The Subtle Art of Subtitling Your Book

Your reader has a lot on their plate. Between juggling careers, distractions competing with commitments, and living life, their time is extremely valuable. There’s no shortage of busy today.

You know this, so why doesn’t your subtitle reflect this?

Imagine going into a store - people still do this! - and looking for someone to help you. You’ve got questions. How frustrated would you be if, when you found an employee, they did everything they could not to answer your questions?

Your readers have questions and they’re busy. They need you to cut to the chase. A really great subtitle answers your reader's questions. Too many times writers try to create subtitles that do everything. They become convoluted and clumsy. They say a lot about nothing.

Here’s a good rule to use when you are brainstorming a subtitle for your book: Are you using commas in the subtitle? A serial comma can suggest your subtitle lacks focus. Really push to clarify what your book is doing in a statement versus trying to cobble multiple ideas together.

A great subtitle does two things.

One, it teases the felt need.

Two, it doesn’t try to do too much.

Think about Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism. His subtitle is The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. What a great subtitle! It makes you think, “Yes, tell me more.” McKeown makes a clear statement in his subtitle instead of trying to do too much. One has to imagine that McKeown had to resist the urge to be specific about how to use his book. Should he have language about the home, or maybe about the office? Is this a business book? No, he sticks to teasing the felt need and not trying to do too much.

“A great subtitle makes a reader say, ‘Yes, tell me more.’”

Here’s another great example from John Mark Comer’s The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry. Comer’s subtitle is How to Stay Emotionally Healthy and Spiritually Alive in the Chaos of the Modern World. Comer does a great job of providing felt needs - emotionally healthy and spiritually alive - while naming a villain - the chaos.

In an interview with Forbes, Jonathan Karp, President and CEO of Simon and Schuster, revealed his three rules for titles: an irresistible promise, be intriguing, and be clever. If you can do what Karp suggests with your title and apply what we are suggesting for your subtitle, you’re going to have a winning combination.

Authors often get to the titling conversation and trip over the subtitle. Instead of being intentional, they try to cram everything they have in that short sentence. Resist the urge. It’s worse than going through the whole day thinking you left the garage door open. If you stick to the two rules we outlined here, your book will be that much better for it - and your reader will appreciate it.

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