Sometimes, a title says all your cover needs to say (other than your author name).
But more often than not, at least when it comes to nonfiction, a good subtitle can be the difference between publishing success and invisibility.
Why are subtitles necessary, though?
What makes them so powerful?
And how do you write the kind of subtitle that will give your book the edge it needs in a crowded market?
Let’s find out.
What Is a Subtitle of a Book?
A subtitle in a book is a phrase that often does more to establish your book’s place in the market than your title does.
The title gets more of the spotlight, but the subtitle does most of the work. The title is the hook; the subtitle is the reel.
So, what is the subtitle’s purpose? What does it actually do?
- Clarifies the focus of your book (which is useful if your title is vague);
- Tells readers why they should read your book—what they’ll get out of it;
- Helps convey the tone of your book (serious, scholarly, funny, lighthearted, etc.);
- Provides context for the title (which can be short and cryptic but memorable);
- Uses keywords to make your book visible to search engines.
Some books have standalone titles that do all the work, making subtitles unnecessary. But effective do-it-all titles are rare.
And as you’ll see in the examples further down, crafting a killer title-subtitle pairing can be a lot of fun—the kind of fun your readers can feel when they see your cover.
That’s the hope, anyway. So, how do you get closer to that?
How to Write a Subtitle that Sells
There’s no set formula for crafting the perfect subtitle for a book. But many of the best subtitles use the following to their advantage:
- Keywords — Book subtitles need targeted keywords to get the attention of both search engines and shoppers. Publisher Rocket can help you find the best ones for your book. Caveat: Don’t overdo it. Keyword cramming is not a good look.
- Cadence — Subtitles that read easily and are even fun to say are more likely to circulate in the minds of shoppers and anyone who happens upon your book cover. Cadence gives your words a balanced, rhythmic flow and melodic feel. It lingers.
- Brevity — Get to the point in as few words as possible without sacrificing essential details. Shorter isn’t always better. But don’t use more words than you need.
- Clarity — Spell out in crystal-clear language exactly how the reader will benefit from reading your book or what problems it will solve for them.
- The Rule of Three — The human brain loves groupings of three, and many subtitles capitalize on that with three goals, ideas, or pain points.
Keeping the above in mind, here are some steps to help get you started on creating the best subtitle for your book:
- Research what’s already working — Look at bestseller lists in newspapers and online bookstores to get a sense of what’s working. What do you notice about the subtitles that stand out for you?
- Identify the keywords you need — Use the keyword tools at your disposal—including search engines (Google, Amazon, etc.) to find the keywords people use to find books like yours.
- Brainstorm a list of at least 20 subtitles — Using the most important keywords, make a list of at least 20 potential subtitles to consider. Allow yourself to write down even the stinkers that come to mind. No filters.
- Identify your top three — Cut your list of 20 down to the three that make the best possible use of the words in them. Write them out where you’ll see them throughout the day.
- Get feedback — Try running them through the CoSchedule Headline Analyzer. Otherwise, try to find your ideal readers (who aren’t friends or family) and ask for their honest, unfiltered feedback.
5 Examples of Subtitles
We’ve found five subtitles examples demonstrating the key elements and considerations described above. Look through them carefully and feel free to click on the links to each book’s sales pages for a closer look.
Example #1: The Five Hour Workday: Live Differently, Unlock Productivity, and Find Happiness by Stephan Aarstol
We’ll start with a subtitle that uses the rule of three and popular keywords to capture the attention of book browsers and search engines alike. While the title offers a strong clue to the book’s message, the subtitle drills down to the three key benefits of reading the book.
Example #2: The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brené Brown
The title here is vague, but the subtitle more than makes up for it by identifying the book’s aim is clear unambiguous language. The aim is two-fold, but it articulates a goal that resonates with millions. It’s a clear invitation to a better life.
Example #3: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
Here again, the title itself is unclear, though the “elegy” bit does suggest we’re looking at a memoir. It says little, though, about the focus of that memoir, and that’s where the subtitle helps us out. The word “crisis” gives the subtitle a sense of urgency, while “family” and “culture” give it resonance.
Example #4: The Science of Getting Started: How to Beat Procrastination, Summon Productivity, and Stop Self-Sabotage by Patrick King
Here’s another subtitle using the Rule of Three to hammer home the three main goals for this book. Keywords like “procrastination,” “productivity,” and “self-sabotage” make the book searchable and more likely to be found by those searching for help in those areas.
Example #5: The Forks Over Knives Plan: How to Transition to the Life-Saving, Whole-Food, Plant-Based Diet by Alona Pulde and Matthew Lederman OR The Food Revolution: How Your Diet Can Help Save Your Life and Our World by John Robbins
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Both food books use subtitles to make the book’s purpose clearer to the reader. Forks Over Knives uses the three-fold keywords “life-saving,” “whole-food,” and “plant-based” to make the book searchable and create an emotional impact. Food Revolution uses its subtitle to explain the word “Revolution” in the title by driving home the power of one person’s diet.
Now that you know why subtitles are essential and how to create a powerful one for your book, what’s your biggest takeaway from this post?
How many subtitle ideas have already come to mind for your current book? Remember to keep the filter switched off while you’re brainstorming. This is your “rough sketch” of ideas. It’s supposed to look rough. Have fun with it.
How many subtitles can you think up today?