Clever Titles Do Not Sell Books

I’ve written five books and am about to release my sixth. I never thought Id write one book.

I have had an interesting journey with book titles. Titles are very very very important however as stand alone elements, they don’t sell books. People buy books for a variety of reasons the chief one being a friend who recommends it to you or if the title immediately indicates that the book will solve a problem for you

My friend Paul wrote The Shack, which so far has sold 20 million copies in the past 8 years and been read by at least 100 million other people who were lent a copy by their friend. What does the title say? Not much, but the image on the cover says ‘mystery” inside and that promise along with the incredible word of mouth the book has received has been enough to prompt millions of people to take a chance.

While spending the 2-3 seconds humans typically allot for reflecting on a book title, the subconscious question we’re really asking is “is it worth it?” People’s relationship with time is our fiercest opponent when it comes to motivating them to take a chance on a book. The title can tilt them. All other things being equal, the title is the proverbial toe in the door.

For example I recently read (consumed is more apt) a book titled “Markets of One”. I liked the interplay between the word Markets (plural) with the word One (singular). That title suggested that getting people to buy new ideas, (a topic of great interest to me) really isjust as I suspected a highly individualized process. The main title was enhanced by the fore title, “113 million” which I only noticed as my mind scanned the page for other reasons to suggest that this book might satiate my curiosity about human behavior. (Which it did and which is why I now recommend “Markets of One” as one of the most important books I’ve read in the past 5 years)

I offer this as backdrop as to why I’ve decided to stick with the much disputed  ?  for the title for my new book.

My co-author Doug Murren and I have had front row (well… front section) seats in the development of evangelical Christianity over the past 45 years, most of them spent as pastors. Consequently we think we see patterns that explain why our current version of Christianity is uniquely welcoming to bullies and how to put a stop to it. That’s why the subtitle Why The Church Welcomes Bullies and How To Stop It will be prominently displayed. That’s the rational promise we’re making to thousands of religious people who have suffered in silence from religious abuse and feel alone. We are also hoping to “telegraph” a message to our non- religious friends who have watched Christians sit silently by as some of our leaders publicly abuse power and wonder why we allow them to get away with it.

But why the image…? Why not just title the book Question Mark.

(FWIW we do anticipate that QM will be the title people will enter when searching on Amazon or BN)

This is a very relevant and reasonable question, especially given my track record of book sales, which if nothing else has proven that a clever title does not a best seller make. I mean how cool is this title? – The Resignation of Eve what if Adams rib is no longer willing to be the church’s backbone? – that cleverly titled book probably sold fewer than 2000 copies. You know why? Pastors don’t feel threatened (yet) by the promise the book made. As clever as the title is, it’s not clever enough to overcome what James Davison Hunter refers to as “agency” or the role cultural elites play in determining what gets to market and who gets to “see” it.


The ? is clearly (if not cleverly) meant to link the most recent public soap opera involving a religious leader with the topic of religious abuse. Why?

This book was intentionally produced in 90 days so that it could address issues people are feeling in real time. As an author of non-fiction material I detest being told I have to wait 1-2 years for my thoughts to “go public”. The Internet has permanently disrupted that process. Consumers won’t wait because they don’t have to. Not only that, for more and more public thinkers and speakers, books will cease to be the first way people engage with your ideas. That will more likely happen via a blog, YouTube, podcast or even a small “house concert”. In the near future your “books” will be relevant “after” people sample you via another form of media. Your book will not be for people who want to “take a chance” on you but for people who are asking you to “tell me more”. In other words your book will become an adjunct to you rather than an introduction to you. That’s why I intend to produce “90 day books” a line of books that are produced as events transpire so that readers can get a deeper dive into the idea or issue they’re curious about from a person they like and trust. That’s the human process.

The current process we inherited locates that trust in an institution called a “publishing house” which determines that such and such author is worthy of their brand signaling that you can take a chance on them. Now the roles have been reversed. Whatever services publishers ultimately end up providing authors in terms of taking their ideas public are yet to be determined. Publishers that figure out why they should get a percentage of income for services rendered will survive the others will die.

This book was produced in 90 days because during that time the topic of religious bullying has been given historic levels of visibility through very public displays of hubris by Mark Driscoll. Without Driscoll this would be another “me too” book on spiritual abuse.

In our opinion, given the cultural relevance, to not associate the topic of religious bullying with Driscoll would be intellectually dishonest and pastorally irresponsible.

In our book we avail ourselves of the very public record of Driscolls’ fall into grace (our hopeful reframe for him). We are not reticent to call out his abusive patterns since anyone can access them the same way we did using Google. However our larger point is highlighted by the subtitle – the systemic reasons a young man like Driscoll made it to the very top levels of influence in modern day Christianity. Why didn’t his mentors spot his dysfunction earlier in his development? Why are other young men currently being groomed to take his place? Why is the church complicit? Why don’t religious people police themselves rather than waiting for “the world” to notice and then when they do, claim that we’re being persecuted or shooting our wounded?

These are the systemic issues we address but would have no audience for were it not for the actions of one very influential and very ill young man named mark.

Jim Hancock