Season 1 Episode 6: How to Craft Great Business Book Titles with Derek Lewis

Derek: Good morning ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to another episode of Behind the Business Book. I’m your host, Derek Lewis. Today we’re going to be talking about how to craft a great title for your business book. I want you to understand why it is incredibly important that you invest a lot of time in picking out just the right one for your book and your audience. Then, I want to take you through the hierarchy, the Five Cs that I have created to use as a criteria whenever you’re evaluating all the different ideas you’ve had for your book. I want to tell you some of the pitfalls, some of what not to do whenever you’re picking out a title for your book, and then I’m going to take you through a short exercise that I use with my resources and the books I’ve written and the books I’ve ghostwritten, the exercise that I walk my authors through, for us to come out with a great title.

First of all, I need to convince you of the importance of crafting a great title. You may have a title in your mind that you’re already in love with, and that’s OK for right now, but just for a second, just put your predispositions aside and listen to me for just a few minutes. I know that business titles are all over the map. You’ve got everything from How to Run a Retail Store, How To Break Into a Career as a Commercial Real Estate Developer, all the way to the obscure, like Blink, or Outliers, all the way to the absurd, a la Seth Godin’s Purple Cow and Meatball Sundae.

There are some bestsellers whose titles, you don’t even know what the book is from the title itself. Then there are some books that are completely clear, but the book never moves off the shelf. Whenever you’re looking at the titles of business books, you need to isolate the variable, as they used to teach us in elementary school in science. Seth Godin and Malcolm Gladwell, because they are so famous, they already have such a great platform, it really doesn’t matter what they name their book. Malcolm Gladwell’s next book could be Disparaging Hobgoblins, and it would be a number one bestseller. Not because of its title, but because of the author.

Then there are books that don’t have, really, that great of a title, but because the author did some fantastic marketing, the books were bestsellers. For instance, The Purpose-Driven Life, by Rick Warren. Understandably, it’s not a business book, it’s a religious book, but the title isn’t really that catchy. We all want purpose in our life, but if you go to the self help section, just about every one of them promises to have a better life or purpose or find meaning.

Rick Warren, although he was the pastor of a pretty big church, his name isn’t nationally known. It’s not like he was a US Senator or a media mogul, but Rick Warren did some really smart marketing with his book, and it ended up being a bestseller. Sometimes books are bestsellers because of factors other than the title. If we really want to look at effective titles, we have to isolate that title. We need to get rid of who the author is, we need to not look at their marketing techniques. We need to look at a title that doesn’t necessarily have to have a great design or a great cover. We need to look at titles just in and of themselves.

Basically, what I’m saying is that a great title should be able to sell the book all by itself, without the person ever seeing the cover, without knowing who the author is, without having been reached by any other kind of marketing. If all there is, somebody comes across just the title of the book, they hear somebody say it on the radio, they hear somebody mention it on the train, if they’ll buy the book based on the title alone, that is a successful title.

Two of the best examples in business that I know of that hit all the criteria that I talk about, you know what, actually, let me tell you a funny story before I tell you that. I have a ghostwriting colleague who was, I don’t know, we were talking about our kids or something, and he mentioned a book that he had come across: How To Potty Train a Toddler in a Week. Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t have to know anything else. I don’t need to know who the author is, I don’t need to know what kind of credentials they have. I don’t need to know anything else besides just the title of that book to make me want to buy the book. The title alone made a sale. Once I get the book, whether I implement it, whether I follow the author and whether I believe them, that’s another issue, but the title isn’t supposed to convince me of all those other things. The title is just supposed to grab my interest and ideally get me to buy the book.

Before I had children, that book wouldn’t have been too big of an interest to me, but once I’ve had children, and since I’m in the middle of trying to potty train a toddler, yes. I don’t need to know anything else to go on Barnes and Noble right then, order the book and have it shipped to the house.

In business, two of the best examples that I know of where it doesn’t matter who the author is or the cover or the platform, the marketing, anything else, just the titles alone are enough to sell the books. Two best examples: Book Yourself Solid by Michael Portman, and The Four Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferriss. If you are a service provider of any kind, if you’re a salesman of any kind, if you’re a freelancer, if you’re a medical professional, just the idea of being able to be booked solid is so tantalizing, it’s so compelling that it would make you take a look at the book, and the book is a great book, but the title itself captures your interest enough to grab your attention, and especially if you are a business owner struggling with sales or if you’re a service professional struggling with having enough clients come in, then absolutely. That title is going to ring all kinds of bells in your head.

The Four Hour Work Week. Timothy, he’s a really smart guy. It is a thought-provoking book, regardless of whether you agree with everything in there or not, but the title itself holds such promise. The Four Hour Work Week. Who in their right mind wouldn’t want a work week of only four hours? The title is so compelling, holds so much promise that you can’t help but at least want to investigate it and probably go ahead and just buy it, just because it’s got that powerful of a title.

Your book’s title, hopefully, should be that powerful, that your readers, your market, your audience, you don’t have to be incredibly well-known, you don’t have to be at the fore of your field, you don’t have to be well-known. You don’t necessarily have to have a great marketing platform. All these other things help, but if you have a great title, that alone should be able to help convince people to at least look at your book, if not go ahead and buy a copy.

Like I said, all those other things, support, all of those other things help, but if you have a great platform, if you are well-known, but yet you write a title that’s obscure, that people don’t understand, or that doesn’t look like it’s relevant to your field, then your title is going to work against you, I guess is what I’m trying to say. Out of all the time that you put into your book, crafting the best title that you can is the most important time that you can put into your book.

I know authors spend hours and hours on the content and “Shouldn’t we put this?” Or “Shouldn’t we put that?” Going through, making sure that everything looks beautiful and lovely, but your readers don’t start on the inside. They start on the outside. They have to have their interest piqued by your title, then by a professional looking cover, then by a professional looking layout. They have to think that your credentials are good, the sales copy on the book has to be compelling, they have to get through all of that before they actually get into the meat of your book. While an author writes their book from the inside out, the reader comes from the exact opposite. They start from the outside and work their way in.

The first thing is your title and your cover. We’re not going to talk about covers in this episode, I’m not a graphic designer, but your cover is the best place that you can invest money in your book, but the best place to invest time is in your title.

Enough of trying to convince you how important it is. Let’s move on to the hierarchy that I’ve created for evaluating great business books. This hierarchy, it’s like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. You have to have one before the others matter. The five Cs are: number one, your title has to be clear. Number two, it has to be compelling. Number three, it has to be catchy, number four, it has to be clever, and number five, it needs to be continuous. Numbers four and five are reaching a bit. If you can make it to number five then awesome, but really the first three are where you need to concentrate getting your title to.

First and foremost, the title of your book needs to be clear. Your audience should understand what the book is, what it’s about. In the 100 Best Business Books of All Time, Jack Covert and Todd Sattersten talk about the real reason that we read business books is because we have a problem. If you’re a professional salesman and you’re having trouble getting people to call you back, if you are a mid-level manager and you’re having a problem with motivating your employees, if you’re a startup entrepreneur and you’re trying to figure out how to implement a culture of integrity and equality and the mindset of ownership, one of the first things that we do is go look for books that help us solve those problems.

If you have a problem, or if you have an issue, maybe you haven’t identified it as a problem, but you’re listening to the radio or you’re browsing through some webpages and you see the title of a book and it speaks to that problem, then all of a sudden the light bulb goes off in your head. “Oh, maybe this book can help me with this challenge I’m having or with whatever’s going on,” so first and foremost your book needs to speak to your business readers’ problem. If they don’t get it, they’re not going to take the time, few are going to take the time to investigate any further. There are thousands and thousands, anywhere between six and eleven thousand business books published every year. There’s no way in the world everybody can get through them. If a book doesn’t catch our eye, we forget about it. We [inaudible 00:15:44] file it, and probably never think of it again until we have that particular problem, and then once we have that problem maybe we’ll recall the book.

First and foremost, the number one criterion is that your title has to be clear. Let me give you a couple of examples of titles that are abundantly clear. Writing Nonfiction. Maybe not a business book, but for me, being a writer, that’s abundantly clear. I write nonfiction, Writing Nonfiction speaks to the problem and challenge that I have. The business classic How To Win Friends and Influence People, there’s no question in your mind what that book does. It teaches you how to win friends and influence people.

Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace, that speaks to personal finance. Everybody would love to feel peaceful. They’d love to feel secure in their finances. It’s an abundantly clear title. Death By Meeting, another great title. Everybody hates meetings. The 100 Best Business Books of All Time, I don’t know that you can get any clearer than that. Those books, some of them, they may meet some of the other criteria that we’re going to talk about, but in the very least they are clear.

Number two, a great business title is compelling. That is, it makes a promise. It speaks to maybe the emotional benefit that the book is going to provide. Financial, with Financial Peace, Dave Ramsey could have named it How To Do Better With Your Personal Finances, or How To Save More Money, and that would have been clear, but he speaks directly to the emotion that we all look to have, that peace when it comes to our finances, so his book’s title isn’t just clear, it’s also compelling, because it gives us a promise of what the book is going to deliver.

The Four Hour Work Week is compelling because we all would love to have a four hour work week. Who wouldn’t? The One Minute Manager is compelling, because everyone’s pressed for time. We’d love to be better managers of the resources and the people that we have. Being able to do that in just one minute, whether that’s taking a minute to learn, or taking one minute to improve, that benefit in such a short amount of time is compelling.

Number three. If your title is clear and compelling, if you can make it catchy, then great. By catchy, I mean it should be easy to remember. If you have a title that is abundantly clear and compelling, but it’s 12 words long, or it’s loaded with all kinds of hard to say or hard to remember words, whenever somebody who’s read your book wants to go recommend it to someone else, or if they hear about it on the radio or they read about it in an article somewhere, and they want to go recommend it to somebody, how hard is it going to be for them to remember the name of the book? Your title ideally should be something that is easy for them to say, easy for them to remember.

There are a couple of different ways that you can be catchy. Your title can have just a few words, and especially just a few simple words, so Good to Great, Built to Last, Brian Tracy’s Eat that Frog, those are catchy. Something that is alliterative or that rhymes is another great way to be catchy. Good to Great, the Gs are alliteration. Quest for the Best rhymes, quest and best. The Fred Factor has alliteration in there. It’s Your Ship doesn’t rhyme, it’s not alliterative, but it’s short and it’s to the point. Why We Buy is alliterative and it rhymes. The Art of the Start by Guy Kawasaki.

Another device you can use to make your title catchy is to let it be rhythmic. Marshall Goldsmith’s What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, it’s long, let’s see, what are we looking at? Seven, eight words? Yeah, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. One, it’s parallel. What got you here won’t get you there, and it’s also rhythmic. What got you here won’t get you there. There aren’t a whole lot of titles that are rhythmic like that, but if you can find a way to make it, then awesome.

The point being here that there are a number of different ways to make your title catchy, and you need to investigate all of them.

Before we move on to number four and five, again, the first three. If your title is clear, if it’s compelling, and if it’s catchy, then you’ve got a good, solid business title. Going on to criteria four and five, they’re great, but sometimes with the title or the creativity or the time constraints that you have, you just can’t get there. If you can hit the first three, though, you’re in really good shape.

Number four is to be clever. This is, honestly, this is where a lot of people start. They want the title that is clever or intriguing at the beginning, and if you can hit it, great, but you can’t sacrifice clarity for being clever. A clever title would be Dave Ramsey’s Entreleadership. It’s a longer word, and it’s a made up word, but you understand what the gist of the book is, the leadership of an entrepreneur, Entreleadership. It’s clever, and in being clever he didn’t sacrifice clarity, he didn’t sacrifice the compelling promise, and it’s clever because he’s taken the two words and created a third one that didn’t exist before, it’s unique.

Rework is a great example of a clever title. It’s one word, two syllables, so it’s catchy. It’s clear that they’re talking about remaking work, or at least redoing work. It is compelling because most of hate, I don’t, I work for myself, but most people hate the workplace or their job or how they work. Maybe hate is a strong word, but I think it’s something like 60% of American employees surveyed report that they are disengaged from their job. That’s just a depressing number. Rework, it hits those first three, but it’s also clever.

Freakonomics was neat. It’s decently clear. It is definitely clever. Roy Williams, The Wizard of Ads gets high points, because it’s clear wheat he’s talking about, there’s a little bit of a promise in there when we’re talking about magic. The clever part, though, is that it sounds like The Wizard of Oz, so it’s easy to remember. The Wizard of Oz, The Wizard of Ads, but it’s clever because it’s that little twist at the end. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield is a little gem that everybody should read, and it’s clever because it’s a mix up of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, which just about every businessperson has either been exposed to, and many have even read, so by taking something so well-known and alluding to it, just by switching the words, The War of Art, makes sense. Makes it clever.

Probably one of my favorite titles is simply: Your Marketing Sucks. It’s not alliterative, it doesn’t rhyme. It’s certainly catchy, because it’s so memorable. It’s so blunt: Your Marketing Sucks. It’s clever, because it’s so blunt. It’s so, I can’t really think of the word, but it makes it into the list.

Number five. This is really, this is the Holy Grail. I haven’t hit a number five, honestly, in some of the books that I’ve authored. I’m not sure that we’ve hit a number five in, a rare case with my authors. It’s difficult to achieve, to hit all of these other four and to hit number five, which is to be continuous. In other words, to set your book up for a series. Ideally, you don’t want to write just one book. You want to write a book and then you want to follow it up with another one and then follow it up with another one, and if you can play off of the title of the previous book, those two titles will reinforce each other, and each book’s title will help sell the other book.

For instance, The One Minute Manager. Ken Blanchard came out with The One Minute Manager, then there was The One Minute Entrepreneur, The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey, How a Last Minute Manager Conquered Procrastination, and honestly, if I’d have been Ken, with the last one, I’d have just named it The Last Minute Manager, and then Conquered Procrastination could have been the subtitle. Ken came up with a great title that lent itself to being a series of books.

Michael Gerber did that with The E Myth. There’s The E Myth, The E Myth: Mastery, The E Myth in Real Estate, The E Myth in Law and Contracting, The E Myth, he’s got a whole series of The E Myth. Not only does the book stand, the title wasn’t the title of one book, but it also spawned all of these other ones.

Tim Ferriss did that with The Four Hour Work Week. The title easily lends itself to The Four Hour whatever, and so he did that. He came out with The Four Hour Body and The Four Hour Chef, and if you’ve read The Four Hour Work Week and you loved it, if you want to know how to be an easier cook and employ Tim Ferriss’s strategies with your health, then you’re going to go ahead and purchase The Four Hour Body or The Four Hour Chef. They don’t even have to tell you that it’s Tim Ferriss. Because the other title has such a strong association with him, as soon as they say The Four Hour anything you immediately think “The Four Hour Work Week, Tim Ferriss.”

Mark Stevens, who came up with Your Marketing Sucks, absolutely lends itself to a series. Your Anything Sucks. Your Company Sucks, which he came out with, Your Management Sucks, he also wrote that. You can put anything else you want to in there. Your Leadership Sucks. Your Financing Sucks. Your Accounting Sucks. Your Marriage Sucks. He came up with a title that lends itself to being used over and over again.

Now, those are the five Cs of titles. Now let’s talk about subtitles. It is my opinion that every business book should have a subtitle, and I call a subtitle, it’s your title’s wingman. It’s not upfront, but it’s there to reinforce. It’s there to back up the main guy and to pick up the slack where he fails.

Michael Gerber’s The E Myth, that title in and of itself, it’s not clear what you’re talking about. The E Myth, what does that mean? So Michael Gerber had to have a subtitle that was clear, because his primary title wasn’t clear. Your subtitle has to pick up the slack, has to do the job that your main title didn’t do, right? Brian Tracy’s Eat That Frog, is that a collection of jokes? You have no idea, so he had to have a clear and compelling subtitle: 21 Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time. That’s clear, and that’s compelling.

Jack: Straight from the Gut. The title of the book is actually “Jack.” “Straight from the Gut” is the subtitle, but because Jack is such a common name, without seeing him or GE’s logo on the cover, you wouldn’t really understand what Jack they were talking about, Jack and Jill went up the hill, what is that? Here, the subtitle has become such an integral part of the book that you can’t really separate them. It had to do the rest of the job, Straight from the Gut.

With Dave Ramsey’s Entreleadership, because the title did such a great job in being clear, compelling, catchy, and clever, and I guess if you wanted to you’d say he could probably try to set it up for a series, but because the title did so much work in and of itself, the subtitle didn’t have to pick up the slack, so the subtitle could actually take the reader a little bit deeper into the idea of the book, so the subtitle is: 20 Years of Practical Business Wisdom from the Trenches. With Dave’s title covering at least four of the five Cs, the subtitle could shift from selling the book to selling the author, and traditionally that’s what the author bio does, but because his title did such a great job, his subtitle could go ahead and start doing some of that work. If you have a really great title, then your subtitle can amplify that.

Four Hour Work Week, the same way. The subtitle is: Escape 9 to 5, Leave Anywhere, and Join the New Rich. Because his title hit all five Cs, the subtitle can go from piquing your interest to painting this tantalizing vision of the life that you could have, so it’s gone from selling the book itself to selling the dream that the book tries to deliver on.

Now, let’s talk about some common pitfalls that you should absolutely avoid on your journey towards trying to make the perfect business title. Number one, don’t sacrifice clarity or compelling promise just to be clever. I promise your cleverness impresses me, it will impress everybody, but if it doesn’t sell the book, then your cleverness wasn’t really that smart.

Another common pitfall so many authors fall into is using industry-specific jargon. Your book should be clear, your book should be aimed at your primary audience, mid-level managers, real estate investors, CEOs, female members on the board of directors, whoever your reader is, that’s who the title should speak to, but your title shouldn’t speak to them to the exclusivity of everyone else, so if someone is trying to get into real estate for example, and you use jargon or slang that only people in the industry know, then you’re going to skip a lot of people who are on the outside, who don’t know it.

I am a big fan of What Color Is Your Parachute, and Richard Bolles has been publishing that new edition of that book every year since 1976 or ’77, something like that. An amazing amount of time, and the book’s been a phenomenal bestseller because it’s been on the shelves for so long, because it is such a great career guide, because of so many things, but not because of the title. The title is clever, and the title is clear, but only to people who understand the allusion. He’s talking about whenever you leave on career for the next, you’re jumping ship, you’re jumping out of an airplane, so maybe in the newspaper you’ve heard about CEOs being fired and their “golden parachute,” they have a $13 million severance pay or something crazy like that, because they did an awful job, they’re only going to get $13 million in severance. That’s their golden parachute. The parachute is this metaphor for switching careers, and that’s what the book is about, it’s a career guide, but, unless you instantly get that reference, the title by itself, you’re not really sure where the book is coming from.

Last but not least, don’t oversell your book. If you promise, like one of those late night infomercials. Send me $10 and I’ll send you this book that promises how to clean your teeth and clean your house and give you a million dollars in your bank account every other day and make sure that your kids grow up to be great contributing citizens and you’ll be handsome and sexy and young for as long as you live. Yeah, that’s very clear what you’re selling. Yes, it’s quite compelling, but it oversells. Don’t use words that are meaningless, don’t use fluff in your titles. Don’t be zealous. Don’t oversell it to the point that it’s empty, it’s void of meaning. Your title needs to pack a punch. That punch needs to have some serious strength behind it.

Let me just walk you through a quick exercise that I do whenever I want to brainstorm business titles. Number one, I decide from the outset, we are not going to pick a business title until we have brainstormed 100. I got get on Microsoft Word, do a numbered list, number one, and then I type in a title, and then number two, and all the way down to 100. I don’t stop at 90, not 95, not 99, 100. I cannot decide on a title until we have 100 potentials. Now, we don’t do this all in one sitting. Sometimes it takes a couple of days, sometimes it takes a couple of weeks, sometimes it takes a couple of months.

Whenever you’re doing this for yourself, number one, don’t worry about whether the title works or not. Whatever you’re brainstorming, just forget about critiquing yourself or saying, “No, that wouldn’t work.” Go ahead and put it in. If you know that you’re going to write 100 titles, then you know that 99 of them are going to go in the trash, so don’t worry about what goes in the trash, but you have to work through some of the trash before you can really get to the gold.

The good news is that not all of those titles are going to go in the trash. For me, whenever I was doing this with The Business Book Bible, I found my subtitle in that list of potential titles. Not only that, but I’ve often found the chapter headings or the chapter subheadings inside that list of 100, so you’re not actually going to throw those 99 away. A lot of them you’re going to be able to use elsewhere, and some of them may even make great titles for blog posts or reports or journals or other things that you write, so don’t worry about whether this makes perfect sense for your book. Just work through and keep working until you have 100 titles down. Then you can go back and evaluate them according to the five Cs.

This title, is this title clear? No, it’s not clear, so it doesn’t get past step one. This title, is it clear? Yes, it’s clear. Is it compelling? No. Is it catchy? No, but it’s very clever. It’s clear and clever. If it doesn’t pass hierarchy level number two, where it’s compelling, and if it doesn’t pass hierarchy level three, where it’s catchy, it doesn’t matter if it’s clever. If it’s not compelling and catchy, then there’s a better title somewhere, so you keep on going through until you find a title that is in the very least clear and compelling, and those aren’t very hard.

Basically all you have to do for a title to be clear and compelling is to promise the reader something. For instance, The Well-Fed Writer. It is catchy, but the catchy almost doesn’t matter, because it’s so clear and it’s so compelling. If you’re a freelance writer, or writer of any kind, that book, you don’t have to know anything else. You don’t have to know that Peter Bowerman is a 20 year veteran of the industry or that he’s well-respected or that the book is on its, I forgot what reprinting, now I think even on the second or third edition. The title alone is so compelling that you want to get the book.

Go through all 100, see how it stacks up against the five Cs, and don’t skip one criterion just because it fulfills some of those others. It’s got to be clear, then compelling, then catchy, and if it’s all three of those things, then you can get clever. If you can even find a way to make a series out of it, then you’ve done better than I usually do.

I know that that’s a lot to take in, but I also know that this is, again, the most important place that you can spend your time. The most important words of your book are the ones on its cover. Your business title deserves hours of brainstorming and thinking and measuring its effectiveness, and don’t be afraid to throw your title up against friends and family and colleagues and strangers, people online. “What do you think about this title? Does this capture your attention? Does this make sense?”

Spend time getting your title right, because if your title pulls in the reader that you’re aiming for, then they’ll look at your credentials and the sales copy of the book and perhaps gauge the table of contents, but they’ll never get to all of that if they can’t get past the title.

To make it abundantly clear, what I’m trying to say is: a great title can sell the book all by itself.