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Compelling Titles & Subtitles

It’s a classic principle about books—the title and subtitle are among the most important words any author can write.

The goal is to make a particular book’s title and subtitle as compelling as possible, which can be achieved—

  • by the author, when sending their manuscript to their agent.
  • by the agent and editor collaborating before submission to publisher, until they have a title and subtitle that will get the best response from acquiring editors.
  • by the editor/agent and author before or during the publishing process, if they decide they don’t yet have the finest title/subtitle—and then they prioritize achieving it. They know that once the book is published, its title and subtitle are final, permanent. Whether they’re brilliant, good, or pitiful, that’s all the intended audience can respond to, and the consequences will be in accordance.

Broadly defined, the combined function of agents, editors, and publishers is to connect authors and readers through titles and subtitles. When the publishing pros are working with individual authors, they deeply consider the nature of the intended audience and conceive, revise, evolve titles and subtitles that are appropriate for an author and their new book, and for the readers being appealed to.

In effect, the best titles and subtitles unify author, book, and readers, for example, Raising Them Right: Lesbian Parents & Their Adopted Children, co-authored by two lesbian women who are joyously bringing up six boys and girls, each of different ethnicity and background. They bring to their book the wisdom, love, and successful experience of their own family. The title establishes the book’s goal. The subtitle identifies the intended audience.

Books with the most compelling titles and subtitles also benefit from the phenomenal power of word-of-mouth. When a reader gets excited about a book, they’ll often tell their friends and others about it. However long or short their appreciative description, what’s easiest and most likely to be remembered is the title, and sometimes the subtitle. Therefore, when considering a title, the pros consider how people will respond to the book title alone and how well they’ll be remembered.

At the high level of book title, one of the most significant differences between fiction and nonfiction is that, as a rule, all novels are published by title alone. If there’s a following line, it’s usually to clarify—in case the title alone does not—that the book is “A Novel.” That line may also be a description of the nature or category of fiction, such as, “A Novel of Suspense.”

A few special novels have such a vital core concept that describing them to readers with an extension of the title as a “semi-title” will significantly increases sales because the buyer knows what the novel is, and can immediately make the decision to buy. A fine example of this is Flames of Heaven: A Novel of the End of the Soviet Union by New York Times bestselling author Ralph Peters—title of beauty combined with potent, epic description.

Ralph’s previous novel was also superbly titled, but very different: its two words, Red Army, defined the core concept. The descriptive subtitle line provided the right context: A Novel of Tomorrow’s War.

A great advantage that nonfiction books have is the ease and near-universality of the usage of subtitles. The descriptive and informative power of subtitles is enormous, in part because they are longer or much longer than the title.

No matter how much and what is already expressed in the title, the subtitle can magnify, clarify, and add new levels of meaning about aspects and elements of the book. The best titles and subtitles work equally well independently or in combination. The goal, of course, is to entice the buyer to want to read more about the book and so buy it, for example, Teenage Health Care: The First Comprehensive Family Guide for the Preteen to Young Adult Years. That subtitle has 12 words that describe the book and, perhaps more importantly, state its unprecedented nature.

My all-time favorite subtitle is also the longest.

Richard Marcinko and his co-author John Weisman had written Dick’s autobiography about his 30-year Navy career. The book already had a brilliant title: Rogue Warrior. That title alone might have been enough, but we were publishing a first book about the career of a Navy officer who was completely unknown to the public. We needed the subtitle to complete the buying motivation and to express everything, so we pushed the limits of length until it rocked.

This is what we hit the reader with: Rogue Warrior: The Explosive Autobiography of the Controversial, Death-Defying Founder of the U.S. Navy’s Top Secret Counterterrorist Unit SEAL TEAM SIX.

Yes! That really is a 20-word subtitle following a title of only 2 words!

But I’ll always feel that this first book by an unknown author—superb as it was in the writing and reading—became a #1 New York Times bestseller, in large part, because of that gargantuan subtitle.

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