The Winning Combination: How a Gregarious Title and Scrupulous Subtitle Win You Readers


An aspect of publishing that is often overlooked is the value of a well-crafted, strategically designed title and subtitle. Many writers and publishers don’t spend enough time trying to come up with a great title, and too often they settle for “good enough,” without sufficient brainstorming or testing of the possibilities. Sure, instincts can lead you to a great first title idea, but a great sounding title and an effective title can be two different things. Wisely chosen titles capture your readers’ attention, hook them, and can even influence them throughout the rest of the book.

How to Devise A Great Title

A title should be short, and it should pop, so that it’s easily brandable. This is especially important if the book sells well, as it creates opportunities to extend to a series or offer other products under the brand. Though there are exceptions to the rule, like the wildly successful Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus by John Gray, it’s much easier to brand and remember a short title.

When you’re brainstorming short titles, it may feel like the results are too simple. But there’s nothing wrong with a simple title. One very simple formula that has a long history of use with successful titles is:

    Definite Article + Adjective + Noun
    Popular examples include The Wealthy Barber and The Big Short.

The reason long titles so often fail is that they try to do too much. Instead of relying on subtitles to help convey their message or premise, long titles try to explain everything within the title itself. You might want your title to broadly synopsize the book, indicate who it’s for, and deliver the book’s promise, but that’s precisely the purpose of your subtitle. Consider your title and subtitle combination as business partners. They should work together, with complementary roles. The title should act as the gregarious one who captures potential readers’ attention, and the subtitle, who is more thorough and less flashy, closes the deal.

The Role of Subtitles

Subtitles can play a surprisingly strong role in a buyer’s decision making. They act as sales copy and establish what the book is about, but this must be done in a compelling way that lures potential buyers in with intrigue or excitement. Let the subtitles do the heavy lifting of advancing the book’s promise.

Many of the bestselling non-fiction books today are proof that you can heavily rely on subtitles. In many cases, the title alone tells the reader almost nothing about the book. A couple of good examples of this are:

  1. Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything
    by Stephen Dubner & Steven Levitt

    The title is an invented and memorable portmanteau term made specifically for the book. It pulls you in without providing much of any indication of the content of that book. The subtitle, however, is much longer and descriptive—an alluring sales message to close the deal.

  2. POP!: Create the Perfect Pitch, Title, and Tagline for Anything
    by Sam Horn

    has the same effect as Freakonomics. It’s a short, bizarre, but easily remembered title intended to draw attention and paired with a precise subtitle to clearly pitch the premise. As you may have gathered from its exemplary title and subtitle combination, this book is also a great resource to learn more about this very subject.

Don’t be afraid of a longer-than-normal subtitle. Remember, no one repeats them in conversation anyway. It’s perfectly fine if you need a few extra words to get the sales message across effectively. Keep in mind, though, that the length of your subtitle can limit the design of the cover, which is equally as important as the title and subtitle combination.

It’s not imperative that people know and share your subtitle. Authors sometimes think that since people don’t mention subtitles in conversation, the title then needs to convey as much about the book as possible. But, of course, strangers don’t just walk up to you in the grocery store, whisper the title of a book in your ear, and slip away mysteriously into the produce section. More often than not, it’s friends and colleagues who share book recommendations with you, and they provide context about the book and title, describing what the subtitle would have otherwise said but in simple (and personally tailored) language.

Example: “I think you’ll love Purple Cow; it has great ideas on marketing and it’s a fun read.”

You’re unlikely to forget a book called Purple Cow, and this is key as you want to fully harness the power of word of mouth. It’s a partnership, so let the title grab the attention and leave the subtitle to advance the book’s promise.

Coming up with just the right title is a process, not an act. You should be methodical and avoid rushing to judgements. Remain open-minded, experiment, test, borrow, mix, and maybe even involve some creative people you know. Have fun with it!

Remember that your title and subtitle work together as an important piece of your offering—part packaging, part branding, and part introduction. They are in a business arrangement where each offers different complementary skills: a short, flashy title, perhaps without describing anything, and a subtitle that explains why readers should bother picking up the book.

It isn’t necessary that your title entirely avoid speaking on the book’s content; it’s just that it’s not needed. You don’t need to force it. It’s possible to come up with a title that captures the essence of your book that is also short, punchy, memorable, and brandable, creating a subtitle that can work to amplify the message even further.

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