In my previous posts, I looked at super bestselling authors’ debut books. But the average book on that list was published in 1955. What trends in book titles might we observe if we compared those books published between 1864 and 2011, with books published recently? To this end, I examined the titles of books on the NYT bestseller list in 2021, and the first 10 months of 2022.
The average length of a superbestselling author’s debut title was 3.19 words – slightly longer than the 2021/2022 NYT bestseller list average of 2.89 words.
At the lower end of the scale, impactful one-word titles made up 9% of the superbestselling author’s list, while 14% of the 2021/2022 bestsellers had one-word titles: a jump of 5%.
At the upper end of the scale, the longest title among the more recent bestsellers was just 8 words long: Go Tell the Bees that I am Gone. (This title feels so unusually “long” to me that, in recent posts, I abbreviated it to Go Tell the Bees). The longest superbestselling author’s title, however, was two words longer: And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. (This title, by the ever-creative Dr. Seuss, also stands out as one of the few titles to begin with a conjunction, And)
Most Common Words
Other than articles A and The, just three words were appeared more than once in the titles of the superbestselling authors’ debut works: Big (at 3 tokens), Men (2 tokens) and Penny (also 2 tokens) – though technically, Penny only appears twice because of the title Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less, so really, only 2 words were used in more than one title on this list.
There was more overlap among the recent number one bestsellers, with five words appearing more than once: Death (3 tokens), Mercy (2 tokens), Run (2 tokens), Time (2 tokens) and Wish (2 tokens).
Combining the two lists, we find a few more repeated terms: Book, Daughter, Four, House, Never, and Prey.
Titles on both lists were most likely to begin with an article: The or A (31% of the superbestseller’s debut novels, and 38% of the recent bestsellers). Interesting, the ratio of The to A appears to have changed over time: while close to 20% of the recent bestsellers which begin with an article started with A, just 4% (a single title, A Time to Kill) of the superbestsellers’ debut titles beginning with an article started with A.
The second-most popular way to open a title on both lists was a noun (24%). Roughly a quarter of the books on both lists which started with a noun were single-word titles, which could conceivably have been stretched to two-word titles with an article (e.g. Illusion vs. The Illusion or An Illusion; Dreamland vs. A Dreamland or The Dreamland). Of the titles which began with an article, however, the vast majority (approx. 60-70%) were followed by an noun, demonstrating the unsurprising importance of specifying the thing your book is about.
Among superbestselling author’s debut novels, the second-most popular way to start a title was, unsurprisingly, with a character name (16%). Male and female names were, somewhat surprisingly, equally represented (5 vs. 5), and close to a third of the names began with a C. Just two (4%) of the more recent bestsellers began with a character name.
Given how important action apparently is in capturing readers’ interest, it should also come as little surprise that verbs were the third-most common way of beginning a recently bestselling title (14%). Verbs were halfway down the list of superbestselling author’s debut titles, however, at just 4% (only 3 titles).
Interestingly, just over half of the recent bestselling titles which started with a verb used present or future tense, and the remaining close to half used past or passive tense (which can also be considered adjectives, depending on the context). Two of these were from JD Robb’s successful In Death series, which always begin this way (Abandoned in Death and Forgotten in Death), which may have skewed the data somewhat.
In addition to suggesting authors open with action, recent writing advice has also suggested authors avoid ‘excessive’ use of adjectives and adverbs. Yet, this advice does not seem to apply to titles. Adjectives or adverbs were the third-most common way for superbestselling authors’ debut titles to begin, at 15%. While adjectives/adverbs only made it to position four among the most common ways to begin the titles of recent bestsellers, they actually made up slightly more of the 2021/2022 NYT bestseller list: 16%.
Digging a little deeper, close to a quarter of all those titles that started with the articles A or The were followed, not by a naked noun, but by an adjective, making the popularity of describing words in titles even higher than it might first appear.
While nouns may have been the second-most popular opening words of titles, pronouns which replace nouns made an appearance, too: First person (I), third person feminine (Her) and neutral (It). This isn’t particularly surprising, given the ubiquity of first-person and third-person narratives (and the difficulty and advice against writing in the second-person, you). But we may well question why use pronouns when perfectly serviceable nouns are available.
The first-person I, from the superbestselling authors’ debut list, was I, The Jury. The title is taken from the title of an article which appears in the book. Although we don’t yet know who “I” is, we understand something important about them.
The second-person feminine Her, also from superbestselling debut list, was Her Forbidden Knight. It’s not really the female “her” we are being invited to wonder about, but the male character. (Any intrigue we might have felt about “her” is quickly superseded by the much more enigmatic “forbidden” knight). Contrast this with the (2013) film Her, which gives us very little to fixate upon other than who this mystery woman might be. This focus on the male love interest follows the typical romance pattern of backgrounding the supposed “heroine” in order to permit the reader to better identify with her, and more importantly, imagine herself as the love interest of the “forbidden knight”.
The only example of a pronoun beginning a recent bestselling title on the list was It, from It Ends with Us by Collette Hoover. Like I, The Jury, and Her, this title invite us to speculate about what “it” is – and why the person making this statement wants “it” to end. “This ends here” or “It stops now” are common sorts of phrases people use when drawing a line on the ground, making a stand, and It Ends with Us is this very sort of declarative statement. It is definitive, powerful, and the little word “it” encapsulates a messy, complex, heartbreaking relationship/situation/circumstance which would be impossible to sum up neatly using more direct or specific language.
Each list contained one book title beginning with a number – of course, Fifty Shades of Grey on the all-time superbestselling authors’ debut list, and 21st Birthday on the recent bestsellers’ list. However, including those titles which begin with an article, we may add The Fifteen Streets, The Four Just Men, and The Four Winds. While four is considered an unlucky number in some countries (unlike the ‘lucky’ number eight in the title of my own debut novel, Number Eight Crispy Chicken), four was the most popular number in the bestselling titles surveyed.
The most common starting letter in the 2021/2022 NYT list was of course T, due to the number beginning with The, but if articles are ignored, B and W were tied with five titles each. Interestingly, T was legitimately the most common starting letter for a superbestselling author’s debut title, with seven books, closely followed by N, with six.
Despite being the most frequently used letter in the English language, no title on either list began with an E. The same was true of the less-common letters K, Q, U, X, and Z (in other words, the sort of letter with a high score in Scrabble).
So what have we learned?
The titles of successful books are short and snappy – 2-3 words long. They begin with an article or a noun. Some super-bestselling titles include a character name (particularly if part of a series about that character). They’re more likely to open with an adjective than a verb.
But how many of these are traits specific to successful books? And how many are simply true of most books?
Stay tuned for my next post to find out!