A conversation about book subtitles should always start with the genre, as best practices for subtitling vary from genre to genre. Recently, a memoirist I’m working with presented me with a long list of things her editor felt a subtitle needed to achieve, including that it has a rhythm, exhibits a progression, and stands on its own. If your subtitle can accomplish all of this and more, great, but most subtitles can’t and won’t. The quest for a perfect book subtitle is often elusive, and setting yourself up to hit various arbitrary benchmarks won’t always serve your book.
Subtitles for Novels
Let’s start with novels. In almost all cases, the best subtitle choice for a novel is “A Novel.” The reason is that not all novels are obviously novels without that designation. Both memoirs and novels can lean poetic, and some self-help titles, too, especially spirituality titles. There seems to be an exception for genre fiction, and if you look for fiction series online you’ll see that almost all series are designated as such, so the series name takes the place of the subtitle, informing you that this is Volume 1 or Book 1 in the such-and-such series. You often see mystery novels, too, with more descriptive subtitles. One on the upcoming She Writes Press list is Venetian Blood: Murder in a Sensuous City.
It also must be noted that self-published authors have been responsible for a new subtitling trend where fiction is concerned. Because they have less regard for the traditional way of doing things, and because they tend to be more experimental and bigger risk-takers, many indie novelists have started incorporating keywords into the novel subtitles in the way that memoirists and self-help authors are encouraged to do. This is an interesting case study from a book out on Time Square Publishing. The print version is listed as: Paladine (Paladine Anti-terrorism series) (Volume 1) while the Kindle version is listed as: Political Thriller: PALADINE, an American Assassin: a terrorism, vigilante justice and assassination suspense thriller (Paladine Political Thriller Series Book 1) Kindle Edition. Undoubtedly this choice was based on the idea that Kindle readers would be typing keywords into Amazon or their Amazon app.
Subtitles for Memoirs
I’ve been working in this genre for a long time, and I believe a memoir’s subtitle has one singular purpose: to explain the title. Here are a handful of examples that do just that:
- Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
- The Kid: What Happened After My Boyfriend and I Decided to Get Pregnant
- The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood
If your title is already super-descriptive, then sometimes “A Memoir” is all a book needs, and most memoirs opt for this simple option. You identify the book as a memoir and move on. The most popular trend in memoirs right now is to identify your key theme or themes, and build a simple subtitle around that: A Memoir of Faith, A Memoir of Resilience, A Memoir of Love and Loss. Unless a subtitle is very clever or creative, these are my favorite types of memoir subtitles, use the theme theory instead because generally memoir readers are seeking out memoirs based on themes they’re drawn to, or exploring in their own lives.
People always ask me about the long memoir subtitles, and I say, unless you have something truly funny or clever, steer clear. Here are a few I think work:
- A Bad Idea I'm About to Do: True Tales of Seriously Poor Judgment and Stunningly Awkward Adventure
- Kasher in the Rye: The True Tale of a White Boy from Oakland Who Became a Drug Addict, Criminal, Mental Patient, and Then Turned 16
I think they fit the criteria of funny or clever.
Subtitles for Self-Help Books
Finally, there’s self-help (and other creative nonfiction). Here the book subtitle has a bigger job. It’s to do the heavy-lifting. Because the industry largely gravitates toward grabbing titles like Nurtureshock: Freakonomics, and Reality Is Broken, subtitles in this genre have real work to do. (The subtitles for these books are New Thinking About Children, A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, and Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, respectively.) They may explain the title, just like they do for memoirs, but there’s something more. A subtitle for a self-help book may nod to the book’s structure. For instance, No Excuses: Nine Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power indicates that the book is divided into nine distinct chapters to tell you something about women and power.
Key Takeaways for Book Subtitles
- The biggest mistake I see authors making where subtitling is concerned is having book subtitles that are long but not clever. They may speak to things that happen in the book rather than themes, or to random asides rather than the core ideas. Don't do this.
- Remember that your reader has no context for the intricacies of your story when they’re browsing in the bookstore or online.
- If you have a publisher, trust that they understand the industry and that they know what booksellers are expecting.
- If you know that online is your main or only sales vehicle, use keywords in your subtitle, but use them effectively. Read up on keywords, their purpose, and how to apply them appropriately in your book metadata, and run your ideas by people who have book experience and not just your friends.
- Clunky, heavy-handed subtitles carry the mark of an amateur.
- Getting your subtitle right is part of publishing a book that holds its own against traditionally published books.
- Study other books on the bookshelves at your local bookstore.
- And when in doubt, keep it simple.