Five great book titles ... and why they work

There's not much point going to the effort of writing a book if the end result won't be noticed by anyone. Which means you need to invest in a) a good cover design and b) a snappy, unforgettable, 'pick me up' title and subtitle.

There are no absolutes when it comes to titles and subtitles, except that they shouldn't be an afterthought. The two things I aim for when helping authors work on a title are:

  • that the title and subtitle complement each other. Often this means the title is catchy while the subtitle provides a more explicit description of the book's contents, and
  • that, especially in a business context, the title and subtitle combo sells the benefits to the reader of picking up your book.

Here are five examples of great title/subtitle combinations from the bookshelf in my office:

Good to Great : Why some companies make the leap... and other's don't by Jim Collins

The title tells it all, and is highly memorable; the subtitle helps to position the book to its business audience – you won't pick this book up thinking it will get you fit.

Switch : How to change things when change is hard by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

This title contains a simple but clever play on words ... in a single word; the subtitle speaks directly to a universal challenge, reinforced by the timeless 'How to...' promise.

The One Minute Manager : Increase productivity, profits and your own prosperity by Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson

A classic. The title captures every manager's dream scenario, and the message is rammed home in the subtitle. Has inspired many other book titles.

Getting Things Done : The art of stress-free productivity by David Allen

This time the title explicitly states something that everyone is looking for. In 'stress-free' the offer is made even more attractive.

What They Don't Teach you at Harvard Business School : Notes from a street-smart executive by Mark H. McCormack

Another classic. The title here is long, but that contributes to its memorability. It is also contrarian, which is always a good thing. The subtitle is almost unnecessary with this one.

These books all enjoyed good success because they contain good, original content. They are good books on their own. But without the great title/subtitle combinations they could have disappeared without a trace. Good titles encourage people to pick a book up (or click on it) and they make it easy for readers to recommend them to others, reinforcing the potential of word of mouth.

As usual, if you have any questions or comments, please contact me directly, via our Facebook page or in the comments below.

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