Nick Ang

On Buy-Baity Book Titles

I’m currently reading Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You. If you haven’t heard of this book before, I have to ask: Did you flinch when you first read the book title?

I sure did. And if not for the fact that it’s a book that is highly recommended by someone I respect, I wouldn’t even have picked it up, let alone read it.

Traditional publishing houses have always engaged in touch-baity (before the advent of click-baits) book titles since I could remember. How to Win Friends and Influence People, The Four Hour Workweek, The $100 Startup, and so on. These headlines are meant to snatch attention from the books beside it on a bookshelf, ultimately meant as a sales driver.

But with it comes an insidious side effect: some people, like me, sometimes don’t want to be seen as reading such books.

Consider How to Win Friends and Influence People for a moment. What does it say about its reader? That she is somehow socially inept and don’t have friends? That she is uncharismatic? That she’s someone who measures her self-worth by how many friends she has?

Very likely, even though most people wouldn’t admit to thinking that way of others. Of course, when given a moment to think people will realise that’s probably untrue. The woman just wants to become her better self! (Self-help is another terrible headliner for bookshop sections, which I’ve recently noticed Kinokuniya change to “Self-Enrichment”. Nice move.)

Nomenclature isn’t usually important unless we’re taking a science exam. In the case of books, however, publishers are doing authors a disservice by nudging them to choose a flashy read-this-and-be-you’ll-be-awesome title by repelling some genuinely interested reader. I imagine most people who fall into this group are slightly insecure.

The problem is, the last time I checked, everyone’s at least a little insecure.

Alas, it’s not a fatal disservice, as I’m still reading (and enjoying) So Good They Can’t Ignore You on my balcony this windy afternoon. But I ordered the book from so I didn’t have to feel awkward at the cashier at Kino, and I silently vow to never read the book in public lest I be judged by others (something I genuinely don’t care about 99 percent of the time, but I do let affect me in that 1 percent, which is enough to make me lose focus and understand nothing I’m reading).

Then again, I suppose you wouldn’t buy it if it didn’t promise a good premise. Humans…

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