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Here is how you should title the next book you write.

I was talking with someone about book titles. I liked the title Red State Blue State Rich State Poor State when I came up with it, but the book did not sell as well as I hoped (not that I thought it would sell enough to make me lots of money; I’m just using sales here as a proxy for influence). The trouble was that this title was a way to signal that the book would be a fun read—but, let’s face it, for most people a book full of graphs is not so fun. The appeal of the book was that it had lots of analyses that had never been done before, along with some that were not new but helped us understand what was going on.

Look at Bill James. He called his book the Baseball Abstract. Can’t get much more boring than that. But people wanted to read it because it had the facts. We would’ve been better off calling it the Voting Abstract or Crunching the Election Numbers or something like that.

A general principle

So this got me thinking about a general principle for titling your books.

Bad title: This Book Will Be Fun to Read.

Good title: This is the Book Your Competitor Has Already Read.

The idea is that people should read your book because otherwise they’re missing out.

Regression and Other Stories as a counterexample?

But is Regression and Other Stories a counterexample to the above principle? It’s on a technical topic but has a fun title and it’s been successful, or so I think. The difference, I think, is that the title of Regression and Other Stories is just not so important. We could’ve called it Regression, or Applied Regression, or Applied Regression from a Computational Perspective, or all sorts of other options, and I think it would be selling just as well. Maybe even better, who knows. Knowing the authors of the book gives enough of a sense of the content that people will buy it (or not buy it) for the right reasons. Red State Blue State was a different story because at the time we (the book authors) were more of an unknown, and we were trying to reach new groups of people, so the signal sent by the title was more important.

25 Comments

  1. Maybe not exactly relevant, but I’m thinking here of the Dubins/Savage book whose original title was “How To Gamble If You Must”, subtitled “Inequalities For Stochastic Processes”. It turned out that a lot of people bought the book because they thought it contained gambling tips, and they got mad when they realized it didn’t (well, apart from some theorems about the optimality of bold play), so eventually the publisher swapped the title and the subtitle.

  2. Steven J Reilly says:

    What about Freakonomics? That’s the kind of title that makes you think of a teacher sitting backwards on a chair and saying, “Hey kids, what’s say we make boring old economics FUN!” And I hear it did all right.

    • Rahul says:

      +1

      ” This Book Will Be Fun to Read” ain’t a bad title goal. Just that “red state blue state” did not convey that sense.

      Freakonomiks did. It’s not easy to come up with a catchy phrase.

    • Andrew says:

      Steven:

      Sure. “Freakonomics” was our model. I think Red State Blue State is as good a title as Freakonomics, and politics is as popular as economics. Our problem was that Red State Blue State was simply not as good a book as Freakonomics. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love Red State Blue State, and I think that the research and analysis in Red State Blue State is as good as the research and analysis in Freakonomics. But Freakonomics was a better book because it captured the joy of social-science discovery and the sense of social-science debate. Levitt and Dubner did a great job of giving the reader a you-are-there feeling. Red State Blue State was fine, it was written in competent prose and has some great graphs, but it comes off flat. We lay out the results without the same feeling of action. Given that we didn’t really have the ability to write a book as lively as Freakonomics, I think we would’ve been better off to own our flatness. Hence the title issue. Red State Blue State could’ve been a great title for a book with similar content as ours but written in a more lively way; it wasn’t a great title for the book we actually wrote.

      To put it another way, “This book will be fun to read” was not a good message to convey for Red State Blue State, as our book is not actually fun to read (except perhaps in comparison to an academic monograph). Our book is accessible, but accessible is not the same as fun to read.

    • jim says:

      It’s not the title, it’s the content. Freakonomics is successful because it’s an interesting topic and accessible to a very large non-technical audience. I’m guessing “Red State Blue State” was not so successful because the topic has much lower general appeal and am extremely restricted technical audience.

      What’s exciting about “Costco” or “Wal Mart”? Not much. It’s the content. Even “Amazon” isn’t an exciting name. It’s what they do, not what their name is. “Google” is cute, but would it have been less successful as “Searcher”? I doubt it. It’s secret was what it did, not what it was called.

      • jim says:

        If someone wants to study the impact of titles, they should compare introductory books in the same discipline named “Introduction to [Discipline]” vs [cute name]. I don’t think [cute name] will win in most cases.

        • jrkrideau says:

          I believe you would be correct but it likely is a matter of face validity here. Somehow “Introduction to Quantum Mechanics” is more believable than “Welcome to our World of Tiny Weirdness”.

        • Howard Edwards says:

          My old university used to have two introductory courses in Chemistry called Organic Chemistry and Inorganic Chemistry. Later they changed the names to Chemistry in the Living World and Chemistry in the Material World. No doubt they are called something else now!

      • Andrew says:

        Jim:

        I agree that it’s not the title, it’s the content. See my above comment regarding Freakonomics. That said, I think the title makes a difference. A better title wouldn’t have made Red State Blue State into a bestseller, but it could’ve better conveyed its content and helped it reach the right readers.

  3. Alain says:

    Sounds you are laying the ground for a causal study, haha!
    We could perhaps gather more data, control for the book’s price, authors’ popularity, topic’s importance, features of the target audience, etc.
    Maybe this is sth that publishing houses already do routinely (?)

  4. MM says:

    Maybe this will help you come up with the right title, and even with editing:
    https://hbr.org/2016/09/know-your-customers-jobs-to-be-done

    The relevant question may be something like
    “What job is this book performing?”

    And go from there.

  5. paul alper says:

    For decades, I was the “North American Correspondent” for a British journal, reporting on the doings in the colonies for the Homeland. With my imaginary pith helmet and King James Version of the Bible, I daydreamed about writing something entitled, “The Left-handed Fielding Shortstop and the Jewish Question.” Unfortunately, I knew the British editors would not approve nor would anyone outside North America get the absurdity of the title. Or, perhaps, anyone inside North America.

    • Phil says:

      Indeed, a left-handed shortstop would be absurd, so I’m with you.

      But there are no left-handed-throwing catchers either, and there would be nothing absurd about a left-handed catcher, although a lot of people _assume_ there would be something absurd about a left-handed catcher. And one of the 50 most famous catchers of all time was Jewish. So I think “The Left-Handed-Throwing Catcher and The Jewish Question” would be an acceptable title, even a good one. You write it, I’ll read it.

      • paul alper says:

        Most Americans know that certain positions in baseball (sort of) require that the player field right handed. But baseball only goes back to the late 1800s. However, in the U.S. no one today debates the so-called “Jewish Question.” Nevertheless, it has been around much longer than baseball. According to Wikipedia:

        “The term ‘Jewish question’ was first used in Great Britain around 1750 when the expression ‘Jewish question’ was used during the debates related to the Jewish Naturalisation Act 1753.”

        Any American politician who brings up a topic entitled, “Jewish question” is certain, using a more modern expression, “to draw a crowd.”

      • jrkrideau says:

        Indeed, a left-handed shortstop would be absurd
        Amazing. I am North American—Northern part—and didn’t know that. Of course I am pretty hazy on what a shortstop is too.

        Donald Norman wrote a very fun book yor the general populace on the ergonomics of design entitled The Psychology Of Everyday Things that he was rather proud of since it could be called P.E.T.

        After some rather poor sales, the publisher renamed it to The design of Everyday Thungs and it seems things improved.

  6. TOM says:

    When can we expect Vol 2 of ROS?

  7. Michael Nelson says:

    Apples and oranges. I’m pretty sure the titles of textbooks don’t matter nearly as much as the titles of popular nonfiction books. To the extent that they do, and given that statistics is a math-based discipline, I’d think the message to send is, “This book will not destroy your soul.”

    • gec says:

      To that end, I think for textbooks, the cover art is more important than the title.

      Not to take anything away from BDA, but good cover art is one of the many reasons I like Kruschke’s “Doing Bayesian Data Analysis” as an intro to Bayes—cute puppies on the cover! Definitely the top tier of “not soul-destroying”.

      BDA I’d put at the second tier of non-soul-destroying covers. It shows an interesting set of analyses of the kind the book prepares you to do yourself. The cover may not be cute, but at least it is informative and invites inquiry.

      Most textbooks, especially of the mathy variety, fall many tiers lower in terms of cover art. They have some piece of generic abstract art you might find in a dentist’s waiting room, typically the same color as some unpleasant bodily fluid. They are announcing, “this will be unapproachable and unpleasant and you will forget you even had a soul at the end of this course.”

  8. Joshua says:

    Always depends on your objective (and audience).

    I personally think that Steal This Bookis a great title, but maybe not if point of purchase sales is the metric on which you’ll get paid.

  9. Howard Edwards says:

    When I was a graduate student in the 70s we were expected to attend a weekly journal club working through recent published research. One of the books we covered was “Great Expectations: The Theory Of Optimal Stopping” by Chow Robbins and Siegmund. It can’t have done very well as it was went out of print shortly afterwards.

    Incidentally in pre-Internet days it was a lot harder to order books with names like that because booksellers always assumed they knew what you were looking for better than you did (no I did not want the one by Charles Dickens!)

  10. Seeing this spurred me to finish writing a bit about my search for a book title for a popular science book I’m writing. The entertaining part was hunting for patterns in others’ titles (Scroll to “Other titles”). https://eighteenthelephant.com/2021/03/01/pop-science-biophysics-now-with-a-title/

    I think “Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State,” is great, by the way, but perhaps I overestimate people’s familiarity with Dr. Seuss.

  11. rm bloom says:

    Even Kant came up once with a rocket of a title:

    On the Old Saw: That May be Right in Theory But It Won’t Work in Practice (Über den Gemeinspruch: Das mag in der Theorie richtig sein, taugt aber nicht für die Praxis)

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