Choosing Your Nonfiction Book Title

by Marla Buttars

Titles, as we mentioned in the previous blog about fiction titles, are an important marketing tool. Both nonfiction and fiction titles serve as an immediate hook for readers searching for certain content, whether it be a good romance, a book about the law of thermodynamics, or something to help them improve their life in some way.

Readers’ needs determine what elements of a title will hook them best. With both fiction and nonfiction titles, the point is to set up the reader’s expectations: to show how your book fits in its genre and to establish a question the reader must open the book to answer.

For fiction readers, the creativity of your title sets up the promise of a good story. But for nonfiction, the key is answering the question “What do I get out of this?”


What Your Title Should Do

1) Give Information: A book title (or subtitle) must instantly tell the reader what results the book will give them (either in terms of personal change or in terms of a reading experience).

You have a couple possibilities when dealing with nonfiction titles.

  1. You can write a clever but clear main title that hooks interest and tells the reader what your book is about (generally best for self-help, how-to, and inspirational).
  2. You can hook your reader with an intriguing main title, and if coming up with that title renders the exact content of the book a bit ambiguous, a more descriptive subtitle can be used (this strategy is generally used with creative nonfiction like biographies, journalism, memoirs, etc.) .

Most nonfiction books have detailed subtitles, which also helps with keyword searches (we’ll tackle that in a moment) and gives the reader a sense of what they will get from the book.

Examples of effective titles that became best-sellers:

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change  by Stephen R. Covey. (Numbers are a great way to hook interest. They give readers something measurable to achieve. Another example is something like “21 days to 21 pounds”—a clear plan and an end date for difficult effort provides the reader with hope and motivation.)

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race  by Margot Lee Shetterfly. (Really long subtitle that further explains the ambiguous but interesting main title.)

Uninvited: Living Loved When You Feel Less Than, Left Out, and Lonely  by Lysa TerKuerst (The subtitle here reveals this is a book about positive self-help which adds to what appears to be a negative main title. Contrasts like this can grab readers’ attention with the powerful one-word title and then longer subtitle that shows the emotional appeal.)

2) Create a mystery: A question that needs to be answered entices readers to buy fiction and nonfiction alike. In nonfiction, the title and subtitle generate the mystery of how the information offered works. What seven habits will make me more effective, and how? How did black, female mathematicians affect the space race? How can I feel loved even when it seems impossible?

The dynamic duo of nonfiction titles? Tell readers exactly what they can hope to get from the book, then get them wondering how to achieve that for themselves, or at least curious about how your plan works.


Speak to a Specific Audience

An important way to determine which angle to take with your title is to get clear on who your book is really for. If you think you’re talking to everyone, you’ll end up talking to no one. For instance, not everyone in the world is interested in fixing their self-esteem (though they might be insecure in one area); the same applies to every subject, including narrative-driven works, like memoirs. You are truly looking for a very specific person to write to. The details you’ll include or exclude in your title will hook the right or wrong audience for your book. And if you want that critical word-of-mouth marketing, you want the right reader to pick up your book.

So, as you’re looking at other books on the market, ask yourself how the target market each book was written for affects the angle. For instance, you’ll see differentials among similar markets: a book with a target market of women (say, who want to find ways to eat healthier but fast meals) may be geared either toward young women or working women—or more specifically, working mothers; or even more specifically, single working mothers.

Consider how the specificity of that audience affects how that book goes wide or deep on a topic—how specific and unique the angle is. A book for beginners may go wide, covering all the basics, while a book for enthusiasts may go deep and leave out details on the beginner information readers would already know. If you’re clear on what your book is doing and which specific reader you’re trying to hook (more on that here), you’ll be much more likely to choose the right title—one that makes specific and compelling promises based on the very specific problems that reader is trying to solve (or based on the specific type of educational reading that inspires your type of reader).


Sharable and Searchable

As with fiction titles, keep your word choices easy to remember for sharing and searching. You don’t want a complicated title people can’t remember when they finally get online to find your book (or when they’re trying to remember your book when a friend asks if they read anything helpful on such-and-such topic); and you don’t want a title that’s the same as twenty other books in your genre. Readers might not remember your name and title to put the two together, so anything you can do to differentiate your book in terms of an online search (that’s still easy to remember) is a plus.

Another crucial thing with nonfiction is aiding readers in finding the book. Unlike most fiction readers who voraciously read in the genres they enjoy, readers of nonfiction are looking for very specific information. Figuring out how to target those searches requires research on the keywords readers commonly use when looking for information similar to what your book contains.

Keywords: To narrow down possible keywords, first brainstorm the purpose of your book (building a brand, informing on a certain subject, education, etc.) and possible keywords associated with your book.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People  includes several keywords in the main title (7 habits, effective people) and subtitle (personal change, life lessons). Other potential keywords might include leadership skills,  productivity,  and self-help.  If the main title is more poetic, like Hidden Figures  and Uninvited,  longer subtitles provide more searchable word choices. Or they can be included in the back copy. Be careful not to make the back copy or subtitle just a list of keywords, though. This tends to put off readers.

  • Once you have brainstormed a list of about ten to twenty solid words and phrases, Google Adwords Keyword Tool and Amazon are both great places to test them out. If using Amazon, select “Books” to narrow your results. This gives you a general idea of what pops up with certain words or word combinations and helps you find the best fit. (This step requires some learning and practice; see the last item in this group.)
  • Keep in mind that most of the terms people search may not be what you think (newbies won’t know industry terms, for example), so do your homework on the market you wish to tap into. (Example: someone wanting to learn about typesetting could type “typography” into the search function of Amazon, or they could use “different fonts.” The latter is searched more frequently.
  • After you’ve tested your keywords, make sure to use the online keyword marketing tools (for search engines), especially with online bookstores, and include more than one keyword. As in the example above, using both “fonts” and “typography” in your keyword efforts on Amazon/online ensures you capture a wider group of potential customers. Most publishing sites also include a place to enter keywords to aid in reader searches (keywords the online bookstore uses in the background with their shopping algorithms). If you are traditionally published, you won’t have control over this, but you can offer suggestions based on your own research. To read more about using keywords as a marketing tool when publishing your book, see our article on Amazon keywords here.

The Wrap-Up

The key things to remember for a nonfiction title are 1) to answer the question of what the reader will get out of your book, and 2) to create a mystery regarding the applicable steps they can take to help achieve their goals (which are inside your book). As you come up with titles, keep the unique angle and audience for your book in mind so you’re drawing the right crowd to your other information, products, and services.

Got it? Then get that book out there and make your impact!


Marla Buttars is an intern for Eschler Editing. She joined the team at the end of 2015. Long before that, in a galaxy far away, she earned a degree in English literature and published a handful of articles no one ever read. She recently returned to school to study editing and writing so that someone other than her husband will want to read her stuff. When not dodging her toddler and housework, she reads, writes make-believe stories, and gets lost in the world of research.

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  1. Claudia

    Just wondering if you think that a small book titled “How To Feed A Vegetarian” really requires a subtitle. Some have said that most non-fiction books require one (I’m not really sure about the food and health categories, though). The book is somewhat serious in nature in spite of being written in a conversational style and tone, which is why I’m having trouble with coming up with a subtitle. I think the title is specific enough to not require a subtitle, but I’m not experienced enough to determine that.

    • angela

      You definitely don’t have to have a subtitle. I think if the title is specific enough, makes clear what you’ll get out of it (which yours does–it’s an obvious problem-solution title), and is keyword-searchable for what your audience would be searching online, you can totally run with it! (One of the reasons people tend toward subtitles–beyond the need to have a flashy but unclear main title–is for the keyword searches online. So if you can do it all in one short title, you’ll have that much more room on your cover for endorsements and/or taglines.)

  2. David Singer

    I would like to have a main title and two subtitles to
    my non-fiction narrative book Is that done? No Such Thing As A Bad Kid/The Mohonk Story/The Neuroscience of raising children

    • Lindsay Flanagan

      Hi, David,

      If you’re self-publishing, you can do whatever you feel is best for the book, of course. You may want to do some research to see if it’s being done in the traditional publishing market (specifically in your genre) as it could be seen as as amateur if you can’t find it done in traditional publishing. Possibly the only reason to do it would be as a marketing stunt. Your better bet would be to have a really strong main title that captures some of those things you mentioned as titles and a really strong subtitle that adds a little intrigue to the main title (or if the main title is intrigue oriented, the subtitle would ground it with the nuts-and-bolts of what it is and for whom). Hope this helps! Thanks for the comment and reaching out!


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