I always get in trouble when I talk about what makes a great book title. I know people have other opinions, but this is something I happen to be right about.
This time, however, I’ve got two experts on my side. In Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath not only lay out what makes ideas memorable, but (even though they may not know it) they also unveil the principles for a great book title.
Great ideas (and titles) are:
It’s not likely that any given title can have all six elements going for it. But the more the better. Here are, in my mind, some great titles:
- Diary of a Wimpy Kid (Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Emotional, Story)
- Freakonomics (Simple, Unexpected, Concrete)
- What to Expect When You’re Expecting (Simple, Concrete, Emotional, Story)
- Moneyball (Simple, Unexpected, Concrete)
All these titles clearly communicate their core idea (juvenile fiction, economics, pregnancy, sports) in simple ways. Two of the titles are just one word–in fact, a brand new word (Unexpected)–but a word that clearly communicates the thesis (economics is weird; sports is about dollars). Notice that Moneyball doesn’t tell you everything–it doesn’t tell you it’s about baseball in particular. If the author or editors had tried to add that nuance to the title, it could easily have failed.
Economics is an especially complex and abstract topic full of arcane principles, mathematical formulas and mind-numbing Ph.D.s. The authors of Freakonomics set aside all of that, along with the dozens of different subjects in the book, and settled on just one idea. Does the title completely communicate everything in the book and every audience that might be interested in those topics? No. And yes. It finds the core that is common to most: we are all afraid we are handling our money wrong. It makes us freak out. So maybe I should add “Emotional” to the traits the title exhibits.
It is possible to fail with a simple title, however. Consider two bestsellers–both of which are excellent books.
- Outliers (Simple and Unexpected, but Abstract and so unexpected as to be Confusing. I enjoyed the whole book, and I’m still not sure what an outlier is. It sure doesn’t communicate the core idea of the book. The author’s first best-selling book had a much better title: The Tipping Point.)
- Unbroken (Simple–and that’s about it. Otherwise it is confusing. Is this about materials engineering? What’s not broken? In what way? Why does it matter? The title didn’t help this book reach bestseller status at all. What did was the credibility of the author and the megasuccess of her first book, Seabiscuit–also a much better title.)
As these two titles show, whether a title is good or bad is not the sole determiner of a book’s success. But a strong title makes a great first impression.
4 thoughts on “Titles That Stick”
“I know people have other opinions, but this is something I happen to be right about.” Nice.
Still, when I hear or see the title, Unbroken, I think of an untrained horse.
…I should say, I think of a bronco — and by that I don’t mean Denver football player, Ford vehicle, or rodeo horse.
Any one who thinks he or she is an expert in the business of writing is begging to get the chip knocked of his or her shoulder. My teacher in English comp., in high school, a Mr. LaCroix (sp?), back in the 50s, was sure that one could not write decent English, if one did not use a variety of sentence structures and other glitzy devices. He also thought idioms, colloquialisms were the cream of language. Unfortunately, for him, I had been reading everything in the main St. Louis Public library and had stumbled over some nut case named Jack Woodford. Now Mr. Woodford could not write novels worth a bucket of dried spit, but he absolutely was par excellence in writing books on how to write and sell novels. So, citing his examples from his life time of reading and using all of Mr. LaCroix’s techniques, I plastered the latter’s kisser with the rotten eggs of literary examples, and dear Mr. LaCroix loved it and read the thing to the class. Imagine reading, “Mr. LaCroix says,’…’ Bah!” He advocated really short sentences and really long sentences, and not so many of these mediocre sentences (12-15 words). Of course, Woodford knew of Faulkner (who turned out to be a drinking buddy of the lawyer for my Daddy’s estate) and his beginning sentence that ran for 8 pages (?). In short, everything Mr. LaCroix held dear was contradicted by all the examples Mr. Woodford cited from a voluminous knowledge of literature. Sigh! I was in seventh heaven…and made an A for mid-term. Then I slipped to a B, when it really counted at the end of the term.
Mr. Le Peau, please do not get discouraged. Writing is mean to be fun, entertaining, enjoyable, endearing. But I do have news that is a little grievous. My grand daughter, age 10 (will be 11 in Dec.), informed me that reading big books was painful…so she did not like it. I felt really bad at hearing such words. After all I had read the Greek and Peloponesian (sp) Wars, Freeman’s 4 volumes on Lee and Lee’s Lieutenants (3 vols) by age 9…and from 9-12 I read Gone With The Wind 4 times. Later, learned that a friend of mine’s wife won Margaret Mitchell to Christ a few weeks before she was killed by a car. Same lady won the fellow to Christ who supervised her torture in WWII (a 8 hr. a day, 7 days a week, for 2 mos. and 28 days at the end of which time they tossed her seemingly lifeless body on a pile of corpses where a fellow filippino noted an involuntary movement and got her to the hospital and the nuns ward where she gave birth to a baby that night). See Mamerta de los Reyes Block, The Price of Freedom. Life and literature are sure interesting. They beat the blue funk of depression, and the literature of Scripture can lift you out of any slough of despond.
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