Providing Context and IDing the Reader
During the editing process of many a manuscript, authors wring their hands over the perfect title, and over the question of whether their book needs a subtitle. The problem is that most writers don’t really know how to differentiate them.
Here’s a simple way of putting it. The title of your book needs to accomplish two main objectives.
One, it hooks them, grabbing the reader’s attention. There are, after all, a lot of other books competing for their attention, often other books that are similar to yours in many respects.
The second thing your title needs to do is explain why they should read your book. If a single title can do both of those things, then you don’t need a subtitle. But very often—most often—these objectives need to be accomplished by having both a title and a subtitle.
Now, for your book’s main title, you generally want something powerful and evocative. Something that will really grab hold of the reader instantly. This title might not be descriptive, though, and a common side effect of choosing a particularly evocative title is that it doesn’t go far enough in terms of telling the reader what the book is actually about, and lures them into reading it.
In other words, the subtitle provides the necessary context. And it never hurts to keep things simple and direct.
To dig deeper into what makes a good subtitle, let me take a short digression. Every year, I serve as one of the judges for the Braun Book Awards, and as part of that contest we always ask for a synopsis. (I’ve written a whole other post about how to write an effective synopsis. Check it out!)
Now, it’s not mandatory, but a lot of authors go a step further and provide some version of a book proposal, in which they try their hardest to sell us on their book. One of the main ways of doing this is to identify their market: “My book is primarily targeted at women in leadership,” or “This book has been written to help people who experienced childhood trauma.” This is really good information to have.
Here’s the important takeaway: ideally, your target market should be as narrow as possible. When I read a sentence like “This book has been written for everyone,” that’s actually a bit of a red flag. It sounds really good to say that everyone is in your target market, and it will feel like your potential readership is very large. But the truth, counterintuitively, is that the narrower and more specific your target audience, the more readers you are likely to hook.
You can write a generalized book that appeals somewhat to everyone but appeals specifically to no one, or you can write a highly targeted book that doesn’t appeal to everyone but appeals very strongly to a particular subset of readers. Those readers will probably be extra passionate about your book and help spread the word.
What does this have to do with subtitles? Simple. There are a lot of pieces of advice you could absorb, but here’s a foundational one—identify who your book has been written for, and then use the title to inform them that this book is for them.
Don’t be clunky about it, of course. Your book’s title needn’t be: The World Is My Oyster: This Book Is for Children of Missionaries. You can approach it with a bit more nuance than that. Try this on for size: The World Is My Oyster: Growing Up in a Missionary Family. It’s an effective subtitle, because (1) it’s simple, (2) it provides context and explains itself, and (3) it identifies the target market.
So take the time to figure out who your book is aimed at, as specifically as you can.
Ultimately, if you’re looking for a fun way to investigate subtitles in a way that gets you out of your home office and out into the world, I’d suggest hopping over to your local bookstore and browsing the titles. Look at lots of different kinds of books, in different genres and styles, and take note of which subtitles work particularly well, and which don’t. Chances are, if a book makes a strong first impression on your, the title and subtitle are doing their job.
Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored three novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has released two sequels, The City of Darkness (2013) and The Law of Radiance (2015), completing the series. As a professional editor, Braun has seven years of experience working with Word Alive Press authors. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.