What Does the Subtitle Do, Anyway? Answered!

[Author’s Note: This article is part of a series of posts drawn from our latest book, Book Writing Boot Camp. You will learn the publishing process from A to Z, with everything you need to know to author your own book.]

You may understand titles now, but we must move on to subtitles: What are those wacky things, and what is their purpose? Do you really need one? Seems like they double the brainstorming workload!

To understand why you need an awesome subtitle, let us learn a lesson from another type of author: article authors.

Authors of articles for offline magazines or online websites face a similar challenge. They must create compelling headline—not once, but repeatedly!

Accomplishing this requires them to firmly grasp these key concepts:

Q: What is the purpose of a headline?

A: To make the person read the sub-headline.

Q: And what is the purpose of the sub-headline?

A: To make the person read the first sentence of the article.

You need a subtitle because it links your title to your book content. Imagine a river that is crossed by a series of stepping-stones. If you remove one stone, what happens? The entire crossing fails.

Your subtitle is the middle stepping-stone on your reader’s river-crossing journey. Causing people to pick up your book for a second look (or click the Amazon listing) is the goal.

The subtitle is an essential element of your book: capturing attention, stimulating interest, and driving purchases.

The subtitle connects your title to your book content by answering one (or more) of three questions potential readers ask.

#1. Who Is This Book For?

I know Chapter 3 was a ways back, but concentrate for a moment and recall what we explored: how to choose your book’s target market. Your book is not for everyone, so  identifying your audience is essential to authorial success.

Since you have done such a fabulous job of identifying your audience, you may want to broadcast to them: “Hey! This book is for you personally!” Your subtitle is a great place for this.

Consider Simon Sinek’s book Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. The book is obviously targeted to leaders, perhaps with secondary application to those who have to follow leaders (i.e. everyone).

My (Michael’s) first book On Marketing: The Definitive Guide for Small Business Owners uses the subtitle to narrow the target market. The Chief Marketing Officer for Nike is not my ideal reader. Small business owners are.

#2. What Is This Book About?

Short and vague titles can be acceptable. Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers or Daniel H. Pink’s Drive are two recent examples. However, if you opt for this route, your subtitle needs to work overtime.

The subtitle for Drive is The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Now you know the book’s topic: motivation. While Drive could be about anything from NASCAR to a cross-country road trip, the subtitle clarifies the book’s subject matter.

In my humble opinion, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers does not pull this off as well. The full title is Outliers: The Story of Success. Kind of interesting, but I still do not know what the book is about. Something about success, and something about being outside the average (an outlier), but not much else.

Amazon’s book description clarifies matters a bit: Outliers is a book about why high achievers succeed. What makes them different from the rest of us? Our initial assumptions are wrong.

If I were in charge of choosing a subtitle, I would have elected for a more descriptive option, like Outliers: What Really Makes High Achievers Different.

Malcolm Gladwell is a big-name author, so the lackluster subtitle probably did not hurt his book sales too much. Potential buyers are predisposed to read his book’s back cover, check out the table of contents, and give it a bit more consideration than average.

You have no such luxury. Make sure your title explains well.

#3. What Value Will This Book Provide?

Even if a potential reader understands your book’s target audience and topic, they may remain unconvinced of its value. Will reading this book be a waste of their time? Will it deliver what they expect?

Lay these apprehensions to rest in your subtitle. Specify the value your reader will receive from reading the book.

Consider Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. What’s the value? Learning how to spread my ideas (and keep them from passing into oblivion.)

Or the classic Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen. The value? No stress! Productivity!


(Sorry, I really like good productivity books.)

Even really weird titles can be redeemed by a subtitle that communicates value to the reader. The title Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything works out, because the play-on-words title (freak+economics) is clarified by the subtitle. Read this book, and you will learn about the hidden side of…well…everything!