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Lessons from Napoleon Hill about Book Titles

This lesson is a part of an audio course Brainstorming a Better Book Title by Marcia Yudkin

I'd like to go back now and provide some commentary on the anecdote about the origin of Napoleon Hill's million-dollar title, Think and Grow Rich, that I started this course with.

The first lesson from that story is that, very often, it takes loads of brainstorming before you land on the name that fully fits the bill. Too often, authors stop too soon, before the best ideas have a chance to come up. A good rule of thumb is to keep going in several distinct sessions overtime if necessary until you have at least 100 possibilities in your notes.

Second, bringing other people into the naming process is productive, because everyone's mind works in different directions. Napoleon Hill would never have thought up Use Your Noodle and Get the Boodle on his own. It just wasn't his style of language.

Third, horrible ideas may lead to great ones. Keep track of all your ideas and the suggestions of others, whether you like them or not. Do you perceive the remarkable resemblance between Hill's publisher's awful title and Hill's final, great one? Don't censor yourself as you are brainstorming. Write down even the ideas that are definitely totally whacked out, wrong, and unsuitable. Consider whether the titles that make you wince might have a kernel within them that you can develop quite differently.

Fourth, you need to know how to recognize the title that fits exactly what you are looking for. Hill wanted something elegantly simple, suggestive, and dignified. That's how he knew that Use Your Noodle and Get the Boodle was wrong. It didn't fit his criteria. His winner, Think and Grow Rich, combined four common, strong, one-syllable words in a phrase that continues to resonate and sell today.

And last, Hill recognized his winner instantly when it finally came to him in the middle of the night. However, don't expect to have that kind of bolt-of-lightning recognition. Sometimes you arrive at the best title quietly and without mental fireworks. This happened years ago with a book I co-authored with speech coach Laurie Schloff. We sold it to Henry Holt with the working title, The Sixty-Second Speaker. The thinking behind that title was that the book consisted of short chapters of solutions for common speaking problems. However, our publisher pointed out that from our title, people might think it offered advice for situations where people had to speak for sixty seconds, and we agreed with their feedback.

To come up with a better title, we brainstormed and brainstormed. We had huge lists of possibilities. We wanted there to be some alliteration, if possible, and preferred something short, as well as something that hadn't been used before in a title. We just couldn't find anything better than Smart Speaking, which came up early on our list. Neither of us ever experienced that excited recognition that Hill felt, but still, we and our editor came to a consensus that that was going to be the title of the book: Smart Speaking: 60-Second Strategies for More Than 100 Speaking Problems and Fears. Notice how the final title incorporates an idea from the working title that we had to reject?

The book did extremely well. It came out in hardcover first and had nine publishers vying for the paperback rights in an auction that lasted a day and a half, and it was excerpted in Ladies Home Journal and Cosmopolitan. Of course, that wasn't all due to the title, but the title plays a crucial role in helping people in the book industry (and later, customers) "get it" quickly and thoroughly.

Ready now to learn how to brainstorm possible book titles? That's the topic of our next two lessons.

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Written by

Marcia Yudkin