an emotional pull).

Broca is intrigued by “The 4-hour workweek” — I mean, how does that happen?

What’s your favorite nonfiction title and how far does this formula work with that?

More importantly, what are you planning to call your next brainchild?



Web Site: The Book Doula

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