What Bestselling Authors Know About Writing Titles
They vary by genre, but the majority of bestselling authors and editors return to the same hooks time and again to routinely sell obscene amounts of books. On the recommendation of Clayton Makepeace, a celebrity in the web’s direct response copywriting world, I decided to visit a bookstore and peruse the titles on their shelves and take note of what titles grabbed me.
As Makepeace explains:
“Just step through the front doors and take a deep breath: Can’t you just SMELL the money?
“This year, we Americans will spend considerably more than $30 BILLION on books and magazines.
“For the numerically challenged among us, that’s thirty thousand MILLION dollars!
“As they’d say here in North Carolina, ‘That’s some powerful BIG binnus!’
“Now, with that many shekels at stake, you’d expect the competition to be ferocious. You’d be right.
“Take a look around the store. How many book and magazine titles do you figure you see? 10,000? 20,000?
“Guess again, oh Prescient One. This is one of the bigger temples.
“You are in the presence of nearly 200,000 titles! Lay one copy of each end-to-end, and they’d stretch out for some 25 miles!
“Imagine being the marketing guy or gal whose product is only one of 200,000 competing for your prospects’ attention …
“… AND being limited in your quest for A-I-D-A (Attention, Interest, Desire, Action) to a single thought that will fit on a book jacket – or worse – on its spine!”
(I’d just like to point out, for those of you self-conscious about pumping schlock by the barrel, that there are at least 5 different writing style tactics used in those few lines.)
I selected the following titles for their brass-knuckles-in-your-face aggressiveness in calling for attention. They’re augmented by some selections found on Amazon’s 2009 Best Seller List.
Self-Help Category – Hook: Improve Your Life
– How To Save Your Own Life: 15 Lessons On Finding Hope In Unexpected Places
– How To Talk To Anyone – 92 Tips
– Finish Your Old Year Wrong! Hangover Survival Guide
– Eat Out & Still Lose Weight
General – Hook: Curiosity About The Unknown
– Super Freakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance
– Born To Run: A Hidden Tribe, SuperAthletes And The Greatest Race The World Has Never Seen
– The True and Outstanding Adventures Of The Hunt Sisters
– Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story Of A Band Of US Soldiers Who Rode To Victory In Afghanistan
– The Cure: How A Father Raised $100 Million And Bucked The Medical Establishment In A Quest To Save His Kids
This category particularly fascinates me, so I thought I’d add in my grain of salt as to why these titles work. I don’t know that you can generalize to all books in this category, but the following traits stand out to me at least in the above set of titles.
1. We love stories. We grow up with them, science has proven we remember them better and so on. These books promise a story (or several)…
But not just any story!
2. These books promise a remarkable, quirky or otherwise unexpected story, often explicitly – with words like “outstanding adventures,” “extraordinary story,” and “quest”.
What really strikes me though is the variety of implicit ways the titles make the promise of such a special story.
- “Patriotic prostitutes” makes me think, “Huh? That’s an unusual adjective to associate to prostitutes… “Global cooling” and “suicide bombers” buying life insurance are equally quirky. The book Spunk and Bite that I referred to in my previous post on schlock explains that to achieve this stylistic element you just need an unusual adjectives noun-pairing. The trick is to find a pair that isn’t contrived.
- “Hidden” and “the world has never seen” plays on our near-universal desire to know secrets, as any unimaginative marketing salesletter-page guru will tell you.
3. There seems to be a thread of ‘belonging’ or what Maslow’s hierarchy of needs addresses as “social needs” – the human desire for relationships with others.
Patriotic prostitutes belong to a nation.
A hidden tribe – well, that’s pretty explicit.
Sisters have family bonds.
We see a ‘band of soldiers’. Not just a group – an organized team with links between themselves.
The father was out saving his kids.
4. This may just be me, but I think there’s a bit of self-actualization (the peak of Maslow’s pyramid) hinted at or made explicit in each title. I’ll let you guys look them over and figure out the details.
Politics – Hook: Prove What They Believe
– Hot, Flat And Crowded: Why We Need A Green Revolution – And How It Can Renew America
– Liberal “Victims” And Their Assault On America (by Ann Coulter, naturally)
– The War On Success: How The Obama Administration Is Shattering The American Dream
– Obamanomics: How Barack Obama Is Bankrupting You And Enriching His Wall Street Friends, Corporate Lobbyists And Union Bosses
– An Invonvenient Book: Real Solutions To The World’s Biggest Problems
Essentially, these titles just repeat back to people what they believe or are concerned about. The right wing titles (which outnumbered the left wing books in the store I visited) also aim to boil readers’ blood.
The Obamanomics title repeats back the following widely held views. Many people are disgusted by the bonuses Wall Street paid itself from the average American’s taxes, which anger just boils even further when these same people hypocritically argue for fiscal restraint as concerns other Americans e.g. in terms of providing health insurance to the poor.
Thomas Friedman’s title does the same sort of preaching to the choir (“we need a green revolution”), and adds in the national-aspirational bit in a way that seems to simultaneously strike the ‘belonging’ and ‘self-actualization’ chords.
– The Long Shadow Of the JFK Assassination – I liked the shadow image
– Crash Course: The American Automobile Industry’s Road From Glory To Disaster – I think this addresses our curiosity and incredulity at the near-failures of the Big Three.
– Knockout: Interviews With Doctors Who Are Curing Cancer – And How To Prevent Getting It In The First Place – This seems to be another hook targeted at incredulity, combined with a self-help hook. “Cure” cancer? Prevent it? Awesome!