male lion lies on his back with paws over his face

What your book title says about your book

What your book title says about your book

(and your subtitle and back cover copy, too)

Let’s start with a quiz:

male lion lies on his back with paws over his face

What was he thinking with that title? CC image “I Can’t Bare to Look” courtesy of Rennett Stowe on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

1. My book’s title/subtitle is:

  1. That thing I put on the front cover
  2. My best way to grab potential readers
  3. Descriptive and poetic
  4. Clear and concise

2. My back cover copy:

  1. Is a small space for text on the back of the book
  2. Is a great place for all my positive reviews
  3. Gets the reader to open the book
  4. Is my opportunity to talk about my story/me

Right, my own blog post title may have given this away, but bear with me.

Book titles are a marketing tool

Writers are strange about our titles. We think the title needs to be poetic and perfect, and the subtitle needs to cover everything there is to know about our book. The answer is no, absolutely not.

Your title is not about you, dear writer. Your title is for your reader. It is the number one piece of your marketing, touching the ever-important question in your audience, “What’s in it for me?”

For question #1, if you answered anything other than B. My best way to grab potential readers, you are not paying attention.

Research shows that readers look at the title first, when deciding whether to purchase a book or get it from the library. Think about it: it makes perfect sense. Yes, the title goes on the front cover, and we can debate over how poetic or concise it needs to be, however: if you lose the reader here, you lose them forever.

Tips for book titles and subtitles:

  • Keep it short, but not too short.
    • Long titles don’t fit well on book covers. You’ll have problems with design, and also a mouthful is hard to market. On the other hand, one-word titles increase the chances that another book already has that title (this is perfectly legal, by the way).
  • What works for fiction does not work for nonfiction, and vice versa.
    • We like a bit of mystery and poetry in fiction titles—as long as we have an idea what genre we are in. Nonfiction, however, benefits from clarity. Grab the reader with a short title, and let your subtitle make clear what you’re talking about, BRIEFLY.
  • What’s in it for the reader? Be specific!
    • Remember, this is marketing copy. Generic phrasing is boring and sloppy and makes you look like an amateur.

Back cover copy — Not a synopsis

Oh, God (you think). I spent this entire BOOK making my idea (or my story) clear—now you want me to condense this into a paragraph or less?!?

Writers fall prey to the temptation to outline each major plot point on the back cover (fiction). Or, they want to delineate each important takeaway (nonfiction).

Bad idea. The back cover copy is limited in space, and you must be intentional with how you use it. If you believe that there is any role for the back cover that skips C. Gets the reader to open the book, might I ask what was the last book you picked up to read, and did you look at the back cover?

Again, as with the title, back cover copy is marketing copy. After your potential reader checks out the title and the cover, the back cover is typically their next stop. This is a low-cost investment for them—if they’re not intrigued, they’ve lost perhaps a minute of their lives. Your book, however, can languish forever in obscurity.

Tips for back cover copy:

  • Be brief. Hit the high notes, but avoid plot details.
    • Keep all copy between 150-200 words, including your bio. The last thing you want is a clogged-looking back cover. We can read the book for details. Bullets are great for nonfiction authors, and fiction authors should use a cliffhanger.
  • Keywords are great for any genre.
    • Remember you are probably listing your book at an online retailer, not to mention your website, and search engines come into play.
  • Include a short bio and headshot (you’ll feature a longer bio inside the book).
    • Have you written any other books? Are you an expert in this field? This is the place to showcase your professionalism and expertise. Yes, this is also for you, fiction writers. Don’t be sloppy.

The bottom line

The working title of your book can be whatever you want. Orwell called his book The Last Man in Europe before it was published as 1984. You can save the file on your computer as My Great American Novel, or Important Stuff About Leadership. But when it comes to publication, your title, subtitle, and your back cover copy need to speak to the reader, and they need to make their point in a limited space. This is marketing copy. The place for the story is on the inside pages.

Thoughts, questions, comments, suggestions, and blarney (bonus points for wit):