8 tips to writing a killer subtitle for your book.

One of the things people tell me often about my book Start is that they like the subtitle. If you haven’t seen it before, the subtitle is, “Punch fear in the face, escape average and do work that matters.”

How did we come up with it? How do you create your own subtitle for a non-fiction book you’re writing? How do you avoid the common mistakes that can hurt this process?

Here are 8 tips to writing a killer subtitle:

1. Never write a “rescue subtitle.”
The best subtitle will never be able to rescue a bad title. Never ask your subtitle to carry the burden of fixing or saving the title. Don’t be lazy. Subtitles are often easier to write than titles, but don’t skip dinner just to get to dessert. Add an amazing subtitle to an already amazing title.

2. Get the rhythm right.
Initially I wanted the subtitle for Start to be, “Escape average, do work that matters and punch fear in the face.” I felt like having the fear part last added some emphasis to the point. I was dead wrong. You know who fixed it? Dave Ramsey. He pointed out that the rhythm was backwards. He said that the first thing you have to do in life is punch fear, not the last thing. His simple switch changed the entire flow of the subtitle in a great way.

3. Speak to your audience.
Often your audience is trying to quickly scan your book and decide it’s not for them. In the subtitle you have a single moment to convince them that this is the best book in the airport for them to buy. Do that by directly speaking to their needs. For instance, I helped a friend with his subtitle for his business book by speaking to the profit his book would help companies increase. Previously we’d both missed the need to speak to that direct issue which businesses are interested in.

4. Flip it upside down if it helps.
If you look at the cover of Start, you will notice that the subtitle comes before title. We did this on purpose because we felt like “Start.” was the perfect punctuation to the promise of the subtitle. We even added a period to make that point clearer. A guy named Preston Cannon pointed this out and it was a great call on his part.

5. Don’t use a subtitle you don’t want to talk about.
If you ever get to do media about your book, one of the biggest things they will talk about is your subtitle. They will ask you direct questions like, “What do you mean by punch fear in the face?” Make sure you are comfortable with talking about those ideas or words for a long time.

6. Study other people.
You’re not the first person ever writing a subtitle. Research other people in your space and see how they did it. If you look at books by Chris Guillebeau, Tim Ferriss and Michael Hyatt, you can definitely see they influenced my subtitle.

7. Exhibit progression.
Depending on the type of book you write, it can be good to show a sense of progression in your subtitle. What’s the promise of where you will take me if I read this book? That’s why the subtitle of my book Quitter was, “Closing the gap between your day job & your dream job.” There was a clear sense of the before and after this book offered. A guy named Brent Cole came up with that subtitle.

8. Be willing to go without.
Although a subtitle usually amplifies a title, there will be some cases where you don’t need one. For my first book, that was the case. We spent weeks on it before realizing there wasn’t a need at all for one.

An 8-point list feels like it is woefully missing two points, but I didn’t want to fake two more points just to get to 10.

If you’re a writer, what tips would you add to this list about subtitles?

30 Comments
  • Matthew Grant McDaniel
    Posted at 14:03h, 23 October Reply

    I appreciate how you imported the same amount of punch (pun intended) in these points as you have with your subtitles. I know how hard it is to work, write, and rewrite to nail the wording and pace like that. Always a treat to read you, Jon.

    Given the topic, would you say this comment space is a safe place to throw out a book title/subtitle idea to determine potential lameness?

  • Laura Vanderkam
    Posted at 14:29h, 23 October Reply

    The subtitle should definitely give you a clear benefit statement. Why should you read this book? What is it going to do for you? You don’t want to make it too long, though, if you want people to use it in articles/interviews about the book. If it’s too long, they’ll just use the title — and if the title is more abstract, people will go “huh?”

  • Christiana
    Posted at 14:33h, 23 October Reply

    Thanks for shedding light on something that I never really thought about.

  • Mark Palfreeman
    Posted at 14:42h, 23 October Reply

    9. Be a help, not a hindrance
    You’ve seen the trends—books, services, and products are drifting more and more interactive, selfless, and help-y . The public sniffs through arrogance and falsehood faster than ever before, so only publish something that’s a help to them (not a promotion of yourself).

    You could say “I’m the best at this topic,” or you could write about a topic in the best way, trusting that we are discerning readers and will tell our friends if we think you’re the best.

  • Stephen Wilkinson-Gruber
    Posted at 14:52h, 23 October Reply

    I think it would be fun to imagine some classic fiction titles with subtitles:

    “Goodnight Moon: In Which an Inventory of a Bedroom’s Contents is Taken”

    “The Tale of Peter Rabbit: A Story of Disobedience and Gluttony by the Habersasher’s Best Customer”

    • Stephen Wilkinson-Gruber
      Posted at 14:54h, 23 October Reply

      ^ Haberdasher’s

    • Sarah Hubbell
      Posted at 15:07h, 23 October Reply

      This gave me a good laugh 🙂

      • Stephen Wilkinson-Gruber
        Posted at 16:08h, 23 October Reply

        Thanks, Sarah!

    • Tami
      Posted at 16:44h, 23 October Reply

      Yes!

    • Heather MacLaren Johnson
      Posted at 14:31h, 22 January Reply

      Very funny and creative!

  • Scott
    Posted at 14:55h, 23 October Reply

    Nice work giving credit to your creative collaborators. Such humility adds to your stellar reputation.

    • Laurel
      Posted at 13:19h, 26 October Reply

      Agreed!

  • Zac Bissonnette
    Posted at 14:57h, 23 October Reply

    In any list of three things, the third one has to be absurd. I think that comes from British common law or something.

  • LarryTheDeuce
    Posted at 15:53h, 23 October Reply

    The subtitle should be a sidekick to the hero title, unless of course it’s a teenager, which leads you to wonder why an adult is hanging out with a teenager fighting crime anyway.

  • Tami
    Posted at 16:44h, 23 October Reply

    Surprisingly, this post applies to me right now – not about a book subtitle, but about creating a tag line to follow my name for my voiceover website. I want it to say what people will experience when they hear my voice. My best friend described my voice as “Smartly reassuring, with joyful warmth – like a great cup of coffee and warm apple pie.” It’s a little long and not quite what I’m going for = but that’s the basic idea. I’m going to read this through a few more times and brainstorm some more. Thanks, Jon!

  • Daniel Kure
    Posted at 18:16h, 23 October Reply

    Tons of respect for the class shown Mr. Acuff in crediting Dave Ramsey on his contribution to the subtitle of the book “Start.” Especially when Ramsey is unloading the book from his reserves at rock bottom prices and very deliberately refuses to mention Jon Acuff by name on his radio show. Thanks for being a wonderful example.

  • Tor Constantino, MBA (@torcon)
    Posted at 19:23h, 23 October Reply

    But perfect love casts out all fear Jon – so REAL Christians shouldn’t have to punch fear in the face…btw, is it still okay to randomly Jesus Juke here at your new digs? As an aside, I regularly eat dessert before dinner – unless we’re having Chile con queso….(I’ll be glad when this skinny jeans fad ends and good ole’ “relaxed fit” is back in vogue).

  • Jim Woods
    Posted at 20:01h, 23 October Reply

    Love how you broke this down. I definitely tried to apply these principles as much as possible in my first book with Erik Fisher. I must say a killer graphic really helps too–like you did with the “Start switch” Jon.

  • Jesse McDermott
    Posted at 20:18h, 23 October Reply

    I think of subtitles as kind of like keywords in blogging. What “keywords” are going to get the “traffic”.

  • Jake
    Posted at 21:00h, 23 October Reply

    K.I.S.S. – Keep It Simple Stupid

  • Tim Wieneke
    Posted at 01:36h, 24 October Reply

    Great blog post!
    A man, a vague compliment, and the McDonalds he was eating while reading a blog.

  • Tami Fenton
    Posted at 03:41h, 24 October Reply

    I am completely changing my subtitle. You are so right! Thank you, Jon.

  • Ronnie Barnes
    Posted at 14:13h, 24 October Reply

    Great post. Appreciate the complex discussion of such topics in such an airy and accessible way.

  • Darren Sutton
    Posted at 14:15h, 24 October Reply

    #9: Ask Jon Acuff to write your subtitle.

  • Mike Loomis
    Posted at 14:51h, 24 October Reply

    Well said, Jon! I’m gonna use these for a title session tomorrow!

  • Jeff Goins
    Posted at 16:26h, 24 October Reply

    My thought has always been that a good subtitle helps define and focus a broader (but perhaps more sexy-sounding) title.

  • Daniel Tomlinson
    Posted at 18:14h, 24 October Reply

    “It takes a village” to write a subtitle. -Ron Burgundy

  • Trenton D. Leach
    Posted at 20:18h, 24 October Reply

    I still think the best subtitle for a book is James V. Schall’s book “Another Sort of Learning” which is subtitled: “Selected Contrary Essays on How Finally to Acquire an Education While Still in College or Anywhere Else: Containing Some Belated Advice about How to Employ Your Leisure Time When Ultimate Questions Remain Perplexing in Spite of Your Highest Earned Academic Degree, Together with Sundry Book Lists Nowhere Else in Captivity to Be Found”

    It’s also a great book.

  • Nick
    Posted at 05:31h, 26 October Reply

    I’ve been struggling with my subtitle… and whether I need one… for a while. Good stuff.

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