Help Me Pick Book Title

(No I’m not going to say more about the book now.)

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  • Robert Koslover

    Hmm. Your mini-bio at suggests a particular preference in regard to the above question…or are you having second thoughts? 🙂

    • Whatever has been the history of tentative choices, the choice at the moment is open to hearing what potential readers think.

  • sflicht

    Whichever title you choose, I am strongly opposed to “FOO: blahblahblah” style subtitles. Do publishers urge them upon authors? Do they increase sales? Has anyone written the definitive work on this topic, perhaps called something like “Subtitles: Restoring Dignity to the Most Neglected Punctuation Mark, the Colon”?

    • Before we try to explain why this terrible mistake is made so often, we might want to be more clearly convinced that it is in fact a terrible mistake.

      • sflicht

        This article suggests that subtitling is a form of SEO for Amazon. That’s a pretty plausible hypothesis. And if that’s your goal, probably you can do better than “Hidden Motives in Everyday Life”.

        As for your titles, I feel like “Strategic Ignorance” stands on its own and doesn’t need a subtitle, unless the book is not actually about strategic ignorance in which case it’s a bad title. (If it’s about both hidden motives and strategic ignorance, perhaps, “Hidden Motives and Strategic Ignorance”, or “Strategic Ignorance and Other Hidden Motives” would be better?) I actually did get that “The Elephant in the Brain” was intended to echo “the elephant in the room”, but I don’t think it’s a particularly good or attention-grabbing title. Without the subtitle readers would be expecting a book about memory (because as Seuss said, “an elephant never forgets”). With the subtitle there’s less propensity for confusion, but it raises the question of why you don’t just call the book “Hidden Motives”.

        Examples of (IMHO) good subtitles:
        * Das Kapital, Kritik der politischen Ökonomie
        * Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
        * Twelth Night, or What You Will
        * Also sprach Zarathustra: Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen

        Examples of bad subtitles:
        * Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything

        * Average is Over: Powering America Beyond the Great Stagnation
        * The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better
        * Armed Madhouse: Who’s Afraid of Osama Wolf? China Floats, Bush Sinks, The Scheme to Steal ’08, No Child’s Behind Left, and Other Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Class War

        Note that the bad subtitles are probably pretty good for Amazon SEO purposes, though. And I liked Tyler’s books, and their titles, just not their subtitles.

      • Douglas Knight

        I have read elsewhere that the search engine being optimized is mainly Google. That is, Amazon put the subtitle in the URL and Google loves words in URLs.

      • sflicht

        Interesting, and again quite plausible.

      • “Everyday life,” I take it, is an allusion to Goffman’s “The presentation of self in everyday life.” Readers who don’t make the connection will be less impressed.

        I don’t think “Strategic Ignorance” suffices. It sounds like it’s about conscious strategies in using ignorance, which the second clause disambiguates.

        I think “elephant in the brain” would be effective in a book for popular audiences. It’s rather a low-status phrase for an academic book. Personally, I think the “elephant in the room” metaphor and all its derivatives have become unbearably trite.

    • I argue that the semicolon is the most neglected punctuation mark. ( ) [Of course, “neglected” and “underutilized” aren’t precisely synonyms, and in this instance, acts more like an antonym.]

      More seriously, you don’t make clear what you have against colons in book titles. Here’s the advantage of sometimes using colons (the same ultimate explanation as that for using semicolons). The stress position in classic prose writing carries the greatest emphasis, and stress positions occur before a colon or semicolon; but never before a mere comma. [See “Constructing sentences for precise emphasis”: The fundamental principle of advanced writing” – So, the rule is this: if you want to emphasize two distinct parts of a title, use a colon – the parts being those before the colon and before the title’s end.

      • sflicht

        I gave some examples of bad subtitles below. Mostly I object to cases where the part after the colon is just a sort of garbage precis of the book. This can of course be necessary when the main title is unfamiliar (which can still be good), or vague (which is usually bad). For example, if Robin really loves the title “The Age of Em” (and I think it’s not bad), a subtitle is probably necessary because lots of people will be like, WTF is Em? But he could also just have changed the title to “Work, Love and Life When Robots Rule The Earth”, or even simply, “When Robots Rule The Earth”, which is still catchy (and AFAICT not yet taken) and removes the need for an explanatory subtitle.

      • just a sort of garbage precis of the book

        Well, what’s bad about general concept: precis. You say you don’t like the schema, but maybe that’s just a bias you should overcome.

        Maybe it’s that any precis short enough for a subtitle is bound to be garbage. I haven’t read Tyler Cowan’s books. Would you say his subtitles don’t do justice to the content? [I’d be surprised if they didn’t.]

        Here’s my conjecture based on your examples of what you like and don’t like. You don’t like announcing the conclusion of the book in the title. If that’s the case, I think you’re bucking the progressive tide of frontloading.

  • Sam Bhagwat

    why not The Elephant in Your Brain? More direct & vivid.

    • The idea is to echo the common phrase “the elephant in the room”. The more words you change, the weaker the echo.

      • Sam Bhagwat

        Got it. FWIW, missed the association entirely.

        While I admire the A/B testing, I wonder if the community here is the right audience. We’re mostly buying “Robin Hanson’s new book” rather than “book title.”

        Perhaps you want to market to the much wider swath of people who have only vaguely, or never, heard of you, which would probably involve doing this on Google AdWords ala this:

      • solipsist

        I let that title stir in my brain for a lot longer than I consider book purchases, and I never heard the echo.

      • SilentCal

        I got it right away.

      • Knowing Robin’s claims, I got it immediately, but I doubt I would get it otherwise.

        [Tantalizing imprecision is for art not science.]

  • Nathan Braun

    i agree with some of the others, not a big fan of this particular subtitle

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  • marshall bolton

    I rather like “Hidden Motives”. Short and pithy. An alternative could be “Hiding Motives”. Titles should be evocative – suggesting more thoughts to the reader….

  • ajbpearce

    If you are publishing it for a popular audience I am amazed your published would even let you consider Strategic Ignorance as a title.

  • marshall bolton

    You are probably not going to use a title suggested by another….but I would use: Strange Fruit (Apples in the Trees and Pairs on the Ground.)

  • Thomas_L_Holaday

    Book cover has an cartoon-y illustration of a happy mischievous baby elephant inside the forehead of a scowling face looking upward in disapproval. Maybe the elephant is squirting water out of its trunk and some of it is accidentally splashing into the scowling face’s eye. Maybe the elephant is pointing at an expensive bag of peanuts.

  • mkaya

    I have read many articles on the doctorate degree but this one is near to my life.Twenty years ago I received the Doctoral degree in Physics and after this I started teaching in university.This was my passion to teach.

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  • Jeffrey Wagler

    I am a brand new reader of this blog. In fact, I did a web search of “doing good or being good” and an entry from June came up. Anyway, in browsing what else you had to say, I came across your book title survey, and “The Elephant in the Brain” peaked my interest. I think that the subtitle is entirely appropriate to identify what the author has in mind. I am looking forward learning more!

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