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.