Subtitles are tricky things, aren’t they?
No, we’re not talking about the ones at the bottom of that Netflix show you’ve been binge-watching lately (though we totally get it). We’re talking about book subtitles, those handy descriptive phrases which come after the colon in a book’s title on the front page. They often hint at a book’s content in terms of subject or theme or atmosphere, but each author approaches the subtitle differently. For example, you have the original fancy-pants subtitle, invented pretty much around the same time as the novel and the bound book. A classic example is pretty much anything scientific from the 19th Century, such as Revue D’Histoire Des Sciences: Et De Leurs Applications ….
More current examples might include:
- Tangled In Life: A Lainey Kelso Mystery, by Mary Meckler (in which the subtitle clarifies the book’s genre as well as indicating that it is part of a series);
- Wednesdays With Jerry: A teacher, a student, and lessons to bring about the greatest of life’s stories, by Eane Huff (in which the subtitle sketches out some basic content points as well as placing the book as an inspiration memoir);
- Turnings: Love In A Time of War, by Chloe Canterbury (in which the subtitle sets the tone and names the stakes of the book);
- When KIWIs Flew: The Diary of a Mad Airline Entrepreneur, by Bob Iverson (ditto, only in this case the subtitle also hints at the book’s style and atmosphere too–light, wild, and intensely funny); and
- BULLYING: Applying Handwriting Analysis to Detect Potential Danger Signs and Effects, by David J. DeWitt, CGA (in which the subtitle takes a very serious approach to describing the book’s field of study, as is appropriate for a book which will keep company with peer-reviewed journals, textbooks, and medical handbooks).
As you can see, subtitles perform a variety of different functions–some of them more specifically coded for a particular genre than others, as in the case of strictly descriptive subtitles in the research-driven nonfiction area and more emotive subtitles in the case of fiction. (This would hold true for poetry, too.) Subtitles may not be the first thing potential readers see when they first pick up a copy of your book, but they’re an important follow-up punch to a well-crafted cover, and serve as a bridge between your title and the blurbs and descriptions which readers will find on your back cover. They often make a difference in whether a shopper will commit to buying your book on a deeply instinctual level!
There are, of course, some instances in which a subtitle is not necessary: when the author is a celebrity (and has widespread name recognition, like Kim Kardashian) or famous within a specific field and the book is addressed to people in that field (such as a book written by a famous doctor for doctors), and when a book is a straight-up literary fiction novel. Of course, these authors may still choose to take advantage of the benefits of a subtitle! (We won’t hold it against them.)
A good subtitle is succinct, to-the-point and crystal clear. Subtitles are not the zone for hazy atmospheric inferences and poetic rambles! A strong one will duplicate nothing in the regular title, but will instead expound upon what may be found between covers. The best subtitles provide a digital boost, too, in that they’re a playground for keywords which will better enable readers to find your book (and buy it, of course). Keyword-enriched subtitles make your book marketable, and this is not a benefit to be ignored!
And a side note:
Your book’s title is not protected by copyright, so neither is your subtitle. Its role must be to capture the interest of your audience and to make your book stand out among its peers on a crowded bookshelf, so it’s well worth taking a gander through some of your local libraries and bookstores to see what titles are already trending. You want yours to resonate with current trends–but also to strike a note of contrast, to set your book apart.
My recommendation? Don’t come up with your subtitle until after your book is complete. And if you feel insecure about the direction your title and subtitle are headed, don’t hesitate to reach out. We’re here for you! And we love being your sounding board.
You are not alone. ♣︎