What Makes a Good Subtitle (and how long should it be?)


By Susan Kendrick

Write To Your Market, Inc.

(NOTE: We got a call from a doctor in Los Angeles who found this post and called us for emergency help with her subtitle. She and her agent had been working on her title and subtitle for months, but then realized they had left out significant key words. The challenge was how to include them without making the subtitle too long. She found this post (on our original blog) by searching "book subtitle tips," and we're glad she did. We did an on-the-spot consultation that resulted in a subtitle she is now taking to publishers as part of her book proposal.)

We all agree that a great title is important for any book and willingly give it the attention it deserves. For many, however, the subtitle is often an afterthought, something quickly thrown together before moving onto back cover marketing copy and book cover design. Please don'tdo this to your book. Your subtitle is not just some front-cover formatting slot to fill. It is a critical piece of marketing real estate for creating your brand and selling your book.

The book title, Courageous Parents Confident Kids, was already in place by Dr. Amy Tiemann when she came to us for help with her subtitle and back cover copy. (She had already successfully published her first book using this same process with us.) What we developed for her this time is an example of how a longer title--or a title with longer words--often benefits from a short subtitle. This subtitle also has a tagline, sing-song quality that both clarifies the title and is highly memorable at the same time. In other words, it is an example of an ideal subtitle that along with the title creates a complete and compelling message. See more examples and subtitle tips below.

First, the Role of Your Subtitle

There are many important things your subtitle can do for your book:

__ Identify and draw in your target audience

__ Quickly differentiate your book in a crowded market

__ Clarify a major benefits of your book

__ Add definition to a provocative but possibly obscure title, like those in Malcolm Gladwell's

     bestselling series, which includes Blink, The Tipping Point, and Outliers.


Long or Short--Is There a Rule?

We get asked this a lot: "How long should my subtitle be?" The answer is--it depends. There are no hard and fast rules. Say what you need to say. Simply do it in as few words as possible to keep your ideas crisp, authoritative, and memorable. An example of a long subtitle is Rich Like Them: My Door-to-Door Search for the Secrets of Wealth in America's Richest Neighborhoods. That's a lot of words, and some long ones, but they work hard together to say what this book is about in a personal, refreshing way. While longer subtitles are the exception rather than the rule, it's helpful to see how they can work when handled skillfully.

Part of Tim Ferriss's successful book series brand, The 4-Hour Work Week, has a subtitle that contains a generous nine words and consists of three different elements. But, every word serves a specific purpose and also includes elements that help establish Ferriss's 4-Hour Work Week brand. Your subtitle can do the same for your book or book series.

This brings up a related point: If you are planning--or even considering the possibility--that your book will become a series, bring this to the title and subtitle discussion as well. You can build elements into the first subtitle that help you establish that series brand should you choose to add more books later. Additional books can address specific parts of your message or apply your expertise to related topics and therefore help you reach out to new markets.


Depending on your book, your message, and your target audience, a range of subtitle lengths will serve your book well. The following book subtitle tips will help you think about your subtitle as a way to attract readers, potential clients, your industry, and the media to what you have to offer, without tangling them up in excess words or jargon.

Again, these are general tips. Creating the right subtitle for your book can break all the rules if done for the right reasons!


Here are some tips to help you think about and recognize what will work for your book:

__If your title is long, keep the subtitle short. And, if your title is short, you have

     more flexibility with the length of the subtitle.

__ Do not repeat in the subtitle words that you have already used in the title.

     If your subtitle repeats words in the title, it looks like you have already run out of

     things to say--not a good signal to send.

__Practice economy of language. Four-letter words work just as well as 12-letter

     words. And, often the same thing can be said just as well if not better in seven words

     than 14.

__ Consider your target audience. This may go without saying, but books on investing,

     entrepreneurship, and leadership, for example, will all have a different feel as will books

     about improving your medical practice, or nurturing teens, or caring for elderly parents.

If you would like help with your book title and/or subtitle, or if you are simply ready for some feedback on your ideas, get in touch with us. Call us at 715-634-4120 or email info@writetoyourmarket.com.