How to Write a Great Subtitle
A strong subtitle can help market and sell a book
Book subtitles—like book titles—are book marketing tools. But how does a book title help market and sell a book?
A book's subtitle shores up the book title and helps tell the reader what to expect to get inside the book. Even if you've written a great title for your book, a subtitle can provide more pertinent information to help draw the reader in and prompt them to open the book, learn more, and, hopefully, buy it.
Subtitles Support the Book Title
Subtitles are used to clarify or expand on the title of a non-fiction book. Titles that involve unfamiliar terms, or that obliquely reference book contents with jargon or a lyrical passage generally benefit from a strong, clear subtitle.
While there are exceptions, novels don't usually employ subtitles.
Examples of Great Titles and Subtitles
Here are some examples of book titles and their subtitles. Note how each title is further explained by its subtitle and how the intended reader might be more inclined to be interested in the book as a result.
SEAL Team Six: At first glance, a reader seeing this on a bookstore table might mistake it for a book about aquatic mammals. The full title and subtitle, SEAL Team Six: Memoirs of an Elite Navy SEAL Sniper, provides a case in which the subtitle elaborates on the potentially unfamiliar or confusing terminology in the title.
A Clearing in the Distance: The book title is a lovely but not-very-explanatory line taken from the book. With A Clearing in the Distance: The Biography of Frederick Law Olmstead, the subtitle explains what the book is—an account of the life of the famed landscape architect.
The Millionaire Next Door: The title is intriguing, but it could be a memoir by Donald Trump's neighbor. With its subtitle, The Millionaire Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of America's Wealthy, the book has mass appeal. Who wouldn't want to know those secrets?
Eat, Pray, Love: Before she wrote this huge best-seller, Elizabeth Gilbert's wasn't a known quantity and her book's title wasn't very explanatory. The audience of food-, spiritual fulfillment-, love-, and travel-longing women could more identify with Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia. The early readers who wanted to share that journey from their armchairs helped to jumpstart the word of mouth. The book went on to sell gazillions, was made into a movie, and even inspired its own spin-offs. As a result of the fame, the 10th Anniversary Edition doesn't include the subtitle. It doesn't need to, anymore.
When a Title Doesn't Need a Subtitle
While even a very book good title can benefit from the further explanation a subtitle provides, some titles need no additional explanation. Some examples of situations when books don't need a subtitle are:
- When the author is a household name or a celebrity: Readers might assume that Yes, Please is a book on manners...except that famous actress, writer, and comedian Amy Poehler is pictured smack dab on the book jacket along with her name.
- When an author is famous in their field: The book John Adams was written by an extremely well known and identifiable biographer, David McCullough. There's no subtitle on the jacket; the book needs no additional information because McCullough's name is enough to sell the book to his large audience.
- When the book is a novel: Fiction books generally do not have subtitles.
What Makes a Good Subtitle?
Here are some hints for writing a good subtitle:
- Don't duplicate ideas: A good subtitle adds to the information provided in the title; it shouldn't repeat it. Cover space is limited; maximize the power of the title and subtitle combination.
- Consider using keywords: Keywords are important online book marketing tools. Keywords help search engines match your book with readers and help readers "discover" your book and, for that reason, keywords might be helpful in the subtitle.
- Explain clearly: While there is leeway with the title, the subtitle shouldn't be fanciful or jargony.
- Be succinct: A subtitle isn't an excuse to ramble. Be as succinct as possible when expressing the idea that supports the title.