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The Structure of a Book Title

This lesson is a part of an audio course Brainstorming a Better Book Title by Marcia Yudkin

When I taught a course on Kindle publishing, I discovered that some people weren't clear on the components of a book title, so let me quickly run through this for you.

A book title has three components, one of which is mandatory and the other two of which are optional. Here they are:

  1. The title (or main title).

  2. The subtitle.

  3. The series name or series title.

The title or main title is mandatory, and the other two elements are optional.

Here is an example of a book that has all three components. The title here is Strategic Marketing. The subtitle is Insights on Setting Smart Directions for Your Business. The name of the series, which appears in the upper left corner of the cover, is Marketing Insight Guides. There are five books in this series. Most books are not in a series.

Very often, books that are in a series have only the series name and book title, no subtitle, as with Ken Jennings' Junior Genius Guides, where two books in the series are Outer Space and Maps and Geography.

Sometimes, as with the Dummies guides, the series name is worked into the book title. You see the series name and the book title simultaneously, but to put a fine point on it, there's actually only one title element, the main title. For example, Medicare for Dummies and Geocaching for Dummies.

Career Press also has a series where the name of the series, 151 Quick Ideas to..., is worked into the book title. Here are two examples, 151 Quick Ideas to Motivate Your Sales Force and 151 Quick Ideas to Improve Your People Skills.

With fiction, the series name can be even more buried, so that it's not even a matter of repeated words but simply a word pattern. Consider Sue Grafton's A is for Alibi, B is for Burglar, C is for Corpse, etc., series. We'll talk much more about names for the book series in a later lesson.

If your book is not part of a series, then you have two parts of a title to work with, the main title and the subtitle. For nonfiction, a very common pattern is for the title to be arresting, intriguing or evocative, while the subtitle makes the topic and focus or point of view of the book perfectly clear.

For instance, Invisibles as a title could be about microbiology, spycraft, or science fiction. The subtitle, The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion, makes it clear that it's a business book about the unsung heroes of the work world. Likewise, Team of Rivals seems like it might be about sports. But the subtitle, The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, lets you know it is a political biography and an analysis of the sixteenth president of the United States.

In fiction, most books have merely a title and the clarifying tag "A Novel" in the subtitle position. Without that, wouldn't you think that a book called History was a treatise on, well, history? Occasionally we see the phrase "A novel of..." as a subtitle, usually followed by a geographical or historical term, as in A Distant Enemy: A Novel of Alaska or Watermark: A Novel of the Middle Ages.

And then we come to books that have only a title and no subtitle. In some cases, the main title is so specific that there's no real need for a subtitle. The 48 Laws of Power, for instance, says it all. Ditto for John Adams, by David McCullough, straightforward biography of the second president of the United States.

Sometimes, though, you have to wonder why the author and/or publisher didn't take advantage of the extra space and billboarding available via the subtitle to attract the right readers. After all, if a quick glance at the title and cover design at a bookshop or library doesn't say what the book is about, you may have lost a potential reader forever. In addition, as we'll discuss in an upcoming lesson, the subtitle gives you extra space for relevant keywords that can help a book come up when someone is looking online for a book like it and doesn't have a specific title in mind.

For example, here is a book called simply Thunderstruck. From the title and the cover design, I would guess it is a disaster book about a ship that was struck by lightning. The author has a number of bestsellers under his belt, so quite likely, there's a bit of arrogance operating that his name, Erik Larson, would clue people in that it is some kind of fact-based historical drama. It involves Marconi, the inventor of the radio, but as far as I can tell from the book description (I haven't read the book), there is no disaster involved and no lightning.

Here is another example from my current "to read" book pile: Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert. There's no subtitle, so if you happened to spot the book on a bookstore table or on the New Books shelf at the library, you probably wouldn't know what it is about. The cover art of an overturned bowl of cherries doesn't help. I get it – life isn't a bowl of cherries. But is the book a memoir with that as the moral or a self-help book about how to become happier? Actually, it is neither. It's a tour of research on cognitive psychology – what studies show about what makes us happy. A subtitle would have helped to settle the book's genre.

To summarize, your book title will have one, two, or three parts. One is the name of the series the book belongs to, if it is part of a series. Two is the title or main title. Every book has that. Three is the subtitle, and not all books have a subtitle.

Let's go on now in the next lesson to the question of whether book titles need to be unique and whether you could keep someone else from using your book title.

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Written by

Marcia Yudkin