Book Titles Are Getting LongerA Data Analysis of Trends in the World of PrintMichael TaubergBlockedUnblockFollowFollowingJun 26photo from PixabayA few weeks ago I noticed popular literary agent DongWon Song express what I had suspected for a while, book titles are getting longer.
This trend seemed interesting since the rest of media seems to be going in the opposite direction.
We know for example that song titles, and music in general, is shortening along with our attention spans.
Why might the world of literary fiction be different?To investigate this claim, I used the New York Times Books API to collect data on all bestsellers since 2011.
Below I show how longer titles are just one of many trends in the world of books.
Fiction Titles Really Are Getting LongerTo verify that book titles are in fact getting longer, I grabbed all available bestsellers from the New York Times Combined Print and E-book Fiction lists.
Then I counted the number of words in the titles of these novels.
Below is the plot of the average number of words in fiction titles for every month since February 2011.
It’s clear that there is a noticeable upward trend since 2016.
Fiction titles went from averaging about 2.
5 words to almost 3 now.
To double check this, I also counted the number of letters in fiction titles.
Here again, the regression line shows a noticeable upward trend.
Novels now are likely to have 14 letters in their title instead of 12.
Why are Titles Getting Longer?Looking more closely at the longest titles, I noticed that many of them are from famous series — most noticeably the “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” books.
Below is a list of all bestsellers with 7 or more words in the title.
Many of them are sequels or prequels to other successful works.
Being part of an established series, these titles need to reference past work, making them less concise.
Also, the novels that aren’t from some famous trilogy are often still by established authors (eg.
Nieil Gaiman, Fredrik Backman).
Selling into an existing reader base means that these authors are able to play around with their titles and to get more creative.
I suspect that the shift to e-readers and online purchasing also influences how novels are named.
Online, away from crowded store shelves, readers don’t have to peruse multiple books at once.
They don’t need to wait for some punchy title to catch the eye.
Besides, from my admittedly anecdotal experience, book stores and airport kiosks seem to stock mostly non-fiction these days.
On the other hand, novels are free to be niche and weird, just like the internet that sells them.
What Else do Fiction Titles Tell Us?As I noticed a few years ago, the most popular novels seem to center around one enticing word — ‘girl’ .
Using updated 2019 data, it seems that ‘girl’ is still the one word that sells more than any other.
Word Cloud of the most popular terms in fiction book titlesHowever, this doesn’t mean that fiction titles don’t change over time.
In 2018, words like ‘dark’ and ‘death’ caught up with ‘girl’ in popularity.
Like children’s names, the most popular titles tend to evolve and reflect the current mood.
‘Dark’ is a Trend post-2016After 2016, there seems to be a subtle but noticeable shift in the tone of fiction titles.
We can see this by plotting the popularity of certain words per year.
For instance, ‘love’ has lately fallen out of favor, while ‘night’ has become fashionable.
Similarly, ‘light’ has made ‘way’ for ‘dark’ in book titles.
Also, for reasons that I cannot fathom, novels with the word “death” in them seem to be popular in even-number years.
It seems that like the Giants, the grim reaper doesn’t like odd numbers.
Non-Fiction Titles Are the Same LengthThe same analysis that I applied to fiction bestsellers can easily be applied to their non-fiction counterparts.
Below I plot the number of words/nonfiction title per year.
On the right are the number of letters/title per year.
As we can see, there is no significant lengthening trend.
Given that non-fiction works are rarely part of a series and that they still sell heavily in big stores, this is not so surprising.
In fact, non-fiction titles have other significant differences from their fiction counterparts.
For example, below are histograms of the number of words in fiction and non-fiction titles.
It’s clear that non-fiction bestsellers have a wider spread of words per title.
In fact many of them have just one word on the cover (eg.
‘Bossypants’, ‘Sapiens’, ‘Moneyball’, ‘Hunger’, ‘Freakonomics’).
Other Trends in Non-Fiction TitlesExamining the most popular words in non-fiction titles, we see that the focus is less on mysteries and more on biographies of politicians.
This explains the common use of words like ‘America’ and ‘President’ (eg.
‘Trump’ and ‘Kennedy’).
Word Cloud of the most popular words in Nonfiction Book TitlesPerhaps because of this political quality, non-fiction titles have become more negative in the post-Trump era.
Plotting the average sentiment (or positivity) of these titles over time, we see a sharp drop after 2016.
average sentiment of non-fiction titles per year (<0 has negative sentiment)In fact, some of the most negative book titles center around Trump era topics and were published in the last 2 years.
Some example of political books with negative titles in the past 2 years.
Other Findings — Women Read more FictionSurvey data from the National Endowment for the Arts suggests that women read more works of fiction, while men focus on non-fiction books.
After examining the differences between fiction and non-fiction bestsellers, it’s clear to me that this observation is correct.
This is best seen by comparing the NYT descriptions of their bestsellers.
Let’s look at fiction books first.
Fiction WordCloudsBelow I plot the most common words in the descriptions of fiction books.
The cloud on the left only removes ‘the’ and ‘a’ from the plot.
On the right, all common english words are removed, leaving only unique words.
It’s clear that bestselling fiction is often part a ‘book series’, most likely a ‘trilogy’.
It usually involves a ‘woman’ — either a ‘lawyer’ or an ‘agent’.
Or better yet, a ‘detective’.
On ‘her’ journey, our protagonist will likely ‘investigate’ a ‘killer’.
Perhaps it’s a ‘case’ of a ‘murdered’ ‘friend’ or ‘former love’.
In the process, she will ‘return’ to the ‘past’, unearth ‘secrets’, ‘discover’ the ‘murderer’ and maybe even find ‘new’ ‘love’.
She may even find a ‘new family’ along the way.
Non-fictionThe same word clouds for non-fiction bestsellers are shown below.
On the left, all major english stop-words are removed.
On the right, they are included, but ‘the’ and ‘a’ are removed.
In non-fiction, the protagonist seems more likely to be male .
‘His’ story is likely a ‘memoir’, a ‘biography’ or simply the ‘account’ of his life.
Possibly he is a ‘former’ ‘American’ ‘president’.
Or maybe he is a ‘journalist’ or ‘comedian’ who just wants to ‘tell’ his ‘life’ ‘story’ for the ‘first’ time.
His book will likely be ‘humorous’ and ‘political’.
It may ‘discuss’ ‘death’, ‘relationships’, ‘family’ or ‘war’.
Either way he will definitely spill plenty of ink looking ‘back’ at his ‘career’, telling his ‘personal’ ‘stories’, and just maybe, complaining about his ‘mother’.
Final ThoughtsThe conventional wisdom is that media is shaped primarily by its consumers.
Still, the percentage of the population who reads fiction is declining and is increasingly dominated by women.
Furthermore, the internet has upended old paradigms of distribution, creating new incentives for all players in the literary world.
This has led to a few interesting trends.
Fiction titles are getting longer while non-fiction titles are not.
Non-fiction titles are getting more negative while the trend in fiction is more subtle (the proliferation of ‘dark’ books).
Finally, men and women seem to be diverging in their reading habits.
As we fracture culturally and politically, it makes sense that our print media should follow suit.