IVP - Andy Unedited - Bad Title Strategies

February 23, 2009

Bad Title Strategies

If one of the most difficult tasks in publishing is coming up with a good concept for a book, surely a close second is coming up with a good nonfiction book title. It's so hard that even when you are trying to do a good job you often end up making a baboon out of yourself. I'll be saying more about titling in upcoming posts. For now, here are two opposite and equally bad directions to go in titling a book.

Bad Strategy One: Pour as Much Content into the Title as Possible
You can be so concerned that every nuance of thought in a book be reflected in the title that you squeeze the very life out of the poor thing. A good title cannot possibly reflect everything a book says. It can only give a broad notion of what will be covered in a book.

When we get carried away with title ideas here we bring ourselves back to reality by suggesting titles that employ reductio ad absurdum such as: The Christian Disciple in the Modern World in Which We Live under the Grace of God at This Time of Crisis in the Church and Society in Light of the Book of Zephaniah. That gets us back to finding a title with just three to five words.

Bad Strategy Two: Use an Image or Metaphor That Is Completely Devoid of Content
The problem with an evocative title (again, remember I'm talking nonfiction book titles) is that it can evoke entirely different things for different people. Worse, it can evoke the entirely wrong thing, and thus totally miss the target audience for the book.

As I write, looking at nonfiction bestsellers on Amazon.com seems to affirm this.

Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man--gotta be about relationships, and it is!

Get Motivated!--what do you know, this woman wants to pump you up!

The Love Dare--I guess lots of relationships out there need help!

Eat This Not That!--could it be a diet book? You bet.

These titles signal very clearly what the overall content of the book is. No evocative phrases for these bestsellers---and no trying to tell the readers way too much. Just enough to get them hooked.

Are there exceptions? Absolutely. Authors who are extremely well-known or who have had a previous bestseller can pretty much call their books whatever they want. Why? Because the author's name is now way more important than the title itself. The exception that in fact proves the rule is found on Amazon's list too: Outliers. What the heck does that mean? But with two bestsellers under his belt, Malcolm Gladwell could call this book Blank Pages and it would do just fine.

Since most of the 200,000 authors of books each year are not in the elite 1,000 people in the country who could get away with that, avoid bad strategy one and bad strategy two as if they were clich├ęs.

Posted by Andy Le Peau at February 23, 2009 9:11 AM Bookmark and Share


I imagine you'll be sharing GOOD strategies for titling in your promised follow-up -- but I'd like to put in a good word for not "as much content as possible" but rather the *essential* content. When a title touches the heart of a book's argument, that's genius. Sometimes you can't truly understand a title until you grasp the argument, and in my experience that's an explosively powerful tool for communication. Maybe it's not so great for marketing to the table-browsers at Borders, but it makes great marketing in word-of-mouth from those who have grasped the argument.


_From Colonials to Provincials_

_The Romance of Commerce and Culture_

_Nature's Metropolis_

_The God Who Risks_

Comment by: Jon Boyd at February 24, 2009 10:27 AM


Brilliant! Yes on both counts. Good strategies coming, and on your thought about "essential" content, you are very close to the kingdom, my son.


Comment by: Andy Le Peau at February 24, 2009 10:56 AM

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book cover"Some publishers tell you what to believe. Other publishers tell you what you already believe. But InterVarsity Press helps you believe," says J. I. Packer. Andy Le Peau and Linda Doll describe how this came to be a hallmark of InterVarsity Press in Heart. Soul. Mind. Strength, an anecdotal history spanning the sixty years from the founding of IVP in 1947 to the present day.