How to Craft Effective Book Titles (& Subtitles)

This week's post comes courtesy of Suzanne Paschall, founder and coach at FreshVoice. For more writing, coaching, and author tips from Suzanne, be sure to visit!

One question I get often is  “How do I make sure I craft the best title for my non-fiction book?” It’s a great question and shows that an author is clued in to the importance of their book’s title (and subtitle!). That said, many authors are still fuzzy about why titles are so important and what factors should be considered when naming a book. With that in mind, here are a few things to think about when naming your book.

  1. First, the obvious: Every book needs a title, or nobody would know how to assess the book for interest. One job it has is to label, or to explain what it’s about. But it’s not the only job!
  2. It’s also a strategic combination of a few words that will hopefully entice the reader into looking further into the book, and hopefully ultimately purchasing it. It’s an important part of the branding and marketing strategy.
  3. It’s an opportunity to compete favorably with and differentiate itself from its shelf neighbors…all the other books on the same topic. (And yes, there will nearly always be these!) That’s why doing a competitive analysis before you start writing is an important part of your planning.

Of course, the title and subtitle aren’t the only parts of the book cover that serve these purposes; they dovetail with the rest of the book design components (format, size, and design elements like font choice, graphic elements and marketing text).

But the title and subtitle need to be written well before the book design decisions are made, because those decisions should emanate from this all-important text…as should the writing of your book.

The book “title package”

Cowley’s book title compels with a common question.

Cowley’s book title compels with a common question.

I like to think of the title and subtitle as two distinctly different and important parts of the “title package.” My experience with non-fiction is that the main title (as short as possible) is usually the “teaser”; the thematic branding that jumps out at the customer from across the aisle in the bookstore, or in the list in an online browser or store. It’s the bait that dangles in front of the fish. It’s often a metaphor, or a common phrase that many will recognize.

The subtitle is often longer, and tells the reader what the book is actually about; it acts more as the “label” part of the title package. It’s the workhorse. Now that we’ve got you hooked, here’s what you’re going to get. The subtitle often gives richer and clearer meaning to the main title.

For example Robert Cowley’s very successful multi-edition book of conjecture has this compelling title: What If? The subtitle comes in behind and explains, Eminent Historians Imagine what Might Have Been.

See how the 1-2 punch of the title package works? First we are baited with the a question many people ask many times in their life. Hmmm…what’s this about? Then our eyes are drawn to the subtitle, which explains the book’s concept to us, so we can accurately judge what the book is about and determine if we want to investigate beyond the cover based on our interest.

I think it’s counterproductive to try be too cute with a title package that doesn’t complete its jobs by clarifying the book’s purpose. At best you might lose browsers’ interest because they can’t figure out what your point is; at worst they could purchase the book and then be angry it isn’t at all about what they thought it was…a form of misleading advertising.

The role of titles in branding

A book’s cover design is really its ‘brand,’ that which shows the character and voice of the book and its author. But the title package carries a great deal of the brand weight.

We know that memorable in branding is important, hence the value in brevity. So even if someone doesn’t remember the lengthy subtitle of Cowley’s book, it’s certainly simple to remember the main title, What If?. Mission accomplished!

Brands are all about three things, most marketers will tell you: mark, promise and experience. And this all relates to reaching out to, and capturing your ideal audience. Not everybody – just the folks you honestly can imagine reading your book. So you need to know who you’re talking to before you choose your title.

The mark can be textual or graphical, but in the What If? cover design it’s clearly the single major element– the main title. Often a clue to the brand’s mark will be to look for the single biggest element on the front cover. For famous authors, appearing on the cover of each of their books is the brand mark. People recognize their faces and that’s what draws them to the book. A great example of this are TV political pundits and celebrity entertainers who write books.

The promise tells you what you’re going to get in the book. For non-fiction books, it tends to be in the subtitle. What If? could refer to many different things, but the subtitle hones in to clarify and inform what the book is actually about.

The experience tells the reader what they’ll feel from the book. They can tell this by a variety of obvious and more subtle hints on the cover, but they should all work together to show and tell what kind of experience your book is promising.

When should I write my title?

There are differing opinions on this: Some say you can’t write the title until you’ve effectively written the whole book.

My approach is the opposite: I say if you have a solid enough theme, brand, outline and sense of your audience (in other words, if you’ve done your pre-book writing homework), you will already be able to craft a title that works, or at least a pretty close version.

A well-crafted title & subtitle can be an important focal point in writing your book.

It’s useful to do this before you write the book, because it provides a wonderful focus for you as you write. I liken it to a lighthouse lamp; a directional beacon that keeps you on point and helps you dismiss any extraneous content that doesn’t serve the point. I’ve seen authors flounder as they try to write and organize their book without at least a working title. It reminds me a little of the thesis statement our high school English teachers were so adamant about in our essay writing. Now I get it!

It can be a great idea to A-B test several versions of your title with small groups of those who fit your target audience. Offer a few examples and see what you can learn. This will help make sure you pick a title that actually resonates, instead of one you just think will. If you want to guess about something, guess how many cups of coffee your boss will need this morning before she becomes human. But don’t leave your book title to chance. Try a few, get some feedback, and pick what works best. Remember, a great title can sell a book and a bad one can keep readers away.

If you’d like to learn more about writing titles, book branding, and many other preparatory activities for book-writing, Suzanne offers paid courses for writers at the FreshVoice Academy.