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Three Magic Words? Tips for Book Titles

post1We all know a well-written manuscript is essential to successful book publishing. But did you know that the title of your book might be just as vital to marketing it and having it become successful as the quality of the text? The right title ensures that you pique the interest of the book buyers you are targeting. Think about it. People ain’t even gonna read what you wrote if their first impression of your book as a product or an object is poor: a title and cover image they don’t like.

Your Title Must Match the Contents


The title is a significant issue to publishers. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and What to Expect When You’re Expecting are examples of two classic, unforgettable titles and books. Life After Life, a popular literary novel read by dozens of women’s book groups in the past year or so was again unforgettable. The book was well-written and the title matched the contents: the story of a woman who is reborn again and again until she “lives her purpose.”

Be Clear, Describe a Specific Need or a Specific Result


I’ve seen publishers change the title of a well-written book after the hardcover edition tanked on the shelves because they knew something was off in its appeal the first time around. Too clever titles can fail and if they do then the book package has to become more straightforward. Cuteness can be confusing. If your book is about back pain, your reader is likely going to be searching for a book called Healing Back Pain or Oh, My Aching Back. Your title should meet them at their destination. If you are going for a “result” title, then title your book Permanent Relief from Back Pain or Back Pain Solutions.

Sometimes an unexpected market gets interested in you and you decide that you want to sell harder and appeal more directly to their taste or interests than to others. Others can benefit, but you should encode the title for your strongest readership.

Reveal Your Process . . . in a Nutshell


In nonfiction, your title largely depends on who you imagine your reader to be. Put a title on your book that incorporates words and phrases that matter to THAT person. Such a title could be about who they become, it could be about the process they undergo, it could be about where they are now in life.

Some would say that your title and subtitle let your readers know you understand their pain, and who they will be once they or their lives been transformed by what you have to offer them in your book. Your solution is the way to overcome their obstacle or relieve their suffering. I’m thinking, as an example, about Jorge Cruise’s book The Three-Hour Diet, a process title. Eat every three hours and lose weight is the promise.

Speak to Your Readers’ Hearts

Title discovery is an organic process on the part of readers, so naming a book needs to be an organic process on the part of authors and publishers as well. The right title may land on you fully fleshed like Venus on a Half Shell, rising from the ocean foam, or Athena cracking out of Zeus’s forehead. If we understand how readers think we can come at them from the emotional perspective.

A Clever Three-Word Formula for Book Titles


I remember seeing a clever little computer software tool a couple of years ago that analyzed fiction titles. It liked three-word titles beginning with The, especially: The Adjective Noun. The Da Vinci Code. A variation on the stand-alone noun. The Noun. The Nanny. The Help. The Hobbit. Those are good for books about people or one specific person.

The simple noun can also work for location and context. A Year in Provence. Last Tango in Paris. Interview with the Vampire. I don’t entirely agree with the necessity for formulas, but when I hear these sorts of titles I actually hear them in my head like percussion—linked chains of long and short syllables with various stressors. They remind me of poetry measured in iambs: hard soft, soft hard; long short, short long.

Rhythm is the reason we like limericks:
“There once was a girl from Nantucket…”


Use Surprising Counterpoints


Here’s a title that uses a surprising counterpoint: The Gifts of Imperfection by Bréne Brown. “Gifts Of” is sort of like an adjective in that it describes a quality, in this case “imperfection.” But what makes the title stand out is that it’s the opposite point of view to the one you would normally think about when hearing the word imperfection.

This title wakes up the brain and tempts the reader to try to find out the context, doesn’t it? So that comes in the subtitle: Let Go of Who You Think You‘re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. Ahhhh, a book on being happier because we love our flaws. Unconditional self-esteem is the promise.

Or what about The $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau? Process combined with our favorite formulas, The Adjective Noun. It’s promise is reinvention!

Bottom line. Think about what you’re accomplishing for your reader. Then sum it up in three magic words.

Of course, there is no one way to do anything. Formulas are too rigid. Here’s another piece of advice therefore, which is also important: Keep working on your title until the hair on your forearms stand up. That little bit of emotional reactivity is a sure sign you’ve just about nailed it.

And my final advice: Road test your title on your target readers. They know what floats their boats.

You can find Stephanie at http://stephaniegunning.com