The rise of the mega-title: How gratuitous, list-filled names optimized books for Internet age sales, conquered the market, and made titles more boring

An interesting trend has developed in the world of books over the last fifty years. The emergence of the excessively long and overly informative book title has been swift and decisive. Once a rare style of titling, it now fills best-seller lists and Amazon search pages like sand fills a bucket. It took no prisoners. It came, it saw, it search engine-optimized.

Complete with a colon marking the break between the work’s main title and a subtitle attempting to indicate its content, the trend of the new literary mega-title isn’t going away anytime soon. If you’re someone who even occasionally shops for new books, then surely you know what I’m talking about.

Here are a few examples from current popular titles:

Gridlock U.S.A.: How America’s Traffic Problems Damage our Health and Wealth

Please and Thank You: Why Manners Matter More in a Digital World

Have you read or heard of either these books? Probably not, because I just made them up, as you might (or might not) be able to tell. It took me all of ten seconds. They were the first things that came to mind. Yet if you saw them prominently displayed on a Barnes & Noble shelf tomorrow they’d fit right in. Book titles seem to be getting longer and simultaneously worse.

Lest you think I am overreacting, or that I am whining about some imaginary trend in book naming (although I certainly am whining), I took a look at New York Times bestseller lists over the years. In the nonfiction category, which is particularly at risk for this type of title mumbo-jumbo, 80 percent, or 12 out of 15 selections in the most recent hardcover list, are of the mega-title variety. They total a whopping 137 words altogether, or just over nine each.

Going back twenty-five years and taking a peek at the nonfiction NYT list from December 1989, I find seven out of fifteen names, or 47 percent using colons for a grand total of 120 words, equal to eight words per title. There’s a trend emerging.

Turning the dial back yet another twenty-five years, the December 1964 nonfiction list yields ten winners with only three containing subtitles. The entire group clocks in at thirty-one words, a paltry three per book. Moreover, two of the three titles with colons pertain to biographies along the lines of Harlow: An Intimate Biography by Irving Shulman, which made the cut at a mere four words. (the NYT lists used can be found here.)

Three words per title is how you get it done. It’s simple and classy and doesn’t jam some garbled condensed summary onto the cover. The 1964 list contains such mouthfuls as Markings, Reminiscences, and The Kennedy Wit while 2014 boasts the quick and efficient Killing Patton: The Strange Death of World War Two’s Most Audacious General and You Can’t Make This Up: Miracles, Memories, and the Perfect Marriage of Sports and Television. Doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, does it?

These are not book titles, they are short essays. Fifty years ago, two-part titles functioned merely to stylishly identify what category of book you were actually looking at. Today we get full-blown sentences worthy of a third grade English exercise following the colon (e.g. Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.) A book title is not the appropriate place to demonstrate your command of comma use.

So why did this trend emerge in the first place and why has it become so dominant, so fast?

  1. Volume – As more and more words are deposited onto the shelves of the world’s metaphorical library, the potential pool of unused book titles shrinks. Increasing population and information exchange help fuel the fire. This trend is driven by time, and is, of course, cumulative and irreversible. Plato wrote The Republic something like 2,400 years ago, and there can really only be one. Name your book The Republic and things aren’t likely to go well. So instead you’ll pick something different, and, chances are, your new title will be longer than his.
  2. Digital availability – The ability to collect, index and display the vast catalogue of books in more centralized locations means competition for readers’ attention. This trend did not start with the dawn of internet access alone, as the statistics on the 1989 list above suggest. That was well before widespread web availability in developed countries. The growth and success of giant bookstore chains probably had a lot to do with this. The internet has obviously accelerated things. Potential customers no longer have a physical book in their hands to leaf through before purchasing. Instead they are likely browsing or scrolling after an initial search or link lands them at Amazon and their attention is often fleeting at best. Why not utilize as many characters as possible to quickly get your topic across?
  • Mobile consumption – If aggregation is a primary factor, then the shift of internet consumption to smartphones and tablets is a secondary and compounding factor. Now not only is the potential reader able to scroll around nimbly, but he or she can do so whenever and wherever and in a neat app designed just for that very function. And they can do so in the four-minutes it takes them to order and receive their Starbucks in the morning, while also checking e-mail, Facebook, and the weather. Notifications can interrupt the user’s experience at any time. You’re no longer competing for attention largely against other books, but now you are competing against entirely separate activities. Not to mention, with faces glued to screens in all manner of situations all over the world, some of those other activities involve walking normally and not running into things. Good luck with that.

  • Keywords – Take a look at the subtitles of some of the books you’ve read recently. They probably don’t contain just any random words to summarize their contents. Getting searchable keywords into that space after the colon is crucial for publishers and authors alike.  A few people may discover a book from searching some super high-level topic, like “politics” or “nutrition.”  But if their search is specific, and they plug in, say… “federalism” or “gluten,” then you better find a way to get that in your title if that’s what your book is about.

  1. More books aimed at mass audiences – I’m speculating a bit here, but it certainly feels like academics are getting into the mass-market book mix a whole lot more than they used to. Perhaps there’s more of a desire to augment teaching incomes, or demand is driving the possible dynamic, like a residual Flynn Effect. Perhaps the mass audience itself, the largest canvas to date for sharing your views, is the key driver. Regardless, it seems that even the top researchers in various fields are ending up on best-seller lists. Certain trends in social issues (e.g. income inequality) can also generate a lot of interest, as Thomas Piketty’s massive Capital in the Twenty-First Century just revealed. Not only is nonfiction ground zero for the use of the subtitle, but academics also tend to have specific applications of research to summarize, and some vague four-word title might not get the job done.

In the grand scheme of things, really long book titles don’t matter, and ultimately they’re not much more than a pet peeve. I’m not a fan of mega-titles, even if it does make books more accessible and searchable. It feels forced and cheap. I want to read books that name their subjects and just get on with it. I want more Capitalism and Freedoms and Theories of Justice. Give me more Brief Histories of Time and less Physics of the Impossible: A Scientific Exploration into the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation and Time Travel.

So what can we, the book title discontents, do against such powerful, evil trends? Well, not much. For starters, get to a physical bookstore. Sure a lot of the same drivers of character sprawl still exist once inside (aggregation, keyword signaling…) but to a much lesser extent. Browse some actual books for once and not just their digital versions. You don’t have to be a “save-the-bookstores”  anti-Amazon activist to enjoy it. Stumbling upon a book that’s been on your list for a while or simply heading to your favorite section in search of new finds are feelings that the online experience will always have trouble perfectly duplicating.

Read some of the book before buying it. Hit up the back jacket: it’s the proper place for a short summary anyway. Scan through the table of contents, read the introduction and a few pages or maybe even (gasp) a chapter. This can usually be done easily in digital format these days. The subtitle isn’t going to give you any idea of the writer’s style or how deeply they dive into their subject. You can only get that from, well, reading it.

Alas, this won’t stop the freight train of mega-titles. At the very least, take solace that many nonfiction giants aren’t jumping aboard, rather they have stood fast amid a sea of subtitles. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow utilizes its title to announce its subject is “thinking.” That’s about as vague as it gets. Yet this book was not relegated to the dustbin of history because nobody could find it on Google. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Or how about Edward O. Wilson’s latest, The Meaning of Human Existence? Just five words. Could you possibly come up with a weightier topic attached to a less revealing title? Tell me you’re not intrigued by the mystery of what these pages might hold, I double-dog dare you.

Such a title piques my interest much more than some cheesy, search algorithm-pandering alternative like Human Existence: A Leading Biologist’s Views on X, Y, and Z. Thanks, but no thanks. The prospect of getting insights into the meaning of life (for crying out loud) from someone with the gall to name their book properly is enough to sit me down right then and there and get those pages turning, subtitles be damned. Join me.

Jordan Zino works in investment research in Boston. His undergraduate studies were in finance and economics. He is a believer in the power of markets, ideas, and coffee.

(Image source)

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3 comments

  1. This has to do with how bad Amazon is at managing its internal search engine. Keyword stuffing is considered a ‘best practice’ in Amazon SEO. This affects more than just books, but all other products on their platform as well.

    In comparison, Google has become far better at natural language queries, understanding search context, and penalizing keyword stuffing. But for the most part, publishing houses must optimize for Amazon primarily, especially when they’re leaning heavily on that company’s own internal promotion, rather than an external marketing campaign.

    Amazon’s internal search engine does not go on language relevance. It goes on how likely the search result is likely to result in a sale. Google uses a complex mixture of criteria to rank search results, most of which have only tangential commercial relevance. Amazon optimizes for $$$$, and also your personal purchase history.

    Despite this, the title doesn’t have to have all the keywords stuffed into it. You can stuff the keywords elsewhere into the merchant feed, product description, and marketing copy to get similar effects. The main thing you want to achieve with the title is to make sure that it’s likely to be suggested for other searches when people start to type in stuff, and also appealing enough to attract clicks off a search.

    I would also dispute that having a keyword-stuffed title is good for all authors, which you touch on.

    If the author has the budget and the capability, it’s better to come up with a unique, arbitrary buzz-title of some kind that is memorable and can be advertised. If it free-rides off another buzzword, then even better, so long as it is also memorable.

    Trying to get all the keywords in the title suggests that neither the author nor the publisher has the funds to market the book adequately. Which makes sense, because most nonfiction books make no money at all, and most publishers spend no money at all on marketing for unproven authors.

    Nonfiction tends to sell poorly apart from a few topics — these are books published to burnish the reputation of the author, rather than to earn profits, with few exceptions. If you go through the Amazon best-sellers, in almost every nonfiction category, the top 20 books are all published by either a TV personality or as a byproduct of a movie or TV show.

    This is partly because Americans spend many multiples more time watching television than they do reading books, at all education levels. In the US, books are the cultural tail, and TV + movies are the dog.

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    1. Interesting comments and mostly agree. My very nonscientific way of gauging the trend revealed some risng colon use in the pre mass internet and Amazon timeframe though…whether a fluke, due to factors I mention, or due to factors I’ve missed…not sure.

      Agree about budgets and one thing I didn’t mention due to length is the reputation of those authors (Kahneman, Wilson) allow their sales to be much more inelastic relative to title. People will read Hawking’s next book because it is Hawking’s next book.

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