How to Pick a Book Title: The Most Important Decision an Author Can Make

While working on my latest book, I hired media strategist Ryan Holiday to help me promote it. When I did that, he asked for something I didn’t expect. He asked to see my manuscript.

How to Title a Book: The Most Important Book Marketing Decision You'll Make

“Why?” I asked.

“Because,” he said, “once a book is finished, the marketing is done.”

Once a book is finished the marketing is done.


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Thus began a year-long journey of writing and rewriting my next book, which comes out later this year. It was a painful, grueling effort but one that resulted in something I’m proud of.

The place where we began working, though, was not where I expected.

After I finished a rough draft of the book, Ryan told me to not write another word until making a very important decision. In fact, this just might be the most important marketing decision you’ll make as an author. He told me I had to decide what the book was actually about. I had to give it a title.

In this post, I want to share with you the step-by-step process I followed to get a very rough idea out of my head and onto paper and how I refined it into a compelling argument and title. I want to share with you what I learned and why I will be using this process for every single book I write after this and why I will always begin with the title from here on out.

I recommend you apply as much of this as possible, gleaning what you can for your own journey. I hope it helps.

Choosing an argument

“It seems to me that this is two books,” Ryan told me. “One about creativity and the other about how to not be a starving artist. The first is a category that is already over-crowded, and the second sounds interesting. I think you have to pick one. It can’t be two books.”

Ryan was right. I was writing two books. Fascinated with the research behind creativity and why it had become a popular subject of study lately, I wanted to know how the brain worked and how that influenced our creative efforts. But that book had already been written — a few times.

This other idea, however, was something new. Maybe even something fresh. Something I could get excited about. So I chose to focus on the starving artist angle, and that decision made a world of difference. Now that I had an argument — you don’t have to starve to be an artist — it was now time to find a title.

Exercise: When choosing an argument, consider the question: “What is your book about?” Can you capture the argument in a single sentence? My friend Marion likes to say, “All great writing is about something, and that something is not me.” Your big idea needs to be something memorable and interesting — to the reader, not just to you. Don’t move forward with writing the book until you have a well-formulated argument that can be summarized in a single sentence. For more on this, check out this podcast episode.

Brainstorming book titles

The first title of my book was The Creative Advantage.

It was based on the idea that maybe what makes many creatives and artists starve is the same set of tools that can help them succeed. But when I shared that title with people, I heard more than a few times, “I feel like I’ve read that book already. Didn’t I already buy it?”

Seriously. I probably heard that a dozen times.

So it got scrapped.

While working with my agent Stephen Hanselman (who has worked with Tim Ferriss, Dallas Willard, Jack Canfield, and others), what really excited both of us was Michelangelo’s story of how he was secretly a millionaire.

I found that interesting and thought it said something about what’s possible with art and business. Maybe you can be both, and perhaps Michelangelo is the example to follow.

So, we started calling it The Michelangelo Factor. I liked that. It was catchy intriguing. But I also secretly worried about folks who weren’t artists or didn’t know much about Michelangelo. Would they be intrigued, too? Plus whenever I told people that title, they kept calling it something else, like The Michelangelo Effect. Which worried me.

Maybe it wasn’t that catchy, after all.

So I kept considering alternative titles but nothing seemed to stick. So I went back to writing. Maybe the title would emerge the more I wrote.

Exercise: Brainstorm at least 3-5 titles that best encapsulate the argument of your book. These need to be clear and compelling, something that would dare readers to pull the book off the shelf. Whatever you do, when considering a title for your book, don’t settle. Make sure that your argument is clear and everything in the book, including the cover and title, point back to that one central idea. For more on picking the perfect book title, read this and this.

When in doubt, be interesting

So I wrote the starving artist book instead. It was another draft of the book I’d been working on, but this time more focused (I typically write about five drafts of a book before doing any serious editing). When he read that version, Ryan said, “It’s sort of like what you’re saying is: ‘Real artists don’t starve.'”

As soon as he said it, I knew that was the book title: Real Artists Don’t Starve.

It both scared and excited me at the same time. What would people think? Would it push them away? Would it stir up controversy? Was it actually true? When I ran the idea by my friend Marion, she said, “You don’t have to be right. You just have to be interesting.”

That took a lot of pressure off, but I wanted to dig a little deeper. I needed to test this idea. So I ran a series of polls on both Twitter and PickFu and was startled by the results: when people liked the book title, they loved it, but when they didn’t like it, they hated it.

I thought that was interesting.

Then I started asking friends — but not just random people off the street. I polled bestselling authors and popular bloggers and book marketers. I asked my friend Joe, who is an author and popular blogger. “That’s the title,” he said one day as a group of us sat down to eat brunch at a restaurant in Portland. “It has to be. I’m telling you right now. That’s what the title is going to be. I just know it.”

I wasn’t so sure, though. Because everyone I talked to either loved the title or absolutely hated it. And that worried me. The publisher wasn’t sure, either. In fact, all my marketing-savvy friends loved it, but some did not. So, I waited and waited, worrying about the right thing to do.

Then I started asking potential readers, people I met at events and conferences. One was accomplished fine artist, Cassia Cogger, who when she heard the title said, “Well, yeah. I mean, it’s true. You can’t starve. You have to make a living if you want to create art.”

Then she went and created an amazing piece of sketch note artwork that said, “Jeff Goins says… Real artists don’t STARVE!!!”

Finally, I asked Joel Miller, who edited my previous book, and he said, “Nope. All those other titles are dumb and this one just works. That’s the title.” He didn’t couch it in any formalities or niceties. That’s what I love about Joel. And so, because he knew it, I knew it.

Which is how my book became: Real Artists Don’t Starve.

Exercise: Once you have at least 3-5 titles, start running some experiments. Ask friends, readers, strangers. Get feedback before you decide. You don’t have to go with the most popular option, necessarily, but you want to make as informed a decision as possible. In the end, you need to choose something that will connect with the core audience you intend to reach with the book. And when in doubt, be interesting. For more on creating interesting content, read this.

Lessons learned and how to title your book

How did I know this was the right title? Well, I didn’t. But I chose it, anyway, because I believed it encapsulated the argument I wanted to say and because I did the work to validate the idea. That doesn’t mean some people didn’t disagree with it, but ultimately it felt like the right choice.

Here’s why (and what you should be looking for when you title your own book):

  • Feedback. Whenever I talked to someone whom I thought was the ideal reader for the book (think artists, creatives, writers), they almost always loved it. Not only did they love it; it challenged them. They resonated with it. People who didn’t care for it were rarely the target audience, but they said they were considering how someone in their shoes might interpret it. Also, people I respected were more sure about the decision than I was.
  • Controversy. When people liked the book title, they loved it; and when they didn’t like it, they really didn’t like it. I figured anything that was getting that strong of a reaction was bound to generate some conversation. A risk, of course, but one worth taking.
  • Risk. Finally, I figured it was better to say something strong that some people might disagree with than it was to pick something safe and forgettable.

So, that’s how I came to title my latest book. Now, here’s what I learned…

4 rules for titling books

  1. Choosing a title for your book is the most important marketing decision you will make. If you get it right, it makes everything easier. If you get it wrong, it makes everything harder.
  2. A book title needs to dare readers to pick up the book. That’s its one and only job — to get someone who’s never heard of you to consider spending $25 on a book they’ve never heard of before. So, err on the side of saying something controversial or unbelievable. Think The 4-Hour Workweek. You want people seeing your title, saying, “Wow, there’s no way that’s true!”
  3. Make your title one part intrigue, one part description. Don’t make people guess what your book is about. Tell them. Consider Think and Grow Rich or How to Win Friends and Influence People, two of the best-selling business books of all time. These titles tell you exactly what is in them. For fiction, you can get away with something a little more poetic, but you’re still balancing intrigue with description. For example, To Kill a Mockingbird is not actually about killing birds, but it is about killing something innocent.
  4. Make a counterintuitive promise. Include something surprising in the title or subtitle. Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist is an example of this, as is Ryan Holiday’s The Obstacle Is the Way. Again, the title is a dare to the reader to pick it up, so make them think. If you don’t do it in the title, do it in the subtitle. Malcolm Gladwell’s books all have relatively short titles but longer subtitles that follow this rule of mixing intrigue with description.

One person I asked about the book title said, “Man, I would pick up that book just to prove you wrong. I mean, I’m thinking, ‘Who does he think he is!?'”

That’s the kind of reaction you want to a book title, not “I feel like I’ve read this already.” It needs to grab the reader, daring them to pick up the book. That’s the most important decision you can make as an author: picking the right book title. Do that and everything becomes easier.

So that’s the process that got me here, and I hope it helps you get to wherever you’re headed.


Here’s a list of the resources I mentioned above:

What do you think? How does Real Artists Don’t Starve strike you? What are some of your favorite book titles? Share in the comments.

83 thoughts on “How to Pick a Book Title: The Most Important Decision an Author Can Make

  1. Great piece, Jeff. It’s intriguing to me that even a veteran author needs somebody at some point to look at the project and say, “Hey, that’s two things. Pick one.” Looking forward to this new work. Thanks for the insights here.

    1. I wouldn’t call myself a veteran, Mo. I’m learning as I go. But yeah, anyone can get too close to the work. Always good to have some objectivity.

  2. Great article & keys at the end. I’m probably going to check out that book soon also especially since I’ve been working on a few short ebooks.

  3. I love the title of your new book, Jeff! It’s powerful. I told it to my mom just now (we partner in our creative ventures) and she said “YES, we need to stop confessing that we’re starving artists.”

    I’m in the process of choosing a title for my next novel. It’s a standalone historical fiction about the Choctaw Code Talkers of World War I. A friend came up with “Trench Talkers” which I love, but I also wanted to include a Choctaw word, so I added “Anumpa: Trench Talkers” (Anumpa meaning “language.”). Then, in the wee hours of Sunday morning, this came to me: “Anumpa Warriors: Trench Talkers.” I still need to test it. My concern is that it may sound too nonfiction instead of appealing to fiction readers. And since the book isn’t written yet, I may have other ideas blossom during the process.

    For nonfiction, my favorite titles are ones that tell me what the book is about (like yours). When I saw “Impactivity: How to Set the World on Fire without Burning Out” I don’t have to wonder what kind of value the book was going to offer. Fiction is more subjective. With “Almost Heaven” I knew it would involve West Virginia and mountain music without reading the description.

    Looking forward to reading and sharing your new book, Jeff!

      1. Haha, I’ll pass your appreciation on to her. On a side note, Jeff, we spoke on the phone a few years ago, and I shared how grant programs have helped me establish my career as an author. You asked if I would do a blog post about it and I never really got back with you. Is that something you’re still interested in?

  4. I like the title, especially compared to the other options. My first thought, however, was that it narrows your audience compared to your other books. Maybe that’s goal, but my second thought was, I wonder if this will still apply to me? –As an author/blogger/editor, I’m sure it will. As a non-profit director, maybe not as much as The Art of Work. I think there is a massive amount of value in AOW for people of many spheres. The new title seems to apply to a select group. But you know I’ll be reading it! 😉

    I like your process and “rules.” I think some of them apply to cover design in general. I have a title for my newest book, but am struggling (already) with the name of the sequel. I’m looking forward to working through your process and seeing how it applies to fiction. Great blog!

  5. Timely post and very helpful. I am trying to name my completed non-fiction manuscript now. I kept thinking it would jump at me as I wrote, but…. So thanks for the rules. Maybe they will help.

    And I LOVE your title. Good job being brave and choosing the riskier option.

  6. Now I’m confused, but since you asked: “Real Artists Starve” strikes me as a bad idea. I might guess that’s a typo, though, because “Real Artists Don’t Starve” sounds like fun!

  7. You could take your new article different ways. Some could say…well, that means I may not be making it now, but since I know I’m a real artist, I know I’ll eventually make it. My art will win out. And others, will take offense. Hey, are you calling me a fake?

    Me? I see it as a challenge and I love a challenge. It makes me want to know what piece is missing.

  8. This post was helpful. My WIP is a memoir, and I rested on a title I liked. But, as you point out, it may lack the foundation of a clear argument. Any book needs a raison d’detre, and that’s what I need to settle on to guide the whole project. After all, that will determine the words that get in and the ones that don’t. It’s not just a hoop to jump through like a college paper. ?

  9. Yes, indeed — and the most controversial book title of the last year or two is “Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh**” which is perfect for all the reasons you list. Thanks, Jeff.

  10. Loved this post! It’s so true. We usually rush into title creation, without giving it much thought. I know I have – in fact I regret going with the title I originally had for my book. But, moving forward, I decided to test, and my second book did much better – because I polled my readers. This post will help me as I get ready to begin the process of getting my third book written.

    Thanks, Jeff!

  11. What a timely post, Jeff. Working on my next book and the title is something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. This is a roadmap I’ll return to again and again.

  12. The book, “Smart But Feeling Dumb” grabbed my attention when I was looking for a book to help me understand my dyslexic son. It was the perfect description of him and the book followed through with the info I needed. That was the perfect title!

  13. My all-time favorite book title is “Love in the time of cholera” by Gabriela Garcia Marquez. A close second is another book by Marquez, “Memories of my melancholy whores.”
    Who wouldn’t be intrigued by such titles? “Melancholy whores?” I had to buy the book and read about these ladies and what made them melancholic. Or why would somebody care about the memories of these ladies of the night… marvelous books. Marquez is one of my favorite authors.

  14. Jeff, epic stuff. Really appreciated this post. I love the title of your book, and thanks so much for giving us the benefit of your journey. A book title I really like is “It’s Hard to Make a Difference if You Can’t Find Your Keys”–a book about seven steps to getting yourself organized. I bought it on title alone, LOL! Keep up the good work, and looking forward to your new book.

  15. “Steal this Book” Abbie Hoffman. “Stranger in a Strange Land” by Robert Heinlein.
    Is “Don’t Read My Book” too challenging? Titles are fun, I have a huge list of possibles. My latest two are “Hell to Pay and “Against the Wind”. Both, if set in way too tight a pigeonhole, are humorous westerns.

  16. Love the title, Jeff! I’ve noticed too that a lot of best selling books tend to have short titles. Maybe 3-4 words (i.e.: The Art of Work, Good to Great, etc). A clean book cover design also seems to be helpful.

  17. Thank you for this. Your work is so generous and smart and I’ll be in the pre-order group for your book definitely… But… sorry.. but… When I clicked on the book I was surprised by the cover art and font. I know you have a theme of simplistic covers but this one feels older and more out of date then your others. Netflix has such a great series called Abstract out now and one is about Paula Scher, the graphic designer obsessed with font. I can’t place it, but that cover art is not what I expected when I was reading this article. The title of the book is fantastic but the apple is done. I think education/teacher, not a book like this. I would pass it in a bookstore and not even read the title. And I was a Store Manager for Barnes & Noble for many years. Maybe it’s just a mock-up… Sorry for the two-cents…. Much success to you…

  18. I liked the post a lot. As for the title, my first reaction was, “What if I considered myself a hardworking artist and I am struggling? Does that make me not a ‘real’ artist?” That was my first reaction. However, with that said, I would pick up the book to see what it was about with the hope that it held the secrets to success.

  19. What do I think? I think I could have used this post a few months ago before I settled on the title for my next book. I also think you’ve inspired me to rethink the cover of the book. I want to make sure I draw people in by what the cover says. I’m not sure I can change the title at this point, but I can definitely do a better job hooking potential readers.

    How does Real Artists Don’t Starve strike me? I like it. It encourages me to keep going. It makes me want to pick up the book to learn more about how I can survive (and thrive) in the middle of creating my art.

    What are some of my favorite book titles? Love Does by Bob Goff, Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller, and Skipping Christmas by John Grisham

  20. Very Interesting Title, I got to say it raises bad feelings in me, but then again I might read it because I don’t think of you as an overbearing, self-possessed jerk, and know it all, (That is who I might expect to say something like this).
    I agree titles are vital, but where do you go for fiction to know what to look for or is fiction more the graphics than just the title?

    1. With fiction titles, I’d think the most important quality is: INTRIGUE. Intrigue is the hook. Often the combination of graphics and title create that intrigue. I’m just looking in the bestsellers of this moment, and I find: “Silent Child”. That is intriguing in itself, and the cover does the rest.
      Would this be a non-fiction book on upbringing or something, we would not want the intrigue, we want the hook to be: the unfamiliar and new idea. That’s what Jeff does with his title, and why he stresses that the title is more important than the subtitle.
      Thanks for asking, because you got me thinking.

  21. Wow I am currently working on a book. I definitely will use these tips for the title once I have completed the project. Thanks for sharing and I agree Real Artist Don’t Starve is the perfect title!

  22. As a former art student, I love this title!

    It’s a shame that art schools don’t offer any training on how to sell your work. You’re given three choices: go to grad school, teach, or work at Burger King until you get your big break.

    “Want to learn to sell? Go to business school, kid.”

    This irritated the sand out of me, so I went to work.

    I especially like the idea of adding controversy to your title. If it’s boring, it won’t sell. Real Artists Don’t Starve catches you by surprise. “What? I thought they did. I want to know more.”

    I’ve sold a lot of books, and this was an informative read for me. Thanks for sharing, Jeff!

  23. Thank you Jeff for an informative article. The book title makes me want to read it.
    How does an apple relate to an artist? It made me think of a teacher. Perhaps it is a reference to something you wrote about in the book.
    I appreciate your transparency, and your honesty. You live what you teach.

    1. It’s a subtle thing. Starve. Food. Still life. And it’s green. I like green. 😉 (Fwiw, a lot my the icons for my books aren’t self-explanatory, like the airplane for example.)

  24. As far as catching titles, Obstacle is the Way is definitely one of my favorites. I love when there’s an element of surprise in the title. Good luck with the launch and thank you for sharing your title choice path. We have been choosing my book title recently and after days of back and forth and coming up with synonyms of synonyms, my agent summed it up best with “you just never know.”

  25. Great article. Book titles will make or break a book. Your title makes me want to open your book and find out what makes you so sure.

    The title of my forthcoming book is, It Takes One to Tango. It’s about empowering one partner in a marriage to create far reaching positive change — whether or not their partner joins in the effort.

    I went through a bunch of titles and this one lit up when I thought of it.

    I had to fight for the title when someone in the marketing dept of my publisher thought it sounded like a book about divorce. I was determined to do whatever it took to keep it.

    My editor came up with the subtitle: How I Rescued My Marriage With (Almost) No Help From My Spouse – and How You Can, Too. Mine was really lame. It takes a team to get this stuff right.

    I’ll look forward to your book.

  26. And how about “Images You Should Not M*****bate To” by Graham & Rob Johnson & Hibbert (I kid you not…) It’s a book full of unusual photographs, popular with ‘white elephant’ party attendees…

  27. As to favorite titles, I gotta stick with my wife’s first book, “Dickless Marketing: Smart Marketing to Women Online” (2004) — she got her first call to come on local TV the morning after the press release went out! My current read is “The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World” by The Dalai Lama & Desmond Tutu.

    Which brings me to a question for you. In your email about this post, you started with the question why we made me our last book purchase? You described a person having their attention grabbed by a title and picking up the book.

    I totally agree that the title, color scheme, and design perform that function. But I’ve always thought it’s the sub-title that closes the deal, or moves the person to turn the book over or open it where the back cover copy, fly leaf, or table of contents can finish the job.

    I guess I’m asking whether you think your titling task is done once you discover and settle on the main title? (I’m in the “love it” camp on yours, btw.)

    1. Hah! Nice. In my experience, people rarely remember the subtitle, so the title needs to grab people’s attention. The sub can further explain the idea, but you really only get one shot, so the title has to win them over. And thanks!

  28. Love By Breakup.

    How ’bout that as a title for my book about how I discovered what Love is after a really painful breakup? Your upvotes or comments are very welcome. (And Mr. Goins thanks for the inspiration!)

  29. Very interesting post, thank for sharing.
    I’m gong the “Title Battle” myself currently. I asked friends, did a survey with people who enjoy that genre and then plan to ask other writing people I know.

  30. This post was excellent! I really appreciate the peek behind the curtain and I’m grateful for the resources you provided.

  31. Hi Jeff, this is the best article I’ve read on titling a book. There are so many actionable bullets to measure your title up against. Thanks for writing this.

    Currently, there’s only one title that springs to mind – “Teach Yourself Sexy” but I will endeavour to think of alternatives then ask my closest friends what they think.

    Is there any material you can recommend on choosing a sub-title, or do the same principles apply?

    I’ve pre-ordered Real Artists Don’t Starve, but as I live in the UK I own’t get it until July 13. Can’t wait!

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