How to Subtitle a Book People Will Actually Buy [9 Steps]

POSTED ON May 24, 2023

Bella Rose Pope

Written by Bella Rose Pope

Home > Blog > Non-Fiction, Publishing > How to Subtitle a Book People Will Actually Buy [9 Steps]

Knowing how to subtitle a book isn't common knowledge. We think that if we slap a one-sentence summary on the cover that it's enough to attract readers. But the truth is that people need a reason to buy and that is what your subtitle is for.

One of the biggest challenges our authors face when self-publishing is getting the subtitle right. They may have had an idea for the title for years, not even knowing why a subtitle is necessary.

While we can't replicate the one-on-one tailored coaching our authors get through this blog post, we'll get pretty close to helping you craft a subtitle that'll sell. Just remember that it'll take time and brainpower.

Don't overlook this step in the book writing process!

What is a subtitle and do I even need one?

A book's subtitle is a one-sentence description or summary about the book's contents that is printed in smaller font underneath the title or on the cover page. Not all nonfiction books need subtitles but the large majority do.

The only case for not using a subtitle is if the book's title says enough about the contents of the book, but you'll rarely find those in the nonfiction genre.

A subtitle can be used to:

  • Further explain a book with an ambiguous (even if clever) book title
  • Niche down nonfiction genres and topics
  • Help your book show up when search terms are used
  • Clarify the book's content
  • Clarify who the book is actually meant for

The best examples of book subtitles that, without them, would leave potential readers scratching their heads about what the book is even about are Malcolm Gladwell's.

Here are his book title:

  • Outliers
  • Talking to Strangers
  • The Tipping Point
  • Blink
  • David and Goliath

Can you tell what his books are about? In some cases, sure, but not specifically. Without the subtitles, readers would have no idea if these books appeal to them.

Here are the books with their subtitles:

  • Outliers: The Story of Success
  • Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don't Know
  • The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference
  • Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
  • David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants

Now with those, we have a much better idea about what's uncovered in the books. Though with someone like Gladwell, he's able to get away with still vague subtitles as a stylistic choice because of his popularity. Still, the subtitles shed much needed light on the book titles.

How to Subtitle a Book Step by Step

Too many authors choose the book's cover matter based on what they want. This includes the cover, title, and yes, the subtitle. They have an idea of what they want, what they'd like to see, but this isn't how an author should go about subtitling a book.

Because the book isn't for you. It's for the reader.

Much like learning how to choose a proper book cover, determining the subtitle is about getting out of your own head and discovering what it is the potential readers will want to see, what will convince them to buy the book.

In order to do that, here's how to subtitle a book step by step.

1. Don't start until after the book is written

You'll just end up changing it anyway. Yes, even if your book is outlined thoroughly.

The reason for this is because during the writing process, your book might change. You may have initially set out to write a certain type of book, only to realize that the book coming out is different. The time to start working on your subtitle is when the book is finally written and has been sent off to your editor.

At this point, there won't be any major changes because you would have already self-edited the book.

So if you want to know how to subtitle a book in a way that best honors your book, wait. If you rush into it, you'll end up writing yourself into a corner. This won't allow the book to be written as it should and instead will force you to write to the subtitle.

It's just like choosing a book title this way.

2. Refer to your Avatar's want

What is it someone will want when they come across your book? It's not enough to only describe your book, but you'll want to describe it in a way that speaks to your avatar (also known as core customer or ideal reader). Since you wrote the book for this person, it only makes sense to consider them when learning how to subtitle a book.

This includes understanding their wants, dislikes, likes, and ultimately what it is they'll seek to gain from reading a whole book on the topic. What is the outcome your avatar will want most?

If you want to do further work on developing your avatar, click that link for more information.

3. List your book's promises

This step should be pretty easy if you've already written the book. Even if you have the outline, this is a good practice to get into.

What will your readers gain from reading the book?

List out as many as you can think of. Try to reach 10 at a minimum. Now go through those and highlight the top 3 that you write about in your book. Make sure to remember what your target audience wants most! Does it coincide?

These promises will be used to craft your book's subtitle below.

4. Reference books in your genre and category

What's working already? This is great to know not so you copy, but so you can understand which type of subtitles speak to readers. If you go to Amazon and choose “books” from the dropdown and hit enter, you'll be taken to the book home page.

Then search the genres and categories that your book will be in. Are there other books similar to yours there? If so, take note of the types of subtitles used. If you want to take it a step further in your deep dive, choose a few books and scroll down to the reviews.

What are the top terms and gains mentioned by 5-star reviewers? Do those takeaways coincide with the book's subtitle? If you want your readers to leave 5-star reviews about a specific area of your book, it may help to craft that into the subtitle.

5. Clarify the book's function

The function of your book is the overall purpose. Are you going to teach something specific or is it a discovery, journey, memoir, or an explanation? These matter.

You wouldn't write a book about the effects of social media on a teenage mind and call it a “how to”. The function of such a book is to clarify or understand, which would be better positioned as a “why” description in the subtitle, like the example of Rebel Talent below.

Part of knowing how to subtitle a book that sells comes down to having a strong understanding of what it is you want to do with your book.

Here are some examples of function and how you'd use that in a subtitle:

  • Studies, teachings, insights: using “why” or “an inside look” or “in depth review” or other phrasing that indicates it's information and not tactics will be important. Malcolm Gladwell books often take this approach as his are largely phenomenon and research-based.
  • How-to, exercises, methods: many of these books use a “how to” at the beginning of their subtitles, but you can get more creative than that like the examples of Published below, using “proven path”. You can also use phrasing like “the process” or “strategies” or “methods” following a number.
  • Memoir, personal story or essay: even though this book is about your life, the subtitle doesn't need to be. If this is a true memoir, you don't even need a subtitle. However, if it's a personal account of a specific experience that you're writing with the hopes of helping or teaching others, use a subtitle like the While We Slept example below. With this, you'll want to highly the purpose of telling these stories. What do you hope others will gain from it? These can be formatted similarly to the studies and teachings, but with more emphasis is the outcome. It may come across as what you gained from the experiences as well as what others might find like in the case of Chemo P!ssed Me Off: A Breast Cancer Roadmap: Navigating with Faith, Gratitude, and a Little Bit of Attitude.

6. Remember to consider the book's title

Sometimes the title can be used to give more information so your subtitle can contain less. You don't want a title and subtitle that's redundant. So instead, use the title to the advantage of the subtitle, like in the example of Rebel Talent below.

A master of this is an author I've mentioned already: Malcolm Gladwell. His titles and subtitles often go hand-in-hand to paint a greater picture when used together. Alone, they might not give a potential reader enough information but putting them together is intriguing. Keep in mind that his books are research-based phenomenon he's observed and recorded, not “how to” books.

Here are his book titles again, along with other examples of books that utilize the book's title for a stronger combination:

  • Outliers: The Story of Success
  • Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don't Know
  • The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference
  • Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
  • David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants
  • Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don't Know by Adam Grant
  • Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success by Adam Grant
  • Your Brain Is Always Listening: Tame the Hidden Dragons That Control Your Happiness, Habits, and Hang-Ups by Daniel G. Amen
  • Skip the Flip: Secrets the 1% Know About Real Estate Investing by Hayden Crabtree

See if you can discover why the title and subtitles of these examples work so well together so you can utilize the same effect yourself.

7. Combine these tips into 10 possible subtitles

Now it's time to put it all together. After you defined the function of your book, you may have already jotted down a few ideas, but you'll have to go back and consider your avatar to put it all together.

Remember to try different variations of subtitle even if they sound similar.

If you're writing a how-to style book, begin with different variations besides “how to” like with some examples described in that section.

If your book is a research-based phenomenon, use strong language to describe what someone will learn and even why that information is desirable to know, as is the case with Adam Grant's Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, which indicates that there are people making big changes in the world and if you, too, want to do that, then you'll want to know how these people are doing it.

With a memoir or story-based nonfiction, learning how to subtitle a book is a little more complicated because it comes down to preference and what the reader will gain. Try to brainstorm several different types to discover which will describe your book's content and purpose the best.

Here are a few other things to consider for subtitle variations:

  1. Use language that refers directly to a group of people you'll want to target with your book, like teenagers, christians, retired people, animal lovers, or any other description your avatar will find identity in
  2. Add emotion words: these are phrases or words that add a “punch” to your subtitle that will help people feel more connected to it or find more benefit in your book versus others. These might look like, “conquer,” “effortless,” “proven,” “explode,” “powerful,” “life-giving,” and more. You get the idea; words that evoke a deeper meaning.
  3. Write your subtitles all over again, but swap one word for a synonym that's more concrete in each one. For example, if the author of The Detourist was brainstorming subtitles, he might start with How to Get Out of Your Own Way, Find Purpose in New Places, and Walk the Path to Easy Authenticity and make a few changes to strengthen the language: How to Get Out of Your Own Way, Find Purpose in Unexpected Places, and Traverse the Path to Effortless Authenticity. Use if you're unsure of other words to use!

You might have a subtitle that you like, but keep going! Write a few more. If you need a break, wait a day or so and go back to brainstorming after your subconscious has been ruminating on ideas in the background.

8. Choose your top 3 and get feedback

A huge part of learning how to subtitle a book is getting feedback from your would-be audience. This can be through beta readers, your network, or an exclusive community like our students get to do.

But first, narrow your options. There will be some that are easy to check off simply because they aren't your best. You want 3 strong options for subtitles. When you ask for feedback, make sure to include who your intended audience is. There's no need for a 70-year-old grandmother to offer feedback on a book meant for teenagers.

Here's an example of how this might look as a Facebook poll:

How To Subtitle A Book Feedback

Ultimately, feedback matters but you get the final say. Remember that a book's subtitle is for the reader! Not for you!

Examples of Strong Book Subtitles to Learn From

As with most of my articles, let's look at some examples to learn from. Steps and tips are only so helpful. Here are some great books to help you learn how to subtitle a book in a way that's clear, interesting, and will help sell books.

  1. Published – The Proven Path from Blank Page to 10,000 Copies Sold: Clear and direct. Both the title and subtitle here tell the reader exactly what the content of the book will encompass, as well as the fact that it's a “proven” path. Meaning, the book's information will be replicable for entire process from writing a book to selling thousands of copies.
  2. The Detourist – How to Get Out of Your Own Way, Find Purpose in Unexpected Places, and Traverse the Path to Effortless Authenticity: This subtitle, while long, is super clear as to what the reader will gain by reading it. You can answer the question “who is this book for” from items in the subtitle. It's for people who want to get out of their own way, who want authenticity, and who seek more purpose in their lives.
  3. The Politically Homeless Christian – How to Conquer Political Idolatry, Reject Polarization, and Recommit to God's Greatest Two Commandments: You know immediately who this book is for and a very direct specification of what will be covered. It's for christians who feel they don't belong in any one political party and will explore polarization and recommitting to two main commandments.
  4. Rebel Talent – Why it Pays to Break the Rules: The title of the book is the term coined by the researcher and author Francesa Gino, but the subtitle is what you'll learn from the book. A simple, concise sentence when combined with the title tells you a lot about the book.
  5. While We Slept – Finding Hope and Healing After Homicide: This memoir-style story is of a specific time in the author's life. When writing this type of book, you'll want to share what you learned that you hope others will. In the case of this author, she wrote this book to help others find hope and healing after homicide, much like she did.
  6. Pawprints on Our Hearts – How a Few Incredible Dogs Changed One Life Forever: This is a memoir, with an emphasis on how a few dogs managed to save a man's life over the course of years. The subtitle makes it clear that this author is talking about himself by using “one life” and we know that this is a story about dogs that change lives.
  7. Skip the Flip – What the 1% Knows About Real Estate Investments: This title and subtitle work well together to help potential readers understand that this isn't just another investment book. It's about the top 1% (the best) and the fact that it is not about flipping houses, which is a common practice in my real estate investment ventures. It helps readers know the difference and stir curiosity.

Learning how to subtitle a book can be hard. We often think that any old sentence will do when there is a lot more to it. Take your time and truly understand who your book is for, how it will be positioned in its category, and what will describe it in the best way.

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