Why should readers read your book? Every business book has a value proposition. Writing a one-sentence reply will help clarify your thinking. Most of us form opinions quickly. And this is true when it comes to business book titles and introductions. First impressions count.
First impressions have a habit of sticking. Just about every salesperson has heard that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. First, we’ll look at the work of the title.
What’s your book about?
One-word titles are popular. But one-word titles could mean anything. For example, Hooked by Nir Eyal—without subtitles—could be easily misinterpreted. Is it the memoir of a junkie or a treatise on fly fishing? The answer is neither. With a subtitle all becomes clear. Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products situates the book firmly in the business world.
One word is easy to remember. Isn’t it? While subtitles may be forgotten their immediate function is to explain the one-word title. But let’s not get too fanatical about one-word titles. They may be popular. They may work well. But they’re not always necessary.
Michael Menard’s book title, A Fish in Your Ear, is instantly recognized by readers of Douglas Adams’s long-time best seller and science-fiction comedy, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. But Menard isn’t a sci-fi writer. He’s the CEO of a successful business. His book is about big data and high-level business decision-making.
The complete title is A Fish in Your Ear: The New Discipline of Project Portfolio Management. Clearly, this is no run-of-the-mill business tome on strategic planning. It’s aimed at senior managers of large organizations, those who already know what PPM is. If readers want to know about the connection between science-fiction comedy and serious business, they’ll need to open the book.
A successful title arouses curiosity. The subtitle explains who the book is for and what it is about. Any book title should perform these four tasks:
- Attract attention
- Stimulate curiosity
- Explain what the book is about
- Be memorable.
And it needs to do all this in twelve words or less.
Business book introductions
This is the place to explain and set reader expectations. Your book’s introduction expands on the above four tasks. There’s a fundamental question you and every nonfiction author need to answer. Why should a reader put off all pressing concerns in her life and summon up the energy to concentrate on what you have to say? Your introduction must respond to this question. And this is why understanding your business-book readership keeps you on track. Claim and sustain interest. It doesn’t matter what you say if you can’t get your reader’s attention.
To make matters worse, attention spans are dwindling. If distraction increases at the present rate, the whole population will be reduced to grunting at each other. There won’t be any time to form words, let alone sentences. Do you think I’m overstating the point? Nevertheless, attention is a valuable resource and in short supply. And the focus is difficult to sustain. Readers of business books want value. To put it another way:
- Have something useful to say
- Be interesting
- Cut the fluff.
Two writers—both in their seventies—show the way. Burton Malkiel is best known for his classic book on investing: A Random Walk Down Wall Street. His co-writer Charles D. Ellis is known for his best-seller: Winning the Loser’s Game.
Their co-authored book, The Elements of Investing, is a title that speaks for itself. Few could misinterpret what the book is about or who it’s for. Does it satisfy the reader’s question: is this book for me?
Your reader now has two more questions. What value will I get from spending time reading your book? Will I have time to read it?
Malkiel and Ellis address this last point in their brief introduction to Elements of Investing. They tell their readers that in 92 pages or less they will learn what’s important about investing. Moreover, they’ll do it with straightforward clarity. This is a strong value proposition.
The authors have done the work so the reader doesn’t have to. They’ve sorted through weighty tomes on finance and distilled their essence for easy consumption. They even make a bold promise that the time invested will return dividends, now and later. Their book has present and future value. If you want to find out what that is, you’re likely to keep reading.
The first few pages of an introduction set up expectations. This has never been more important than today because Kindle and other e-book formats allow readers to access free samples. Those samples sell the rest of the book. This is good marketing. Let’s remember that good marketing of a bad product is a rapid route to the poor house. Empty promises destroy confidence. Reputation matters more in today’s world of transparency than it ever did. You have to walk the talk.
A seductive introduction followed by dull, recycled material makes readers feel cheated. Malkiel and Ellis deliver on their promise. They know their topic. They know their readership; in this case, people who want to learn about investing. They know how to deliver their message: with simplicity and clarity.
Malkiel and Ellis’s title The Elements of Investing is a play on the classic English grammar work by Strunk and White. The Elements of Style has a long tail. Strunk and White’s book has been selling for almost 100 years. It’s a very thin book. Your business book doesn’t have to be long, but it has to engage its intended readership, and it has to deliver on its promise of value.
So what are your readers’ interests? Are they general or specific? Is there anything you’re missing? The answers to these questions are as important as deciding what kind of business you’re in. And the answers don’t usually strike with immediate lightning-bolt clarity. Spending time with the question of what constitutes reader value and interest is time well spent. Only then will you be able to write a hard-working introduction that does the job it’s supposed to do.