Five Types of Titles (We Like #3 the Best)

[Author’s Note: This article is part of a series of posts drawn from our latest book, Book Writing Boot Camp. You will learn the publishing process from A to Z, with everything you need to know to author your own book.]

In the olden days it was easy to judge a book by its cover…or at least the title on its cover.

Titles were a bit longer back then, enabling you to evaluate your interest in the book rather rapidly.

Check this title out, from a book published in 1689:

A defence of the late Lord Russel’s innocency: by way of answer or confutation of a libellous pamphlet intituled, An antidote against poyson :

with two letters of the author of this book upon the subject of his Lordship’s tryal :

together with an Argument in the great case concerning elections of Members of Parliament, between Sr. Samuel Barnardiston, Bar., plaintiff, and Sr. Will. Soames, Sheriff of Suffolk, defend’, in the Court of Kings-Bench in an action upon the case, and afterwards by error sued in the Exchequer-Chamber.”

By Sir Robert Atkyns. London: T. Goodwin, 1689.

Sounds enthralling, right? A real page-turner.

How times have changed. Nowadays short titles abound: “Start With Why,” “Good to Great,” “Leaders Eat Last”, “Talk Like TED.”

Some titles are even just one word long! “Drive,” “Outliers,” and “Traction” are three quick examples.

Your book’s title must make a solid second impression on the reader. (The cover as a whole makes the first impression.) A boring, confusing, or vague title will hamstring your book sales and hamper your credibility.

So let’s explore how to choose a title that will catapult your book to untold heights.

Despite the seemingly endless variety of book titles, they can be reduced to a few core categories. When you learn the “title formulas” that top authors use, creating your own stunning title becomes that much easier.

Of course, there is some overlap between categories, and you may be able to add or subtract others; but we think these five sum up the approaches to book titles pretty well.

Descriptive

Perhaps the most basic form of title is the Descriptive. As the name implies, it describes the contents of the book.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey is a classic example. What will you find inside? Maybe 7 habits that highly effective people possess? Why yes! However did you guess?

This category often include titles with numbers in them—like the 7 Habits book above, or The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene.

Other examples: How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, The 5 Love Languages by Gary D. Chapman, The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing by Al Ries and Jack Trout

Mysterious

Mysterious titles draw you in to learn more. They spark interest but leave that spark unsatisfied, forcing you to pick up and examine the book. Consider The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo: “Life-changing? Really? Hmm, let me see if this lady is exaggerating or serious.”

Other examples: Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, Flying Without a Net by Thomas J. DeLong, The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Scandalous

Scandalous titles shout at you. “Hey! I contain stunning revelations! You are outrageously wrong! Come and learn!” Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated is scandalous in its challenge to conventional wisdom: talent, overrated? Really?

Or take Trust Me, I’m Lying by Ryan Holiday. The scandal arises from the contradictory title: Why would I trust you if you admit to lying? But why would you admit to lying in the first place?

Other examples: All Marketers Are Liars by Seth Godin, Eat That Frog! by Brian Tracy, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith

Question

Some titles ask questions. “How Will You Measure Your Life?” by Clayton M. Christensen is one example, dealing with how you define personal fulfillment. If your book is focused around answering a key question, this title category may fit the bill. Since I (Michael) am a deacon at my local church, I recently read the book What is a Healthy Church? by Mark Dever. The title told me that if I was interested in the answer, this book would provide it.

Other examples: What Do You Care What Other People Think? by Richard P. Feynman, What If? by Randall Munroe

Goal

Books titles that contain a goal appeal to people desiring to achieve that goal. Tim Ferris’s famous The 4-Hour Workweek is a great example: Who in the world would not want to work fewer hours? This type of title helps the reader understand what they will gain by reading the book.

Other examples: Worry-Free Retirement by Brian Fricke, Smarter Faster Better by Charles Duhigg, Getting Things Done by David Allen