How to Create Good Subtitles

A good title is imperative with any book. I once managed a bookstore, and I used to watch customers’ reactions to new books put out on the shelf. A reader’s interest needs to be captured within a few seconds, or it will flicker to the book next door. The ability to stop the reader is enhanced when you have a nonfiction book. That’s because you have two marketing tools: the title and the subtitle.

Your first consideration should be the size of the letters on the book’s cover. Because you want to maximize how large they are, you need to keep the title short. Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich consists of four short words. You can employ giant letters with that title. Steven R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is longer, but it still can command interest at a glance.

You want to add a subtitle when your short title does not convey enough of what the book is about. Take Bernard B. Kamoroff’s Small Time Operator. The title is catchy, but it also could be read as: no big deal. So the author added: Small Time Operator: How to Start Your Own Business, Keep Your Books, Pay Your Taxes, and Stay Out of Trouble. Now the book’s contents are clear: this is a book about operations in a small business.

That strategy can also help differentiate your books from others in the same field. For example, the category of leadership comprises hundreds of books, so how do you set yourself apart? For best-selling John C. Maxwell, the title Make Today Count did not explain enough about the type of advice he intended to give. So he added a subtitle: Make Today Count: The Secret of Your Success Is Determined by Your Daily Agenda. The same is true with Jay Conrad Levinson’s famous brand, Guerrilla Marketing. The subtitle defines the market: Guerrilla Marketing: Easy and Inexpensive Strategies for Making Big Profits from Your Small Business.

Even when you have a catchy title, you can emphasize its initial appeal by using the subtitle to hammer home the point. Timothy Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Workweek already has me interested. Who wouldn’t like an idea like that? Lest it seem too fanciful, though, he added a subtitle: The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich. Now a consumer really has to read the copy on the back cover of that book. My hand reaches out, grabs the book—and the first step toward a purchase is made.

Exercise: Use a subtitle to delineate your niche in your chosen market. Draw up a list of 1-3 most important selling points about your book. What really makes your book stand out? What have you not read in other similar books? Define the point in a phrase, string together a few phrases—and there’s your subtitle.

“Determine who you are and what your brand is, and what you're not. The rest of it is just a lot of noise.”
—Geoffrey Zakarian

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine

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