Trash Titles?

As interesting as patterns across bestselling novels over time may be, looking only at successful books tells us nothing about whether a book’s title is instrumental in helping it sell – first, perhaps, to an editor, and later, to readers. The trends observed in my previous post could simply be trends in book titles in general, as opposed to patterns that set apart bestsellers from the pack. To really understand what (if anything) defines a bestselling title, we need to look at books which most definitively are not bestsellers, too.

To this end, I surveyed 35 books from Amazon’s contemporary fiction category, looking for titles which were yet to attract a single review, and the 35 least-downloaded fiction books on Smashwords, and then analysed their titles according to the same measures in my previous post: length, most common words, first words, and first letters of the titles.

Despite the question posed in the title of this post, the vast majority of these books are not trash. On the contrary, the majority of the 70 books surveyed appear to be well-presented, presumably well-written books. So why aren’t they bestsellers? Is it because of their titles? Let’s take a look…


The average length of an unsuccessful Amazon book’s title was 3.71 words – considerably longer than the average of either successful book list. The average length of the least downloaded Smashwords titles, on the other hand, was right on the money – falling in between the NYT bestsellers and the superbestselling debut novels of all time at 2.94 words long.

Amazon’s lengthy “titles”

Interestingly, almost all (86%) of the titles on Amazon weren’t simple titles, but had subtitles (sometimes two or more!), book numbers, or strings of keywords or acronyms added to the title field. Once these are taken into account, the average length of an unsuccessful book title on Amazon was considerably longer, coming in at more than ten words. This is longer than any successful book on either of the lists surveyed in my last post. Almost 1 in 5 titles were so long, they didn’t fit on my screen.

Four distinct types of books used subtitles:

  • Erotica (12 books) – these books mainly used lists of acronyms and keywords in parentheses.
  • Science fiction/fantasy (10 books) – these books mostly gave the book number in the series.
  • Non-fiction (5 books) – these books mostly used subtitles in the way academic titles often do.
  • Collections (3 books) – these books understandably included multiple titles as they are really multiple books.

Given that Amazon provides extremely granular categories for romance and erotica, we might question the need for authors or publishers to add keywords to the title field of their books. At least, until we realise that many of these books are actually listed under other categories in an attempt to game the system.

The “invasion” of non-satirical romance novels in the satire category is something I have commented on in the past, but the same appears true of even general categories like “contemporary fiction”. Collections of poetry and non-fiction treatises are not best served by being advertised as “contemporary fiction”, nor do science fiction or fantasy books, which do not take place in the here and now, belong to this category.

The connection between erotica and contemporary fiction may, superficially, appear somewhat more defensible, given that it is not unreasonable to expect erotic stories to take place in contemporary society. However, this designation appears to be more of a way to cheat Amazon’s (admittedly, very lax) system.

Despite many writers online asserting that topics such as non-consensual sex and incest will result in a book being rated “adult” by Amazon and removed from searches, over ten percent of the books I found simply by browsing contemporary fiction books for those without a customer rating were very obviously about incest, and similarly, more than ten percent referenced sexual violence in the titles. And this is what we can discern from the titles: it is highly possibly that the content of other erotica titles on this list may have included such themes, given the often denigrating, misogynistic language used in their titles.

Smashwords’ Short n’ Sweet

By contrast, just four books from Smashwords had subtitles:

  • One was a genuine subtitle of a book with a single-word title (bringing the total length to just 4 words).
  • One was a bundle of books.
  • Two listed what number book it was in the series.

Smashwords’ policy actively discourages what we might call the ‘misuse’ of the title field on its listings, by refusing to list books which try to sneak keywords or descriptions etc. into the title field in their catalogue. Any author who tries to add a subtitle which looks as if it might be in contravention of this policy will receive an email, asking them to change it if they want their book to appear in the catalogue.

Furthermore, although the most common genre among the Amazon list was erotica, no erotic books were present on the Smashwords list. Once again, this marked difference is due to Smashwords policy, which empowers users to decide what books they wish to view. Erotica is filtered out by default, but readers can opt to include “mainstream erotica” or “all erotica” in their searches.

Censorship vs. Choice

While, in general, I have a fairly liberal view towards freedom of expression and am not in favour of censorship, Amazon’s lack of filtering appears incongruous to me, and out-of-step with other platforms.

Many of the words which appeared in these titles are either banned from most social networking sites and automatically filtered out, or would be marked ‘NSFW’ by community moderators on sites like Reddit. There is a big difference between browsing the contemporary fiction category and encountering explicit images and sexist language, versus intentionally browsing the erotica category and encountering the same.

None of this is to suggest that all erotica is sexist, but the denigration of women was a key theme in those low-effort titles surveyed here. Nor am I suggesting that all erotica is low-effort: rather, that churning out ‘taboo’ stories with hastily slapped together stock-image covers (or no cover at all, as was the case with one of the books on this list), with misspelled or miscapitalised titles, and repetitive keyword lists, and then deliberately miscategorising them does not exactly scream professionalism of the highest caliber.

E L James’ debut erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey appeared on the list of superbestselling books of all time, and her sequel, Freed appeared on the recent New York Times bestseller list. Admittedly, when this book appears on Amazon, the title field reads “Freed (Fifty Shades of Grey Series, 6)“. Even so, this is nowhere near the 20+ word “titles” of some of the unsuccessful Amazon erotica I encountered.

As I do not wish to single out any author as the writer of an “unsuccessful” book, I won’t use a real title for comparison here. Instead, here is a reimagining of the title of Freed using the type of format typical of the erotica on this list, complete with redundant repetition and grammar/punctuation issues:

Freed – Fifty Shades Of Grey: Freed [BDSM, Mf 15 XXX] (Rated Forbiden, Taboo, Dirty, filthy, Explicit, Dirty: SEX STORIES FOR ADULT)

Most common words

Tellingly, the most common words among the Amazon titles, after “book(s)” (and similar terms) are discounted (as they usually appeared in the numbering of books in a series) were “dirty”, “erotic” and “stories”. While there was very little overlap in the words used in the hugely successful books surveyed in my previous post, repetition was rampant among the unsuccessful Kindle crowd: “explicit”, “fantasy”, “sex”, “short”, “taboo”, and “adult(s)” along with a word used to demean and shame women were each used in close to 10% of the titles on this list. Other than a couple of highly-specific words I will not reveal (as they single out one particular sci-fi author’s works), all of the words which were used multiple times, other than “faith” and “family” were sex-related, and many were words used to degrade women specifically.

The Smashwords least-downloaded books, however, were once again much more similar to the successful titles, in that there was a lot more originality in play. Just one word was used three times (“return”), and aside from “book”, only one was used twice (“tell”).

First Words

The titles of the least downloaded books on Smashwords were, once again, more similar to the most successful books on the NYT and super bestseller lists than were the least successful contemporary fiction on Amazon.

The least successful books on Amazon were far more likely to begin with a noun than any other word, while titles starting with an article were the most common for the three other lists. Authors on Smashwords, like those on the NYT and super bestseller debuts lists were very unlikely to use pronouns as the first word of a title, but this was relatively common among Amazon’s less successful books.

Overall, the least downloaded Smashwords titles far more closely resemble NYT bestseller titles than the titles of unsuccessful Amazon books. Both Smashwords and NYT titles were unlikely to begin with a character, pronoun, or grammatical function (other than an article), were much more likely to begin with a verb than those on Amazon or the (dated) super bestseller list, were fairly likely to begin with adjectives or nouns, and most likely to begin with an article.

First letters

Although none of the 123 bestselling titles started with ‘E’, thanks to titles beginning with Ecstasy and Explicit, two on the Amazon list did. The most common initials were D, L, and S, in large part thanks to various sexual words I will leave to your imagination. D was also the most common initial on the Smashwords list (though not for the same reason!)

So what have we learned?

The patterns across the 70 titles analysed here lead me to two key findings:

First and foremost, although Smashwords has been criticised as having lower quality books than Amazon, it seems this could not be further from the truth. I have blogged in the past about the content of Smashwords vs. Amazon books, and this survey has shown that the quality of their listings are worlds apart, too.

Secondly, while emulating the titles of classics and contemporary bestsellers may help a book succeed, it certainly doesn’t guarantee it. Especially in a world where Amazon owns about 70% of the market.

Platforms like Smashwords are attractive because they permit authors to distribute their books widely, to readers with many different devices and reading preferences, and without the restrictions Amazon imposes on both writers and customers. Yet, they have a far smaller chunk of the market.

As a result, not having a whole heap of downloads or reviews does not necessarily mean a book is not good, or that the writer hasn’t done all the right things in making their listing attractive. All of the 35 books I examined on Smashwords had professional-looking titles and correctly displaying covers. I spotted just one typo among the batch.

The same could not be said of Amazon, where I observed misspellings, miscapitalisation, and even missing covers. And a large part of the reason for this likely comes down to Smashwords’ human quality control. Smashwords gives authors freedom in contracts and distribution, and holds them to high standards when it comes to quality. Amazon seems not to care about the quality delivered to its customers, as long as they capture as many creators as possible, locked in to restrictive contracts.

Amazon’s emphasis on quantity over quality is not restricted to Kindle. This same focus is what has led to the rise of ‘Contrapreneurs’ like the Mikkelson Twins on Audible, spamming the platform with low-quality audiobooks produced by exploited creatives – some of which peddle incredibly dangerous medical advice. These types of book are prevalent on Kindle, too.

While this post has focused primarily on fiction titles, non-fiction, and especially medical books, are ripe for exploitation. So called “authors” with no medical expertise, who outsource the actual writing of their books, simply look for the keywords desperate patients are searching for, then produce books targeting sufferers of those diseases, illnesses for which there are few existing resources.

It’s also evident in Zach Bowder’s recent observation that more than a third (34%) of the videos on Prime score less than 20% on Rotten Tomatoes. More than three quarters (77%) of the content on Prime has a RT score of 49% or less. According to some Reddit commenters on this infographic, Amazon Prime’s low quality of movies stems, in part, from the fact that the platform is far less selective than YouTube when it comes to admitting filmmakers to its paid program.

Rather than lowered barriers making it easier for creatives who genuinely want to share their work with the world, Amazon’s lack of quality control has made it easy for well-written, well-presented books (and audiobooks, and movies, etc.) to get lost in the avalanche of garbage churned out by those who seek nothing but profit.

In short, a good title will not guarantee a book’s success.
But a bad title will almost certainly spell its doom.

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