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June 21, 2011

Picking a great book title and other thoughts on naming

By Josh Bernoff

Book pile

I love naming things. I want to get better at it. And I want to share what I've learned so far.

The ostensible reason for this post is that there are other budding authors here at Forrester who will need help with this, and I thought the rest of you might also be interested in where names come from as well.  (This post is focused on non-fiction books -- I can't help novelists and poets.)

Start with some assumptions. Assume that you've got a great idea, have researched lots of case studies, and are a wonderful and fascinating writer. Assume you want your book to be an iconic bestseller, not just an also-ran kind of book. Let's also assume your timing is excellent -- the book is coming out at just the moment people want to know about it.

Remember this: the title is not what your book is about. Don't think about people in bookstores -- the non-fiction books that sell typically sell a huge amount through online channels, eBook downloads, and bulk. Don't expect people to "pick up" your book because of the title (unless the title is "Photos of Naked Celebrities"). Books get big through word of mouth. You read an article about the book, then a blog post, then you see it recommended on Amazon, then a friend tells you about it, and then you know about it and you have to read it. And then you tell other people about it. 

Because of this, a title is the same thing your name is: it's a handle. The purpose of the title is to be a shorthand way for people to talk about the book. Alfred Hitchcock said it very well, although he was talking about movies (and please forgive the sexism):

Movie titles, like women, should be easy to remember without being familiar, intriguing but never obvious, warm yet refreshing, suggest action, not impassiveness, and finally give a clue without revealing the plot. Although I do not profess to be an authority on women, I fear that the perfect title, like the perfect woman, is difficult to find.

In this vein, I have two main guidelines for book titles: they have to be memorable, and they have to remind you of the ideas in the book. Provocative: excellent. Short: good (but not required). Unique: really important. They often make you do a double-take, because they're unusual. Take a look at some titles that became iconic, as well as some books that I think are well titled:

  • The 4-Hour Work Week. (Looks like a typo, gets your attention, hooks up well to concept)
  • The Tipping Point. (Do you know what this means before reading the book? No. If you heard about the book concept would you remember this title? Yes. Perfect.)
  • The Long Tail. (Obscure until you know the concept, then you're an insider ready to spread the word.)
  • The Checklist Manifesto. (Huh? Checklist and manifesto are words that don't seem to belong together. Which is why, once you know that this is about how checklists are essential to getting work right, this is a great title).
  • Getting Things Done (Couldn't be simpler. But it's audacious -- a book about getting things done? I want to know about that.)
  • How to Win Friends and Influence People (Long, but what a great thing to promise.)

There is no rule about the structure of great titles. One word is great (Drive) but not essential. A number in the title may or may not help. Copying other titles is a great way to get attention, but not to prove you are original (Freakonomics was a brilliant title, any other title with "nomics" in it is derivative.)

It is great (not required, but very helpful) to own your name in searches on the Web, on Amazon, and on social networks. Groundswell isn't the only book with that name, but it's the only business book, and as a result it dominates the search results. Search any of the titles in this post and you'll see the same thing -- but with one-world titles like Drive, you may not get to own those results. Empowered was a dangerous choice in this respect -- the top search on Amazon before we wrote it was a series of comic books. You'll also want to own the web address, the Twitter handle, and facebook.com/bookname. That's a lot easier if your book name is Freakonomics or The 4-Hour Work Week than if it is Empowered. 

The subtitle further explains, but need not lay everything out. It reassures you that yes, this book is delivering what you thought you were promised.

If you have an iconic idea and a catchy phrase, stick with it. At Forrester, I named Technographics (our data product, supposed to remind you of "demographics" and "psychographics") and splinternet (our concept of the new interactive world). Those are words that if you hear them, you'll remember them and, hopefully, connect them to our ideas.

Now the hard part. How do you get that title? Strongly recommended: get several smart people together. Write down a whole bunch of words that connect to your topic. Brainstorm: the first things you come up with are going to be wrong, but they will get you to one that is right. Use a thesaurus application to find synonyms. Don't compromise -- instead, find different ways to encapsulate your idea. I recently helped my friend and relative, the prominent economist Len Burman, to come up with a name for his blog at Forbes. Many of the words that described him (like "unconventional") were taken, but using a thesaurus we came upon "Impertinent" which matched up nicely to his provocative tone, and "The Impertinent Economist" was born.

For Groundswell, as I will never forget, Charlene and I started by writing the flap copy (long before the book was written) -- you know, the marketing text that would get you to buy the book. We had a laptop connected to a projector so we could see and modify the text as we wrote it. The word "groundswell" was in that text, and as we wrote it we looked at each other and said "That is a very intriguing word." So we grabbed it.

At one point Empowered was going to be called "The HERO-Powered Business" which would probably have been better -- it's provocative, it's unique, and we could own it on searches.

Please add your comments with great non-fiction book titles you have come upon. What makes them memorable?

Photo by Zimpenfish via Flickr.

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Comments

Daniel

Wonderful insight Josh.

Technographics has certainly been one that's stuck in my head!

Not entirely sure about EMPOWERED though, what made you choose it over something less generic?

Josh Bernoff

@Daniel: An executive at our publisher pushed hard for an iconic, one-word title. I deferred to his judgment.

Gillian

Great posts but has anyone ever told you that when someone clicks on Tweet that your URL is so long that it exceeds the 140 characters permitted on Twitter ? I get round it but cutting and pasting into Snipurl and then cutting and pasting back into the Tweet but this takes time so I need to really want to share your post to do this.

Sankar

Great Post Josh.

I am in the process of authoring my first book and arriving at the title has been a big issue. Hope I will get inspired from your ideas and come up with something good.

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