The not so subtle subtitle


Yesterday I sat down with two clients and their editor for a pleasant meet-and-greet and to discuss their recently acquired work of nonfiction.  We talked about the editorial process, the production schedule, cover,  interior design and title.   The only hiccup arrived when we got to the subtitle. The suggested copy was, in the estimation of the authors, just a little over-the-top.  In particular, the subtitle seemed to intimate that the book’s contents would Change Its Readers Lives. Forever.

The authors wanted the offending lines replaced with something a little more modest, less hyperbolic—some phrase rendered in a tone more wry and recognizable. They offered to come up with some alternatives. The editor was amenable, and we all agreed to reconvene our discussion over e-mail, where we could bounce ideas off of one another. I don’t know about you, but I cannot properly consider a title or a subtitle until I see it written down, and I think best alone and in front of a keyboard.

I’ve been mulling over possibilities and I’ve yet to come up with the precisely-right phrase. Subtitles are tricky because they must 1) capture the content of the book and 2) convince a person to buy it.  I also I feel a bit conflicted.  The reader/consumer/book buyer in me knows better than to believe the overheated rhetoric of subtitles, but 15 years in the publishing business makes me wonder if we are quite ready to dispense with overstatement. More humble assertions like “this book will leave you largely unchanged, albeit with slightly less free time” well, there’s not much appeal in that. What do you say? Would you be as drawn to a book that promised to be only “mildly interesting” or “easy enough to read?”  Do you find subtitles off-putting or inviting?

Perhaps it’s just me, but I suspect that these breathless, over-earnest subtitle pledges, calculated as they are, also speak to the secret wish of every reader.  The desire to find that magic book—the one that does blow our minds, change our lives, the story, true or imagined, that affects us in some powerful, primal way.

7 Responses to The not so subtle subtitle

  1. RyeGuy says:

    What on earth are you talking about? Is this fiction? What is the genre? The tone? Is it nonfiction? What topic or field does it address? Is it for a professional or a general audience? Honestly, this strikes me like a vague facebook post about a terrible thing that’s happened, but don’t ask what it is because I don’t want to talk about it. Anyway, good look with your subtitle problem.

  2. Kellie Lovegrove says:

    Overall, I don’t tend to care for subtitles too much. I usually skip them because, most of the time, I find them to be a form of false advertising. Just because something was the perfect answer for the author does not mean it will be for everyone. Hence the reason the whole “This book will change your life forever” is my least favorite of all. Of course my life is going to change, but not necessarily because I read the book. Our lives are forever changing though the people we meet and the things that we accomplish everyday. Just waking up in the morning holds the potential for great change, good or bad.

    I may be in the minority, but I am more of a “read the back of the book” kind of selector. That includes fiction as well as nonfiction, especially in regards to self-help (which is what your authors’ book sounds like). I can understand how coming up with an appropriate subtitle, without being over the top, could be difficult. I can also see your point about using over the top subtitles to appeal to the audience. Best of luck finding the happy medium. I do not envy you the headache I can foresee it causing.

  3. ryan field says:

    I tend to be subtle with ALL titles. Thankfully, my publisher isn’t, and they tend to go overboard, and I am so thankful they do. I learned to sit back and let them do what they do best.

  4. Emily Carter says:

    I always pick up the books with the wild — over the top PR on the cover.

    But I almost always put them back down because a brief look inside tells me that the cover PR is hype.

    However, I do pick up the book.

    So, in the mad scramble to sell books, my guess is that having a volume in a buyer’s hand is better than not.

    I vote OVER THE TOP

    Discriminating buyers know its hype, others may not know but in all likelihood, if they buy the book, they will benefit from the contents.

    Shouldn’t the cover serve as a kind of sales brochure?? Shouldn’t it say “buy me and your life will be better” ??

    I am obsessed with nutrition [as an example] and I buy new books that promise good health based on scientific evidence. In fact, I buy so many of them that I end up clearing the shelves by reselling them to Half-Price Books. But I still keep buying because the researchers still keep making refinements to their past work. Yes, I am healthy — all the moving parts are in good shape. But I do work at it constantly — meal by meal, treadmill by hiking trail, book by book.

    So, if the book in question promises health and long life on the cover, I will pick it up and I may buy it.

    I am strongly in favor of good cover art and strong [market tested] PR blurbs on the cover — as sub-titles or splash teaser line.

  5. Emily Carter says:


    “In fact, I buy so many of them that I end up clearing the shelves by reselling them to Half-Price Books.”

    The shelves I clear out are my kitchen book shelves at home — it gives me more room for new books and the info in older books gets updated.

  6. Siri Kirpal Kaur Khalsa says:

    For fiction, I vote no subtitle at all. For memoir, something simple, like “A True Story” or “What I Saw in Katmandu.” For practical non-fiction, a subtitle that tells me more about what’s inside than the title does or that expands the point of view underlying the title. I won’t not-buy a book with a hyperbolic subtitle if I know I need or want it, but it sure won’t entice me if I’m on the fence.

  7. D.C. DaCosta says:

    My background is in marketing. I know “spin” when I see and, and as a result I am very cautious when I see a too-obvious attempt at it.
    I like Siri’s comment about fiction vs: non-fiction, but I don’t think one can make too firm a rule.
    On the other hand, if your title is the right one, do you need a subtitle at all?

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