How to write a great nonfiction book title: update

Writing a book, or looking into to options to do so? Book titles and taglines are even more important now than they ever were before. Why?

book titles and sales

If your book is going into bookshops and it’s displayed ‘spine out,’ all people will see is the title on the spine – not the tagline.

SEO. Much as we love to communicate directly with our readers we, as authors wanting to promote our books online, have to buckle down and accept that we’re communicating with ‘bots’ and other digital machines … not just humans, although they are still important.

Sets the scene for your writing project 

Some people like to leave the title until last, rather in the way that you ice a cake: the concept here is that you can’t ice a cake until you have prepared and baked its innards. But there are a couple of good reasons for creating the title right at the beginning of your book writing project. Here they are:

One, to create a good title – it’s not just a matter of writing a snappy line or two. It requires you to think long and deep about what your book is all about and what it will do for readers. Once you’ve worked all that out, even in a simple way, you’re well prepared to start the next part of the journey – planning your book.

Two, is that creating a title is a mood setter. I know it sounds childish but when I’m working on a book I will go on to and create a mocked-up front cover of my new tome, title, tagline and perhaps a rough sketch or other image. The resulting A4 print out is hardly a work worthy of being hung in the Museum of Modern Art, but stuck on my office wall it acts as a beacon to keep me sailing in the right direction.

Don’t forget, you can always go back and adjust the title, tagline or other component of the front cover later on, if you and/or your publisher feel it’s necessary.

The title’s WIIFM appeal

In my advertising days, this ‘what’s in it for me’ (WIIFM) was our ultimate mantra. Nothing we wrote could escape criticism from our bosses and our clients if our writing didn’t answer that key question … which unsurprisingly today is still 100 percent relevant, where factual and even (to an extent) emotional issues are concerned.

book titles

Did what it said on the tin…

Probably the best title of all my books was Writing Words That Sell which I co-authored with US writer John Butman. In today’s era of search engines it would have been a Google Page Oner. I have to put my hand up and admit that this was not my first choice.

I can’t remember what my first choice was but the editor at Lennard Books (the original publishers) told me to go away and come up with something more hard-sell and if I didn’t he would.

That taught me not to be such a snotty author

The result stuck in my throat a bit because in those days I think I must have had delusions of grandeur, and that was a bit too vulgar for my taste.

However later on I had to eat my words because the book sold brilliantly: more than 8,000 copies of hard cover, plus several thousands more in paperback in the first year which wasn’t bad for a business book at the time.

Everyone else loved the title because it promised something worthwhile. Think what more it could have done on Amazon or via Google…

With book titles and taglines never forget that it’s all about the reader – not you

With business, self-help and other nonfiction genres of books, you have the luxury/necessity of writing out the WIIFM in the title and tagline in relatively plain language – and in relatively large type – so that people browsing online will be attracted to its offer. (Don’t forget, too, if your book is going into bookshops and it’s displayed ‘spine out,’ all people will see is the title on the spine – not the tagline.)

When people are looking through books you only have one chance to get their attention, which is why your title and tagline need to be powerful enough to stop them in their tracks. And that’s just as applicable whether your book is in a “bricks-and-mortar” store, or on an online retail website.

A classic mistake many new authors make is to promise too much in the title, only for readers to be disappointed in the reality. Some cynics might snicker and say “who cares – once they’ve bought it, I’ve got the money,” but that can come crashing back down around their ears. Why?

Book reviews

If purchasers are unhappy about under-delivery they will scamper over to Amazon and other platforms faster than you can say “p*ss-poor value” and write stinking reviews warning potential purchasers not to bother with your book.

That is a very hard blow to recover from, especially as you can’t remove reviews from Amazon or other publications unless you can prove that they are malicious or fake. So make sure your title is honest and that your book lives up to its promise.

The title’s SEO appeal

As we know, a key consideration that has become a very Big Deal is creating a title that’s found easily by search engines, either within an online sales site like Amazon or Barnes & Noble, or on one of the general search engines like Google, Yahoo, Bing, DuckDuckGo, etc. Search engine optimisation (SEO) is a science in itself, but essentially you should ensure your title contains the most obvious words someone would key into a search box when looking for a book like yours.

Titles must be SEO-friendly and WIIFM-friendly
Book cover design: key tips to make yours work

As it says, no bullsh*t.

My book How To Write Brilliant Business Blogs hasn’t got the most exciting title in the world, but the search engines like it. At the same time it promises a strong benefit to readers: they seem to like it, too. (It sells well!)

Just type ‘business blogs’ into the Amazon Books search bar and yours truly’s book using those keywords pops up in the first few places. Yet it’s not the number one seller in its Amazon category. That’s probably the best illustration I can think of as to why SEO is an important consideration when choosing a title for your book.

Had I tried to be a bit more poetic and called the book, say, Blog Your Way To Business Success, although ‘blog’ and ‘business’ are individual keywords they don’t work as well when separated, and I would have been way down the page.

Here’s another example of putting the WIIFM into a SEO-friendly title:

The easy way to grow your own gourmet tomatoes
by Mary Jones
Founder of The Tomato Growing Institute

Easy to grow? Or backed by an institute?

This will be more effective in both SEO and WIIFM terms, largely because it puts the reader benefit up front and it’s combined closely with the main keyword which is likely to be “grow your own tomatoes.” (NB: in SEO, the term “keyword” can mean up to several words in a short phrase.) If you feel that the book’s backing from the Tomato Growing Institute gives the book kudos, you may be right … from a subjective point of view. But the following:

The Tomato Growing Institute Guide to growing gourmet tomatoes
by Mary Jones

…really doesn’t tell readers how they will benefit, other than the fact that the guide is backed by an institute. Much though this may be important to the author and backer, it means diddly squat to a reader who is just interested in growing gourmet tomatoes. Equally, leading with the institute’s name will not ring the search engines chimes as much.

Titles on the book cover image? SEO friendly or not?

At my time of writing I am assured that Google, Amazon and the rest of the internet world are totally capable of grasping what writing exists on “images,” i.e. pictorial and/or graphic representations of book covers. Ideally this would mean that search engines and facilities will find your book purely by recognising its title, tagline and any other words on the photograph of the front cover.

Cynic that I am, I believe this is not necessarily viable, especially in cases where the typefaces (fonts) used on your book cover are a little avant garde, are obscured by pretty illustrations, flying unicorns, etc., or are otherwise difficult to read by straight-faced robots with no sense of humour or imagination.

Your book’s headline and tagline on your Amazon page

What does get traction on search engines and search facilities, however, is the main headline that appears on your Amazon page which is an exact replica of your book’s title, and sometimes the tagline as well.

What search engines will pick up is the words written on the Amazon page, not necessarily the white words in the photo. Amazon and its cohorts insist that you don’t need to duplicate. However do you really want to take a chance that your title may not feature, when it’s so easy to ensure that it does?

When developing a title and tagline for your nonfiction book, forget ‘clever-clever.’ Do your homework and ensure they 1) offer a real benefit to prospective purchasers and 2) contain the best possible keywords. Try to make both of those criteria work in the title itself, then back it up in the tagline.


Adapted from Suzan St Maur’s forthcoming title, How To Write A Brilliant Nonfiction Book, publishing 2020 by BetterBooksMedia.