Last week, I went to the Minnesota State Fair. As I wandered through the exhibits with my boyfriend, I found myself drawn to the vendors whose products promised amazing results, 100% guaranteed. Maybe this isn’t something I should admit in public, but specifically, I couldn’t tear my eyes off the Swiss Vegetable Peeler guy.
That vegetable peeler was freaking amazing. Five seconds into the presentation, I was already convinced this vegetable peeler would transform my life. It was the solution I needed to save myself from a lifetime of vegetable-peeling drudgery, offering novelty, quality, and exquisite Swiss craftsmanship. If my boyfriend hadn’t frog-marched me away from the booth, I would probably be peeling apples with it right now.
What the Swiss Vegetable Peeler salesman did was convey a promise (another way of saying this is that he offered a solution). He demonstrated that his product would change my life and give me high-value rewards at a reasonable price. And it worked.
In order to sell and sell well, non-fiction book titles need to be as effective as this salesman. The title of every successful non-fiction book needs to convey a strong promise: an irresistible guarantee the reader won’t be able to resist. Exactly what kind of promise your book makes is up to you. Some books promise to be funny. Some books promise to provide the kind of useful, detailed information on a niche topic readers can’t find anywhere else. Some books promise to transform readers’ lives or show them the path to riches.
If you pick up the nearest business, how-to, or self-help book lying around, chances are its title will convey at least one of the following three messages:
Solution: “This book promises to answer to a question or solve a problem.”
Tone: “This book promises to be funny/sassy/intellectual/upbeat/etc.”
Audience: “This book promises to appeal to businesspeople/academics/kids/baby boomers/etc.”
Ideally, your title should speak to all three of these levels of promises.
Let’s look at some existing titles and how they work.
Skinny Bitch is a bestselling diet book. Without knowing anything about the book except its title, we know that it promises to be a snappy (if not downright bitchy!) manifesto for the chick-lit crowd looking to lose weight and gain an attitude. We know that the book will be entertaining rather than overly scientific or medical in nature. For weight-conscious women, this title also offers the chance at gaining membership to the elite status of “skinny bitches” to be envied by others—no small promise.
Guitar for Dummies is one of the ubiquitous “for Dummies” series. This title promises an easy, straightforward, humorous approach to guitar that anyone can master. We can tell the book is geared toward the average Joe rather than a classical music major, and that we’re guaranteed to succeed because “even a dummy” could learn guitar from this book.
How to Make $60 An Hour as a Video Ghostwriter is a self-published e-book. Instead of being coy, funny, or subtle, this title sets out its promise in the bluntest terms possible: “This book will show you how to make $60 an hour as a video ghostwriter.” Readers looking for quick answers will be drawn to this e-book’s straightforward approach and its promise to deliver information that will be useful to them immediately.
The 4-Hour Work Week is a bestselling nonfiction title that promises to (you guessed it!) teach readers how to become rich and happy while working only four hours per week. This is an audacious promise, and it works: readers are snapping it up.
In my next post, I’ll show you how to come up with the most effective title and subtitle for your non-fiction book. Until then, start thinking about what your book promises, and to whom. And remember: if a vegetable peeler salesman can do it, you can do it too.