On The Question of Subtitles For Books (Not The Translating Kind)

Editors, agents, publishers, beta readers, and occasionally random people off the Internet can give you some insights on your work. Sometimes, they can give really good insights into your work. It turns out that I got one of those insights last week.

Not to go into too many details, but I’ve mentioned more than once that I’ve started working with a publisher this year, and that process has been ongoing, but one I hope to finish this year.

To set up this story, let me state that I’m a big fan of titles and the stories behind how people come up with them. For example, one of these was how the film The Evil Dead got its name not from Sam Raimi but from an imaginative distributor.

I thought that I put a lot of thought into the titles of my recent books that I am working on.

  • The Holy Fool – a reference to the truth-telling figure in Russian-European mythology who is seen as crazy but is able to reveal truths not acceptable from other sources. It’s a good metaphor, right?
  • The American Nine – a reference to the “Nine” position in association football (soccer), also known as the center forward. Since my MC in that book is American and he plays that position in soccer, that would make sense, right?

However, one of those that is helping to put my book together made an observation to me (I’ll paraphrase it here) that would seem to be obvious in hindsight, but not so much to me at first: you want your prospective reader to have an idea of what your book is about from the title on the cover.

But how do you do that without losing those cool metaphorical titles? The solution I was presented with – and I thought it was a great idea – was using subtitles.

When I write about subtitles, I am not referring to the yellow or white words that appear at the bottom of film screens when someone is speaking in a foreign language. I’m talking about the secondary titles on the covers of books that usually get left off when you are referring to them, but they are officially part of the title of the book.

The more that I’ve thought about it, the more I like how subtitles can give important, quick context to the book that you are writing, while still being able to keep the lyrical tone (or whatever tone you’d like to adapt) of your main title. I was looking through some of my own books to see if I could find some good examples for you. Here’s a few that caught my interest:

  • Title: Catch a Fire
    • Subtitle: The Life of Bob Marley
  • Title: Under the Banner of Heaven
    • Subtitle: A Story of Violent Faith
  • Title: Guns, Germs, and Steel
    • Subtitle: The Fates of Human Societies
  • Title: Breaking Free
    • Subtitle: How I Escaped Polygamy, the FLDS Cult, and My Father, Warren Jeffs
  • Title: Badass
    • Subtitle: A Relentless Onslaught Of The Toughest Warlords, Vikings, Samurai, Pirates, Gunfighters, And Military Commanders To Ever Live
  • Title: Soccernomics
    • Subtitle: Why England Loses, Why Spain, Germany, and Brazil Win, And Why The US, Japan, Australia, Turkey – And Even Iraq – Are Destined To Become The Kings Of The World’s Most Popular Sport

Now, you probably wouldn’t need something as big as the last two subtitles in that list for your book, but do you see how it works? You get a good idea of what you are going to get between the pages before you open it up to see the dust jacket comments or click on that Amazon or Barnes & Noble link. And in an era where more readers are clicking rather than grabbing to get a look at what you have to read, that is often the difference between getting someone to look at what you have to write and having them pass you by.

So, the result was that I passed along 10 possible subtitles to my publisher, and I decided to tack one on to my work in progress. It was a good lesson moving forward, and I hope this might give you some ideas for your own titles – or subtitles, as the case might be.

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