Subtitles: When Are They Needed?

What is a subtitle? According to Merriam-Webster, a subtitle is a secondary or explanatory title. You might recognize them as coming after a colon or appearing in smaller text after the main title of a book. You might have also noticed that they are common in nonfiction but hardly ever used in fiction at all. Why is that?

As Molly Blaisdell puts it, “Sometimes a title isn’t enough to draw in readers.” Subtitles give an extra bit of information to help readers determine whether a book will interest them; they can act as the hook that convinces the reader to buy the book after the title catches their attention. A good subtitle can “expand, explain, and entice” readers. Whereas readers expect a bit of mystery when it comes to fiction titles, they need more information from nonfiction titles to help them understand the book.

An example of this can be seen in one of Ooligan’s own books, Elephant Speak: A Devoted Keeper’s Life Among the Herd. Without the subtitle, we are left with “Elephant Speak,” and we miss out on the key information that this is a nonfiction work about a zookeeper’s experience with these animals. These two words immediately lead us to believe it is a fiction title—it is the subtitle that clues us in that this is nonfiction and tells us what the story is really about.

This is really important information for authors. Because a title is part of the enticement to read a manuscript, an author must be able to title their work in a way that will allow it to reach many members of the desired audience. This is crucial when submitting your manuscript to different publishers.

So the next time you are choosing your next nonfiction title, take notice of the subtitles and how they are used to clue you in on the book’s content. And if you are stuck on what to name your nonfiction title, consider adding a subtitle to entice your readers!

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