Crafting Compelling Titles and Subtitles

Don’t judge a book by its cover.

Great advice for human interactions. Less useful for actual books.

Not only do we judge books by their covers, but when we read a book’s title we decide in an instant whether the book is for us or not.

As you’re crafting a title for your own book, keep in mind this general rule of thumb:

1. The title communicates the book’s “premise.”

2. The subtitle communicates the book’s “promise.”

Now that I’ve put it out there, I’m sure you’re scrolling through all your favorite titles that break this rule. Fine, be that way.

What can be learned from the thumb-rule, is that the best titles communicate to a distracted book browser something of what is inside the book.

The title lets the reader know the general premise of the book:

And the subtitle lets the reader know what the book promises they’ll get from it:

So as you craft your title, you want to be sure that the reader knows what the book is about (premise) and what’s in it for them (promise.)

Of course there will be those bestsellers that no one can account for, like Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz, but it’s more likely that you’ll serve your readers and your book if a reader who’s scrolling through titles on Amazon, or flipping through pages at Barnes & Noble, can know—in an instant—that your book is for her or him.

I learned this rule about titles and subtitles from my savvy friend Jonathan Merritt a few years ago…after I’d published a bunch of books.

Here are my titles (excluding collaborations/ghost writing). If the title is a win, credit goes to the publisher. If it’s a fail, probably mine. So judge me…

Which of my titles communicates what you’ll find inside and meets a need readers actually have? Too late to change ’em, so hit me with your best shot…

This post first appeared on Margot’s blog, Wordmelon

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Before You Release Your Words Into the World…

If you’re writing a book you hope to see published, your words must serve the reader.

  • Maybe it’s a memoir.
  • Maybe it’s self-help book.
  • Maybe it’s the story of a remarkable relationship.
  • Maybe it’s tips about gardening.

No matter what you are writing, it has to have value for the reader.

So before you send your proposal or manuscript to an agent or editor (or before you send it to me to review!) imagine that the agent/editor/publisher will be reading your words with one question in her heart: What’s in it for the reader?

Questions I want you to ask, of your proposal/manuscript, before you release your words into the wild…

  • What is the value, for the reader, in this book?
  • When she finishes the first chapter, does she want to keep reading?
  • When she’s really tired, is there a reason for her to keep turning pages?
  • Does every sentence, every page, every chapter serve the reader?
  • When she finishes, can she articulate the single important takeaway of the book?
  • When the reader sets this book down, has she gained something from it that she wants to share with a friend over coffee?
  • Does she want to buy a copy for her sister because the book had so much value?
  • ls she able to apply what she’s learned to her own life?

If the answer to some of these questions is either “no” or “I don’t know,” I want you to return to your word-baby and review it one more time through the spectacles of an agent or editor. Name the value–write it out–that the reader gleans from each chapter.

If you can’t identify the takeaway value for the reader–the “payoff” for purchasing your book–then work at it until you can.

Ultimately, “your” book is not about you. It’s about the reader.

Serve the reader.

This post first appeared on Margot’s blog, Wordmelon