Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Book Cover Coaching: Subtitle Tips

What Makes a Good Subtitle
and How Long Should It Be?

By Susan Kendrick

People work long and hard to come up with good book titles. The subtitle, however, is often an afterthought, something quickly thrown together before moving onto book cover design. Please don't
do this to your book. Your subtitle is not just some front-cover
formatting slot to fill. It is a critical piece of marketing real estate for creating your brand and selling your book.

The Role of Your Subtitle

There are many things your subtitle can do for your book. It can:
__ Identify and draw in your target audience
__ Differentiate your book in a crowded market
__ Clarify a key benefit or benefits of your book
__ Add definition to a provocative but possibly obscure title, like those in Malcolm Gladwell's bestselling series, Blink, The Tipping Point, and Outliers.

Long or Short--Is There a Rule?

First, I need to say a few words about length. We get asked this a lot: "How long should my subtitle be?" The answer is--it depends. Really. There are no hard and fast rules, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Say what you need to say. Simply do it in as few words as possible to keep your ideas crisp, authoritative, and memorable. See more under "Subtitle Tips," below.
An example of a long subtitle is Rich Like Them: My Door-to-Door Search for the Secrets of Wealth in America's Richest Neighborhoods. That's a lot of words, but they work hard together to say what this book is about. While longer subtitles are the exception rather than the rule, it's helpful to see how they can work when handled skillfully.

Tim Ferriss's highly successful book and brand, The 4-Hour Work Week, was released in an expanded and updated edition in December 2009. His subtitle is a semi-whopping nine words and it consists of three different elements. But, it is still clear, crisp, and strong. It hits a major nerve, and not by chance. Ferriss is known for testing his title/subtitle combos until the results reveal a sure winner.

Also, check out an Amazon Book "Bestsellers" list, like this one for Business & Investing. You'll find a range of subtitle lengths here, and with a few exceptions, they serve their books very well. Again, the "Subtitle Tips," below, will help you think about your subtitle as a way to reel people into what you have to offer without tangling them up in excess words or jargon. There is no guarantee that a certain length subtitle is best. What is important is how the words you choose create and promote your brand.

Subtitle Tips

Here are some tips to help you start thinking about what will work for your book.

__ If your title is long, keep the subtitle short. If your title is short, you have more flexibility with the subtitle. But, do say what needs to be said. A descriptive, yet still concise, subtitle goes a long way toward attracting readers, retailers, partners, and even the media.

__ Do not repeat in the subtitle words that you have already used in the title. A book cover is all about making the most of the very limited real estate on both the front and back covers. Make every word count. If you need to reinforce an idea, use fresh language each time. If your subtitle repeats words in the title, it looks like you have already run out of things to say--not a good signal to send to potential buyers.

__ Practice economy of language. Do this by first deciding what to say, then how to say it. Then, if you can use four-letter words instead of 12-letter words, do it. If you can say something in seven words instead of 14, do it. Be ruthless and be especially hard on adjectives. You'll be surprised how powerful a phrase becomes once it has been stripped clean of excess. Which brings me to the next suggestion:

__ Use parallel construction. These kinds of phrases are memorable and therefore create a strong brand for your book. Chip and Dan Heath, Authors of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, just released a new book this month called, Switch: How to Change when Change is Hard (above). Subtitles like this have what you could call a sing-song quality to them that simplifies the topic and makes it instantly apparent either what the book is about or what you as the reader get from it.

__ Remember that your subtitle is not just read, but heard--another good reason to create sound-bite appeal. For Amy Tiemann's new book, Courageous Parents--Confident Kids (above), I developed this subtitle, "Letting Go So You Both Can Grow." This is the essence of the book boiled down to a highly brandable sound bite. This phrase is also both powerful and memorable because it contains rhyming, alliteration, and the syntactically strong long "O" and hard "G" sounds. This is one more example of how just seven short words can build a strong, memorable brand and marketing presence for your book.

__ Consider your target audience when establishing the tone of your subtitle. This may go without saying, but a book on investing or entrepreneurship, for example, will have a different feel than a book about improving your marriage or taking care of elderly parents.

Need help creating the subtitle and/or title for your book? Contact Graham and me at

Happy Publishing,

© 2010, Susan Kendrick, Write To Your Market. All Rights Reserved.


Lois Geller said...

I guess "it depends" is a good answer.
Some of my books have long ones: like,
Response! The Complete Guide To Profitable Direct Marketing.

That book sold very well, and was published in countries around the world.

My book, Customers For Keeps...8 powerful strategies to turn customers into friends and keep the forever. Well, not so great.

It is what's in between the covers that counts.

Write To Your Market, Inc. said...

Lois, thanks for your comment. I looked at your books on amazon and think both of your titles are very good.

It looks to me that in both cases you do have a short title--the one-word title, "Response," and "Customers for Keeps"--followed by subtitles.

I think both of your books have very good titles, on a number of levels. Maybe the reason Customers for Keeps did not do as well is because customer loyalty is such a big market and there are so many competing books on the subject.

Your subtitle is a bit of a soft sell in that regard. People may not necessarily be looking to become "friends" as the major benefit. Something to consider if you repackage this book.