Elements of Titles That Sell

One might hope that the quality and content of a book’s words are the most important factor in selling it on Amazon. That hope would be very, very wrong. The three most important factors in a book’s sales (for those not by somebody already famous) are:

  1. Cover
  2. Title
  3. Reviews

We talk about covers here, and here (and over here), as well as in pretty much any hot seat session. We even have a whole section of the Book Rocket System dedicated to covers. We discuss reviews so many times it’s not even funny (for example here, here, here, here…and oh yeah…over here, here, here, and even here…and that doesn't count our hot seats!). They really are that important.

But the Title is not to be undervalued. A good book title demands attention, intrigues, potential buyers, and gives just enough information about the story to make browsers want more. It’s like a miniature elevator pitch for the book. If it’s effective, folks might read the description or simply buy your book on the strength of the title and cover alone. If it’s weak or tepid, folks will likely go looking for another book.

Let Me Tell You a Story

Back in the early 1900s, a guy named Emanuel Haldeman-Julius did some major experimenting with book titles. Any book he wrote or published that sold poorly, he changed just the title with some surprising results:

  • Gautier’s Fleece of Gold sold 6,000 copies annually. As The Quest for a Blonde Mistress, it jumped to 50,000 a year.
  • Loc Precieuses Ridicules sold nary a copy, and jumped to 10,000 a year when changed to Ridiculous Women.
  • The Mystery of the Iron Mask jumped from 11,000 to 30,000 when changed to The Mystery of the Man in the Iron Mask.
  • A single word boosted sales from 8,000 to 38,000 with a shift from The King Enjoys Himself to The Lustful King Enjoys Himself.

Point is, title has made a huge difference for about as long as modern publishing has existed. The question isn’t whether or not it matters. It’s how can you leverage this fact to sell your own books?

Elements of a Title That Sells

Book titling is part art and part science, with a little bit of luck thrown in as well. There’s not a whole lot you can do with the luck and art parts, but here’s what we know about the science.

Simplicity Rules

A title should be brief and easy to understand. This is not the place for detailed descriptions or sly allegories. Even if your book is about a complex concept, the title should remain simple. It should be easy to both understand and remember.

Resist the temptation to show off using ten-dollar words or clever references in your titles. That makes titles opaque, which makes readers buy books with different titles.

Description > Poetics

Your title should tell potential readers exactly what they’re getting, without flowery language or allegories getting in the way. It doesn’t matter how clever and deep your wordplay is here: readers won’t care enough to figure it out. Reading the title should lead to reading the description, not rely on having read the description to understand the title.

Put another way: if your title is some kind of in-joke nobody will get until they’ve read the book…nobody’s going to read the book and be able to understand the title.

Use Emotional Triggers

Remember that one-word title change that boosted sales by 30,000 copies a year? The word was lustful. When you’re talking about potboiler “romance” books of that era, a word like that evokes everything a certain audience is looking for.

Check the best-selling titles of the genre in which you write. What are the emotional trigger words that appear time and time again? Which of those are relevant enough to your book to work? The best triggers both inform potential readers what the book is about and make them care by engaging their feelings.

Piggyback on Genre

Every genre has some dos and don’ts when it comes to titles. We don’t have space to give a full and comprehensive list, but you understand intuitively that the word “rose” does well on a romance book and poorly on a science fiction book.

As with emotional triggers, your best resource for this is to look at the titles of the top books similar to your own. What words do they use? What words do they conspicuously avoid?

Leverage Keywords

In this article, we go into detail about how to choose the best keywords. They’re a vital part of your book setup, and work well in your description to increase discoverability. They work in titles, too…sometimes.

This isn’t a place to try stuffing keywords like a blogger in the 2000s. Neither should you shoehorn keywords in and make your title clunky or overly long. But if a keyword fits like the right foot in a shoe left at the ball…put that sucker in there.

Give The Reader Value

For nonfiction, this means putting the benefit of reading a book directly in the title. This means either succinctly explaining what questions the book answers or directly describing what benefit the book gives to a reader. Generally speaking, opt for the latter in self-help and prescriptive nonfiction, the former in general and academic works.

For fiction, you want to imply the journey the reader will be undertaking and what value that journey provides. On a related note, including a character’s name can often make a surprising difference here…if it works with the other elements of your title.

Imply More Than You Reveal

Generally speaking, your title should not be phrased in the form of a question. However, if it implies a question the user might see answered in the book, that’s a good thin. Such implied questions create a mystery: a mystery you can only solve by reading the book.

Hitchcock was right. Showing something on the page is good, but implying it is better. When a potential reader has to wonder what’s between the covers of your book, they’re more likely to buy your book and find out.