Does Your Book Need a Subtitle?

A few thoughts on some of the most important words you'll write.
Mar | 11 | 2024
  Mar | 11 | 2024
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BY Phil Simon
  Phil Simon

Does Your Book Need a Subtitle?

A few thoughts on some of the most important words you'll write.
Phil Simon
Mar | 11 | 2024

Does Your Book Need a Subtitle?

TL;DR: A few thoughts on some of the most important words you'll write.
Phil Simon
Mar | 11 | 2024

Over the years, authors have asked me this question dozens times. For a non-fiction book, the answer is almost always yes. I don’t purport to know much about fiction, but subtitles in this genre tend to be the exception, not the rule.

Now, on to why non-fiction authors should almost always embrace subtitles.

Discoverability

If a tree falls in the forest …

For starters, you want to maximize the chance that people find your book. Subtitles can help accomplish that goal. After all, it’s a crowded world out there—even if you’ve written a book about a niche area. A subtitle increases the number of words that Amazon, Google, B&N, and other sites use to return your book when customers enter terms into search engines or other websites. If you’ve never heard of search engine optimization, spend a few hours learning the basics. It’s a big deal.

If a tree falls in the forest …

Of my 14 books, all but three contain subtitles. Two of these decisions weren’t my choice. To my knowledge, none of the thousand guides in the For Dummies series sports one. In theory, the ubiquity of the brand renders one superfluous. As for Project Management in the Hybrid Workplace, I opted to forgo one. The title tells prospective readers everything they need to know. I felt that adding one would do more harm than good. What’s more, its six-word title is descriptive but not exactly short.

Next up, an effective subtitle complements the book’s title. The former allows you to abbreviate the latter. Consider Dan Pink’s excellent 2019 book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. The single-word title draws the prospective reader in, while the six-word subtitle quickly and clearly defines the book’s core thesis.

I like to think that I did the same with The Nine: The Tectonic Forces Reshaping the Workplace. Then there’s the most recent Racke title, Reimagining Payments: The Business Case for Digital Currencies. It’s another example of a example of a lucid title-subtitle combo.

Finally, you may want to hint at your book’s target audience. For example, the first edition of my first book is called Why New Systems Fail: Theory and Practice Collide. I liked it, but I could have picked a more descriptive subtitle. Cengage’s team and I landed a better one for the book’s second edition: An Insider’s Guide to Successful IT Projects. The insert of IT (short for information technology) helped people better understand the book’s message prior to buying it.

Pro Tips on Picking Your Subtitle

Although hardly a comprehensive list, here are a few more pro tips:

  • Finding a suitable subtitle is imperative but often challenging. It’s going to take a while to come to you. You won’t bang it out in an hour.
  • You’re going to rethink the subtitle as you write your manuscript.
  • AI tools like ChatGPT, Claude, and Gemini can help brainstorm titles. They’ll only improve in the years to come.
  • Avoid jargon-heavy words like leverage and phrases like add value. 
  • Don’t use the same keyword in the title and subtitle. I’ve seen a few authors of crypto books make this mistake. (Note that prepositions, indefinite articles, and the like don’t count.)
  • Seven to ten words should suffice. Anything beyond ten is probably clunky. Brevity is a feature, not a bug. Sadly, subtitles are getting longer—sometimes comically so.

Let me know if I can help you with your hone your book’s title and subtitle.

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