What’s in a name?


As we’ve shared the idea of Lean Analytics, we’ve obsessed—as most authors do—with naming. When I co-wrote Complete Web Monitoring a few years ago, I talked to a friend of mine, author Mitch Joel, about its initial name: Watching websites. Ultimately, my co-author Sean and I decided that name would be misinterpreted as a book on online video streaming, and went with the more descriptive (but less sexy) title Complete Web Monitoring. When Mitch heard this, he shook his head in dismay: he thought that by clarifying what the book was, we’d dramatically reduced its audience to a particular subset.

Every author wants an Airport Book. This is the kind of book that fills the racks in an airport bookstore. It makes you feel smarter for having bought it. It’s packed with little gems you can share at conferences. And it’s often got a compelling title: Made To StickSwitchLean Startup. One-word titles, with few syllables, that have a verb in them, do well.

It turns out there is, and isn’t, a lot of research behind a successful title. There’s plenty of data on book sales, of course—so much that publisher Lulu even has a title-scorer app that uses research on bestsellers to predict (in a tongue-in-cheek way) what chance a title has of becoming a bestseller.

The advent of the electronic book, and its accompanying electronic bookstore, helps collect data on what people browse, and can give a publisher early indications of success in real time.

Electronic bookstores have also polarized purchasing: getting featured in online stores is key to success, as is getting mentioned by the Oprah of your particular industry (or, for that matter, Oprah.) Unfortunately, the choice of title, cover art, and other aspects of a book remain somewhat of a dark art for traditional publishers. This New York Times piece explains it in detail.

Most in the industry seem to see consumer taste as a mystery that is inevitable and even appealing, akin to the uncontrollable highs and lows of falling in love or gambling.

Eric Simonoff, a literary agent at Janklow & Nesbit Associates, said that whenever he discusses the book industry with people in other industries, “they’re stunned because it’s so unpredictable, because the profit margins are so small, the cycles are so incredibly long, and because of the almost total lack of market research.”

As analytics types, we don’t like this. My biggest concern is the bubble in which we live and write. Consider another book in O’Reilly’s Lean series, Ash Maurya’s Running Lean. I’ve told plenty of people about it; it’s doing really well, and Ash is in high demand as a speaker and subject matter expert. When a potential reader comes from the startup world, they get the title immediately. But outside our world? They think it’s a book on jogging to lose weight.

No, seriously: if you asked a million random people what the book “Running Lean” was about, what do you think they’d say? Here’s a post from a car tuning forum.

In our case, many people I’ve talked to in the business world (that is, in established businesses that are well past finding their product/market fit) think “Lean Analytics” is about doing web analytics on a shoestring budget, or about Business Intelligence with a minimum of technology. One even thought it was about lifelogging to shed pounds by tracking weight. None of those topics will leap off airport shelves. This presents us with a dilemma:

  • If we target a market narrowly with a title that resonates, we’ll get good adoption within that market.
  • But if we over-target the branding, we limit our ability to reach a broader audience.

It’s a tough balance to strike. It’s one we hope to understand through analysis and experimentation, but even then, this is difficult: we mostly know how to survey startup types. Tim Ferris did some in-store testing before choosing his title (making many of us wonder how many hours he squeezes into four hours.)

He took a book about the same size, put a bunch of different covers on the books, put them in the new non-fiction book section, then just sat back and observed people for the next few hours, watching their reactions. An overwhelming percentage, something like 300% more people picked up The Four Hour Work Week title than the others.

Ferriss and his writing team came up with 12 alternate names. To break the deadlock and to help finalize and write the great book title they eventually came up with, Timothy Ferris ran a Google Adwords campaign. ” He bought ads for relevant keywords for all twelve potential book titles and tracked which titles performed the best. The clickthrough rate for The 4 Hour Work Week was by far the highest, so that is what his book is called.”

As far as using Google Adwords to write a great book title, Ferriss proved it’s possible and as Zeigler reports, “a smart and novel approach to write a great book title. “Google Adwords is a cheap and real time focus group.”

Ben and I have a number of ideas for titles that might work. But they’re just ideas—hypotheses to be tested. We’ll try a variety of titles with different audiences and see what works, because that’s what analytical types do when confronted with uncertainty. Not sure whether we’ll camp out in bookstores, but ads and surveys seem like a good start.

On that note, we have a survey going right now with 5 name options. Previously we had many more, and ran a survey on new sign-ups for the book. After 70 or so survey completions, we took the five highest ranked names and updated the survey.

Please take a look here: help us name our book!

The survey takes no more than a minute to complete, and will be one of the data points we use in picking a final name for the book. Thank you!

  • http://www.facebook.com/sierra.tolter Sierra Tolter

    I think you’re stressing over the wrong thing. While the title can make a difference in hitting a market that has zero connection to your main target, are you really writing for such a broad audience? For non-fiction — and especially a helpful/how-to book — plain old word of mouth determines the fate of your book (outside of some initial bump, but likely never enough to even earn out your advance).

    People still buy these books because someone reasonably credible to a potential reader wrote/said, “You must get this.”

    My book has been on the Amazon computer/tech bestseller list longer than any other (2400 days and counting). And yet people still write Amazon reviews that get the name wrong. We probably chose one of the worst names in history, yet even our second book is the second-longest-days-on-bestseller-list, and there are some 20+ books in the series.

    I DO regret the name, and think it does matter, but… if you are competing based on how much the name resonates with someone who has no idea what your book is or whether they should get it, I’d quit worrying about that and focus entirely — and I mean ENTIRELY — on whether the book is one that will cause people to talk about and recommend. There isn’t much competition for books that actually do help people become better at something in a meaningful way.

    • http://www.instigatorblog.com/ Benjamin Yoskovitz

      Sierra – Thank you for the comments. Greatly appreciated. We’re not overly stressed about the name (writing a great book is much more on our minds) but we are curious about people’s feedback for the name. This sort of experiment is interesting for us, provides interesting content for the blog, and may find its way into the book itself…

      And glad to hear you’ll buy the book no matter what the title! Thanks again…

  • http://www.facebook.com/sierra.tolter Sierra Tolter

    Forgot to add — I will buy this book even if it had an unrecognizable gibberish title, simply because it was you two who wrote it :). A social media following isn’t enough to guarantee sales, of course, but you guys have already long proven yourselves to offer valuable, useful, relevant, understandable insight. And I actually like “Lean Analytics”, but like I said, I am the worst book namer in the world.

    (I have another bestseller, not from O’Reilly, that McGraw-Hill named and honestly I do not even remember the name, and neither do the buyers… Online discussions call it the K&B book (Kathy and Bert) because nobody else can remember the horrible, long name either. And when I say bestseller, I mean like 100,000 copies and still selling).