Thoughts on subtitles

In Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, Ben Yagoda published an essay called “The Subtitle That Changed America.” In the piece, he bemoans the fact that subtitles have become so important to the marketing of a nonfiction book—in publishers’ eyes, anyway.

He says, “Elongated voguish subtitles are harmless enough, but I miss the time, not so long ago, when it was possible for a book to go out into the world with only a strong title followed by a few hundred pages of outstanding writing.”

I thought of my book and its subtitle and how all of the complaints I’ve heard about my book so far have centered around the subtitle: A Busy Woman’s Guide to Igniting the Writer Within.

Pen on Fire was the book’s title long before it sold to Harcourt. But the subtitle has gone through changes. I forget what it was when it sold—something about getting writing done in 15 minutes portions. But the marketing department worked on the subtitle for quite a while, hoping that it would help to draw certain readers, namely women.

I agreed to a great extent with Yagoda who says, “Nobody really notices subtitles. They are a sort of lottery ticket in the economics of nonfiction book marketing.”

Yet, when I began to hear the complaints—mostly from women who felt they couldn’t recommend the book to men because of the subtitle, I started to fret. I don’t want men to avoid the book because they think it’s a book for women.

I talked about this with Chris Baty, author of No Plot? No Problem! He said he was recommending my book all over the place, to men and women because the subtitle to him meant I was the busy woman and it was my guide. I love his take on it.

And so I’m curious: Do you pay attention to subtitles? How important are they? Did my subtitle put off–or attract–anyone, male or female?

8 Responses to:
Thoughts on subtitles

  1. Scone says:

    I may be a special case because I work on a magazine and have to be thinking about decks (which are nearly subtitles) all the time. But yes, the subtitle of your book did draw me in. I wasn’t sure what I needed or wanted in a writing book until I read “a busy woman’s guide to igniting the writer within”– then I wondered where this book had been all my life. I shared it with the busy women at my writers group… and I shared it with my husband, also a busy person aspiring to be a writer in about 15 minutes a day. He said the subtitle put him off when he eventually read it, but that wasn’t until he was already hooked on the book. I love your friend’s take on the subtitle; of course that’s what it is! I didn’t read it that way at first, though, for what it’s worth.

  2. I will have to say that the title “pen on fire” attracted me initially, but the subtitle also caught my eye and peaked my interest The way I view subtitles is that they seem to be somewhat of a sneak preview of what is in store for you inside. I also agree with your friend in your case the title could stand alone. Which ever way you look at it, the book is fantastic.

  3. Funny, just the other day I found your blog, went to your main website, saw that you had written a book for women writers and decided I need not read further. There are rafts of writing books out there. Yes, you want to stand out — but it’s possible to be to narrowly defined. If your book really isn’t just for women, I think it is a huge mistake to have that in the subtitle.

  4. Hmm, I happen to like subtitles, especially when they illuminate what a book is about. It never occurred to me–even with the subtitle that mentions women– that this book wouldn’t be for everyone. In fact, I use it in my UCLA writing classes–which are equally male and female, and the writers love it.


  5. Anonymous says:

    Yes – after careful consideration, I feel that student Jordan is correct. Blogging is the opium of the writer along with thumb twiddling and looking out the window. In the words of the late great Chief Joseph, “From this day I shall blog no more forever!”

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