How to Choose a Bestselling Title (Updated!)

Marketing begins with an immediately accessible concept. As more books go digital and jacket art becomes a less important draw to readers, your title becomes your best (or worst) marketer. Look at the New York Times Bestsellers list each week: you’ll see common words repeating almost formulaically by category. How can one tap this formula? Simply by paying careful attention, even just looking at your own bookshelf or Kindle queue. Here are some of the top-selling titles we found to guide you in the right direction. Some might surprise you!

1. Guide to, Ways to, How to: 1,638,764 / 194,230/ 584,472

Practical titles caught us as the most prevalent: promising to fulfill something you need. But you don’t necessarily need to have written a self-help book to use these phrases.  Toby Young’s memoir How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, a spin-off of the famous prescriptive business title: How to Win Friends and Influence People picks up on these buzzwords. Even fiction authors can take advantage: think of Melissa Bank’s breakout book, The Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing.

Get creative with nonfiction help titles too by remixing classics like “What to Do When…” (119,112 in Search Results on Amazon) or calls to action, like: “How to Start…” (107,615 in Search). Readers browsing for particular information, whether for personal or professional interest, will respond to both the authority of a “How to” title and the originality of your spin on it.

2. Lives/Life: 1,665,413/1,665,455

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry: A Novel, Life Beyond Words, My Horizontal Life, The Secret Life of Violet Grant… We were surprised by the number of books on bestseller lists containing these words. Three possible reasons: the word “life” implicitly suggests an arc, or progression, or wholeness to a story; it caters to voyeurism, an intimate look at someone else’s life; and finally, it brings a kind of drama through that voyeuristic lens. Many readers appear to respond to a title that feels both honest and sensational.

3. Children: 1,649,100

Everyone love talking about kids: Their kids, other kids, genius kids, and “those darn kids!” So it’s no surprise “children” is a popular search title. There are plenty of self-help books on how to raise a child (The Conscious Parent: Transforming Ourselves, Empowering Our Children). However, other popular fiction writers are also quick to play to our parenting sensibilities, like bestselling YA author Ransom Riggs’ novel Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children, or Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.

4. House/Home: 1,124,405/481,749

A house: one of the most basic units of life. Houses and homes are close to our hearts as well as our wallets. A self-help or style book focused on the house or home would do well to include these keywords, but even fiction books like House of Leaves by  Mark Z. Danielewski and Summer House With Swimming Pool by Herman Koch can capitalize on the ubiquitous and comforting nature of these words.

5. Perfect: 1,057,687

Are we more perfectionist than ever? Apparently so! Popular book titles reveal a lot about human psychology. Using the word “perfect” seems to automatically guarantee a better shot at bestsellerdom, from the book-to-film, A Perfect Storm, to self-help (and in this case self-published) bestsellers, like Creating Your Perfect Lifestyle.

5. You/Your: 776,534  / 486,158

Frame the topic of your book around a well-placed “you” or “your” and you have immediately established a connection with potential readers. You can go the more traditional route: Seeing the Big Picture: Business Acumen to Build Your Credibility, Career, and Company, or… Welcome to Your Brain and Don’t Look Behind You are playful takes on this tactic.

6. Start Up: 420,788

The word “start” implies a challenge and excitement about something new. It’s also malleable to whatever idea you’re trying to market. Two recently popular books, The Start-Up of You and The Lean Startup, used the word to sell completely different concepts. It worked in both cases!

7. More: 378,351

People are rarely satisfied with what they have, and what they want is always “More”. A title using “more” promises the reader some kind of enhancement: of their own life or for the characters of a novel. A classic look at religion like More than a Carpenter capitalizes on people’s interest in Christianity, while a romance like More Than This promises a fantasy relationship. Other ways to use “more” might be as part of a series, such as More Laugh Out Loud Jokes For Kids,  or 33 More Ways to Reboot Your Life.

8. Up: 243,680

Everybody want to keep moving up in the world. They want to UPgrade, or UPstage, or even UPend! Books like Up: How Positive Outlook Can Transform Our Health and Aging hit the self-help and empowerment niche, but many memoirists have exploited this keyword as well. Man Up!: Tales of My Delusional Self-Confidence, Ross Mathews takes a common phrase and puts his personal spin on it. An Amazon bestseller, Up: A Mother and Daughter’s Peakbagging Adventure by Patricia Ellis Herr focuses on the relationship with her daughter and their mountaineering adventures.

9. Paris: 186,309

Expat memoirs, self help (consider Bringing Up Bebe), and fiction alike are trends one sees all the time, and Americans have always had a love obsession with Paris… Ironically,  A Reliable Wife also became a runaway bestseller, with wife coming in with 36,150 results in search. Could this be a trick to try? We think so. Next up, “husband”?

10. Code: 152,777

The word “code” implies a secret, something hidden, something to be decrypted–all ideas that can draw in a potential reader. From books on computer codes to The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography, there are plenty of nonfiction titles to use the word. However, other books like the women’s self help book, The Confidence Code, are also seizing on the popularity and searchability of this keyword.

One more thing:

Make a statement with your title by spinning a well-known expression. With the title In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, for example, author Jean Shepherd takes a phrase his audience can contextualize and then hints at a book full of analysis, criticism, and humor. It also states a partial thesis, sparking the curiosity of potential readers.

When you’re brainstorming your title, think about the central purpose of your book, and remember that the right word can make all the difference.

*All numbers collected from search results on Amazon Books. Research contributed by Hannah Frank.

Chris Bailey

INTERNATIONAL BESTSELLER

"Chris Bailey has tackled the daunting task of personally experimenting with any and every technique you can imagine that could positively affect your productivity. His dedication to the project and his intelligent conclusions, combined with his candor and articulateness, make this a fun, interesting, and useful read!” — David Allen, author of Getting Things Done