How many words can you fit in a subtitle? For a slew of modern books, the answer seems to be as many as possible. Just look at Julie Holland’s “Moody Bitches: The Truth About the Drugs You’re Taking, the Sleep You’re Missing, the Sex You’re Not Having, and What’s Really Making You Crazy,” Erin McHugh’s “Political Suicide: Missteps, Peccadilloes, Bad Calls, Backroom Hijinx, Sordid Pasts, Rotten Breaks, and Just Plain Dumb Mistakes in the Annals of American Politics” and Ryan Grim’s “We’ve Got People: From Jesse Jackson to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement.”
Blame a one-word culprit: search. Todd Stocke, senior vice president and editorial director at Sourcebooks, said that subtitle length and content have a lot to do with finding readers through online searches. “It used to be that you could solve merchandising communication on the cover by adding a tagline, blurb or bulleted list,” he said. But now, publishers “pack the keywords and search terms into the subtitle field because in theory that’ll help the book surface more easily.”
He should know. Sourcebooks will publish Shafia Zaloom’s “Sex, Teens, and Everything in Between: The New and Necessary Conversations Today’s Teenagers Need to Have about Consent, Sexual Harassment, Healthy Relationships, Love, and More” in September.
Amazon allows up to 199 characters for a book’s title and subtitle combined, making the word combination possibilities, if not endless, vast. Anne Bogel, host of the podcast “What Should I Read Next?,” is not generally a fan of the trend. “I don’t feel respected as a reader when I feel like the subtitle was created not to give me a feeling of what kind of reading experience I may get, but for search engines,” she said. When Bogel asked author friends how they came up with their subtitles, several told her they can’t even remember which words they ended up using.
That being said, sometimes titular long-windedness works. Bogel cites Julian Rubinstein’s “Ballad of the Whiskey Robber: A True Story of Bank Heists, Ice Hockey, Transylvanian Pelt Smuggling, Moonlighting Detectives, and Broken Hearts” as a winning formula. “When I see a subtitle like that, I’m intrigued,” she said. “I think, how could all those things possibly go together? It makes me want to pick up the book or click on the link and find out more.”
Deciding on subtitles is often more old school than algorithm-based. McHugh’s book was published in 2016 ahead of the presidential election, and she wanted her cover to stand out in a crowded market. “When you look at the subtitle, right away it tells you this book is going to be a little wacky. It’s not going to be about the president, Congress or the electoral college,” she explained. McHugh likens the subtitle to a news headline. “I’m trying to give everybody as much information as I can in a short amount of time.”
Silvana Paternostro, author of “Solitude & Company: The Life of Gabriel García Márquez Told with Help from His Friends, Family, Fans, Arguers, Fellow Pranksters, Drunks, and a Few Respectable Souls,” calls her subtitle “more of a multilayered joke than a marketing ploy.” Although hers is an oral history, she didn’t want to use that term because it has “connotations of dullness.” Instead, it’s a “wink at all those people who had been so generous with me with their stories. There’s a bit of inside baseball for the Gabologists, because some of the words in the subtitle are those he used in his fiction to describe these people. I used ‘drunks’ because I wanted to make sure readers understood they were entering a fun rowdy party.”
Karen Rinaldi’s self-help book “It’s Great to Suck at Something: The Unexpected Joy of Wiping Out and What It Can Teach Us About Patience, Resilience, and the Stuff that Really Matters” started out with a shorter subtitle: “The Exceptional Benefits of Being Unexceptional.” But when the original was presented to booksellers, “the cover wasn’t resonating,” said Sarah Pelz, executive editor of Atria Books/Simon & Schuster.
Pelz said the final wordy subtitle was chosen to try to convey to readers: “We know, sucking at something sounds a little crazy. But trust us: Here are all the great things that can come from sucking. It’s meant to be an invitation.” Pelz explained that although the general trend today is for shorter copy on book covers, there’s no magic formula. “This is when publishing is more art than science. Some books demand the clever and quick subtitle, and then there are books like this one, that resist the pithy, benefits-oriented subtitle and yearn for a subtitle that tells a story.”
W. Kamau Bell came up with the subtitle for his memoir, “The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell,” although he can’t recite it from memory. (That’s understandable. It’s: “Tales of a 6’4”, African American, Heterosexual, Cisgender, Left-Leaning, Asthmatic, Black and Proud Blerd, Mama’s Boy, Dad, and Stand-Up Comedian.”) “I subscribe to the Fiona Apple school of titles,” Bell said. “I wanted people to know exactly what they were getting into. More than that, I wanted people to know if it wasn’t for them, too. Maybe I did that too well since it wasn’t a bestseller.”
The original title was “much, much longer,” and in winnowing it down, he admits he made one key error. “At a book release event, Roxane Gay asked me why I didn’t have ‘husband’ in the title,” he said. “I felt emotionally pantsed in that moment. I didn’t have a great answer other than to stare at my shoes.”
Rachel Kramer Bussel is a freelance writer specializing in books, pop culture and relationships.
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