Funny Book Title Grammar Sells Books!

Authors and publishers alike frequently mistake book titling as the ultimate challenge for expressing a theme through allegory. That works fine for fiction titles that are backed by a big promotion budget or famous author, but for the rest of us, the title had better express what the book is about in the clearest possible terms. "To Have and Have Not" was a great title for a Hemingway novel (not to mention the Bogart and Bacall movie) but I wouldn't suggest using it as a title for a book about stock market speculation, no matter how clever it seems at first blush.

I'm going to concentrate entirely on nonfiction books in this post because I have no practical experience titling commercial fiction and because I believe a whimsical title may actually help a novel. Nonfiction, whether literary or crassly practical, is written about something. That something should be encapsulated in the title if at all possible, so people and computers will know what the book is about. Did he say computers? Yes, it's especially critical for books with limited promotion budgets to take advantage of the one truly free promotion available in the industry - the title. When you walk into a bookstore, a library, or surf over to Amazon looking for a book about paying for college, a small collection of related words is what the clerk, librarian or you will be typing into a search box to find possible matches. Depending on who types the query, the phrase might be "paying for college", "how to pay for college", "paying for a university education", "how to afford a college education" or "refinancing my house to pay for my stupid kid who didn't get a scholarship to attend a four year party".

The job of the modern nonfiction book title is to include the key words and phrases that will give the book the best chance to show up in a computer search, while not being a complete turn-off to the potential book buyer. For example, the title "How to Pay for College or University for Four Years and is Paying for College or University Affordable without Refinancing Your Home" may contain most of the key words to do well in a computer search, but it's not funny, and the grammar is questionable at best. A title and subtitle combination could achieve the same search results, such as "How to Pay for a College Education without Refinancing Your Home: Paying Four Years of University Tuition IS Affordable."

Now that we've done a crude title refinement with our impression of what key words are valuable, let’s check the Overture Search Term Suggestion tool for how people actually make these searches on the Internet. It turns out that the keywords "Pay" and "College" were searched on over 1,000 times in May (hardly the high season for worrying about tuition) while "University" basically drew a blank. "Paying" also matched with well "College”, so it's a keeper. "Pay" and "Tuition" did much better than "Paying". "Refinancing" wasn't the hot keyword I would have thought, but it definitely matches with "Home" better than "House." Testing "Refinancing" alone tells me that we'd do much better with "Mortgage" in our title, and "Second Mortgage" is a huge key phrase (over 200,000 searches in May) that will come up in some queries. Looking for a replacement term for "University", I searched on "College Education" and "Cost of College Education" looked strong. "Four Year" was nowheresville. Finally, all this scientific titling made me think of "Student Loans" which are a big hit with the kids. So, with the help of Overture, we rewrote our example title:

"How to Pay for College Tuition without a Second Mortgage: Paying College Education Costs with Federal Grants and Student Loans." If I had written a book to fit inside this title, I'm sure it would do better in those critical database searches than either of the titles I started with, and the grammar is superior as well. So how did this post end up titled "Funny Book Title Grammar Sells Books!"? I've seen a lot of funny (odd) book titles in recent years, and the reason is that they are written for database search algorithms rather than the people making them. Some titles have devolved into a laundry list of key words without even a nod to proper grammar, and it actually works well in online stores, like Amazon.

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