Holding Out for Mr. Right (Title, That Is)

Finding the right title for your non-fiction book can feel a little like trying to finish the last few clues in a crossword puzzle.  You’ve read the clues a dozen times, and maybe even thought you finally had the answers—only to discover that the answers you’ve come up with are either too long, too short, or don’t happen to start with the letters ZHA (that is, assuming you filled in the other clues correctly).  When you finally get a word right, however, it seems so obvious you can’t believe you didn’t get it right away.

It took my publisher and I several months to come up with the title of my first book, a streetwise resource for teens and twenty somethings with bipolar disorder.  We knew the title had to signal that the book was for young people, but using the words “young people” or “young adults” was out of the question (no self-respecting 18-year old would be caught dead reading a Young Adult’s Guide to Bipolar and I don’t blame them.)

This is going to be embarrassing, but in the interests of the Public Good, here are the first few terrible titles we considered:

Gloves Off Bipolar

The Black Dog and The Bee:  Young Folks’ Guide to Bipolar

Bad-Ass Bipolar:  A Guide for Hipsters, Stoners, and Other Rocking Folk

The first title was meant to convey that my book wouldn’t treat the subject of bipolar with medical rubber gloves, but it’s too ambiguous and a little icky sounding.

The second title sounded too much like a memoir, and that “young folks” was a weak stand-in for “young people.”

The third title was getting a little closer in terms of hip language, but it felt awkward.

Here’s the title we finally decided on:  Welcome to the Jungle:  Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Bipolar But Were Too Freaked Out To Ask.  It’s not a perfect title.  For one thing, it’s really long (try dropping it during a radio interview!) and the key word “bipolar” is buried in the subtitle.  But it does convey the following three promises:

Solution:  “This book will provide the straight dope on the aspects of bipolar other books won’t touch.”

-Tone:  “This book will be hip, funny, and definitely not clinical.”

-Audience:  “This book will appeal to teens, twenty-somethings, and cool adults.”

If we had chosen the title The Young Adult’s Guide to Bipolar, I suspect the promises conveyed would look more like this:

-Solution:  “This book will contain general information about bipolar.”

-Tone:  “This book will take a clinical and “responsible” tone.”

-Audience:  “This book will appeal primarily to parents of young adults with bipolar.”

When you’re trying to come up with a title for your non-fiction book, start by writing down your book’s promises:  the solution it offers, the tone it takes, and the audience it’s written for.  Next, jot down words, puns, and turns of phrase that speak to those three promises.  Don’t focus on what your book’s about—instead, focus on what it delivers, and to whom.  Don’t be satisfied with the first title you come up with, either—chances are, title number twenty or twenty-one will be stronger. You can’t afford to settle for a weak or ambiguous title.

Before settling on any title for your non-fiction book, test it out on relatives and coworkers who haven’t read your book.  See if they can correctly answer the following three questions just by reading your title:

“What unique benefit or solution does this book offer?”

“Who is this book written for?”

“What kind of tone or approach will this book take towards its subject matter?”

If they can’t, go back to the drawing board.  If they can, you just might have yourself a killer title.

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