Here’s a secret that the best of the best New York Times bestselling authors know: a catchy title is good, but it’s the subtitle that can make or break your book.
Many self-published authors spend a lot of time coming up with—no, agonizing over—the perfect title. Then they gloss over the subtitle—if they add a subtitle at all.
Giving little or no thought to your subtitle is a great way to ensure that potential readers will swipe on by and not give your book a second glance.
Let’s change that by spending some time creating a subtitle that will attract readers to your book like bees to the most fragrant, juicy flower.
The Structure of a Subtitle
There are no hard-and-fast rules or formulas for writing a killer subtitle. However, a great subtitle generally has two or more of these characteristics:
- It speaks to a specific problem or pain point of the intended reader and offers a solution or transformation (mess to success).
- It uses the “Rule of 3” – e.g., three lessons, ideas, or phrases. (The human brain loves groupings of three.)
- It makes a promise to the reader.
- It’s written for the reader.
- It connects with the reader on an emotional level. (Emotions drive purchases.)
Success Leaves Clues
My business mentor frequently tells our mastermind group, “Success leaves clues.” In other words, look at what other successful people have done and find the thread that links them together. Or, you don’t have to re-invent the wheel.
Let’s look some of the subtitles of ten bestselling non-fiction books on all of Amazon this week (remember, these are just the subtitles) and see these characteristics in action:
Life Will Be the Death of Me
Discovering Your Life’s Direction and Purpose
A Shame-Free Plan for Embracing and Achieving Your Goals
Stop Believing the Lies About Who You Are so You Can Become Who You Were Meant to Be
30 Days, 30 Foods, a New You!
Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds
Achieving Solutions for Life, Work, and Beyond
An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones
A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life
Get Out of Your Head and into Your Life
Can you see how each subtitle has at least 2 or 3 of the general characteristics outlined above? Interesting, right? Note some of the common keywords that many of these successful subtitles have in common. Note how you know exactly what the promise is, what you’re going to learn, or how your life will be better.
Now, of course, not every successful book has a subtitle. Like Michelle Obama’s. But she’s Michelle Obama for heaven’s sake. Chances are, you are not Michelle Obama, and your book can use a subtitle to help sell it!
Even though the books on the bestseller list changes from week to week, and even day to day, there will always be clues in their subtitles for what is working. If I were putting a non-fiction book on the market today, I’d make sure it includes “life” or “living” in the subtitle.
You’ll have the opportunity to look at bestselling subtitles in your book’s category as part of the subtitle writing process.
5 Steps to Subtitle Success
Crafting the perfect subtitle is both challenging and fun! Seriously, it’s one of the most enjoyable things I do when working with author clients. I love the back and forth, the brainstorming. And then, suddenly, after a lot of drafts, we come up with the subtitle that just nails it. It’s a great feeling!
Ready to tackle your own subtitle? Here’s a 5-step process that can help you come up with the subtitle that will attract and resonate with your potential readers. I even created a worksheet that you can download and work through this process.
Step #1: Analyze what’s working.
Head over to Amazon and look at the top 10 books in your category. (The bestseller lists are here – drill down to your category using the menu in the left sidebar.) Write out the subtitles and circle any common words. Can you see a theme or pattern? While I’m not suggesting that you copy any other book title or subtitle, looking at the bestsellers in your category will give you an idea of what is resonating with readers.
Step #2: Brainstorm.
Write down the lessons, tips, or strategies that your readers will learn when they read your book. How will your book make their lives different or better? Are you taking them on a journey from a problem (mess) to solution (success)? What’s in it for them?
Be clear and specific. Don’t edit yourself on this step; write down everything that comes to mind.
Step #3: Pull out your keywords.
Make a list of your keywords. Your list should include at least 10 nouns and 10 verbs to get a good variety. Use a thesaurus if you get stuck. Be sure to include the common words from your bestseller analysis in step #1 and your brainstorming in step #2. (Tip: Keep track of your work on this week’s Insight Extra freebie, the Subtitle Worksheet.)
Step #4: Write out at least 20 subtitles.
Start writing phrases using your keywords. Mix and match your keywords and phrases to come up with at least 20 potential subtitles for your book. Don’t edit. Just write, and then write some more. Keep the common characteristics in mind as you do this:
- Problem — solution
- Rule of 3
- Makes a promise
- Written for the reader
- Makes an emotional connection
If you can think of more than 20 potential subtitles, great! Write them down. I learned this copywriting trick from Marie Forleo on a webinar—but she insists on at least 27 versions of whatever it is she and her team are brainstorming.
This step usually yields a “Eureka!” moment when all the tumblers fall into place and you’ve found the perfect combination that just feels right for your book.
Step #5: Get feedback.
Go through your list of 20. You’ll want to find the top 3 that fit one or more of the common characteristics, and ideally includes one of the common words found in your bestseller analysis.
Take your top 3 versions from and get some honest feedback. You can run them through the CoSchedule Headline Analyzer and see how they fare. (The higher the number, better.)
Then, ask specific people for their thoughts. Caution! Do not ask your partner, your close friends, or your family. They are too close to you to give you honest feedback. Try to find potential readers and ask them what book they’d be most likely to pick up.
If you have clients or customers who are your intended audience, send them a quick survey (try Survey Monkey or Google Forms).
If you’re in a mastermind group or a writer’s group, ask them.
If you’re in a Facebook group that relates to your business, or has a pool of potential readers, add a poll in there. If your book is about financial planning, for example, but you’re in Facebook book for crochet enthusiasts, they’re probably not your target audience (and they’d probably wonder why you’re asking for feedback on a subtitle). But if you’re in Facebook group for entrepreneurs or business growth strategies, then by all means, poll them.
Once you’ve gotten some feedback, see if a clear “winner” emerges. Chances are, if you’ve worked through the steps, one of the subtitles will resonate with your potential readers. There’s your subtitle!
With a little research and a little thought, writing a subtitle that sparks your reader’s interest isn’t so hard after all.
Before you go, be sure to claim your free copy of the Subtitle Worksheet to work through these steps. Good luck! And, if you enjoyed this content, please share it with others using the buttons below on your favorite social channel. Thanks!