How Searchable are Your Book’s Title and Subtitle?

by | Sep 13, 2013

by K.M. Weiland (@KMWeiland)

Often it seems like the titles of nonfiction books are almost an afterthought on the part of the author. Say what’s in the book—what else is there? But titles and subtitles are especially powerful elements in your book’s discoverability online. Author and blogger K.M. Weiland offers us some guidance on how to make the most of this opportunity. Here’s her report.

Who are we kidding? Readers do judge books—particularly non-fiction books—based on their titles. The book’s title, subtitle, and cover are our first (and, often, only) chances to hook readers’ attention. Readers look at the cover or read the title, make a snap decision, and they’re either hooked like a mackerel—or they are outta there.

Just as importantly, titles and subtitles are becoming increasingly important in the shadow world of metadata and SEO. The words we choose for our titles have to be more than just catchy sound bites. They have to be stocked with viable keywords that will help online retailers’ search engines guide readers to our books.

How the Right Title Can Make Your Book a Perennial Top Seller on Amazon

Back in 2011, I independently published my first non-fiction book Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success. I already had a nice little platform via my site Helping Writers Become Authors, but nothing astronomical. I wrote and published the book based on my own passion for the subject and my blog readers’ desire for more information on the subject.

To be entirely honest, I didn’t expect the book to do all that well. Outlining is pretty nichey (or so I thought at the time). Certainly, I figured, I’d sell more books and make more money if I wrote something for a broader audience. In fact, since the book does deal with much more than just outlining, I was actually encouraged by several people to change the title, to try to hook in people who weren’t strictly interested in outlining.

But then the book came out, hit the top of the Writing Skills category in Amazon’s Kindle store, held it for 12 months solid, and even still remains in the top 5.

How the heck did that happen?

Many factors are at play here, but if I had to credit the book’s success to just one thing, that one thing would be its title.

What Makes a Good Non-Fiction Title?

What’s so great about my title? It’s not clever. It’s pretty boring, actually. It states the book’s subject and nothing else. Kind of like making a Star Trek movie and titling it Guys (and Girl) Who Fight in Space.

Snore. Or is it?

Here’s the thing about my boring, on-point title: its very specificity is what helps readers find it. All of the primary keywords are in the title. If someone wants a book on outlining a novel, what are they most likely to type into the search engine? I’m going to go out on a limb here and say, Hmm, “outlining your novel.” And, when they type that in, guess what pops up at the top of the results?

Structuring Your NovelSometimes less clever is more clever. Whenever possible, we’re going to want to choose a title that speaks for itself. Does it tell readers what the book is about? Is it searchable? Does it include the keywords readers will be typing into Amazon’s search box when looking for such a book?

What makes a good subtitle?

At the end of the day, the guidelines for a good subtitle are no different from those for a good title. The true beauty of the subtitle is that it gives us that many more keywords to play around with.

This is something I feel I could have done better when subtitling Outlining. The subtitle Map Your Way to Success adds a little cleverness to the overall title and reflects upon the “roadmap” metaphor used throughout the book. But it doesn’t really help me in the keywords department.

That’s why, when I wrote my follow-up book Structuring Your Novel (straightforward again!), I consciously selected a subtitle that allowed me to not just clarify the subject, but to pack in a few more tasty keywords. After much thought, I chose Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story.

Put the title and subtitle together, and we’ve not only got the important key phrase “structuring your novel,” but also the important words “novel,” “writing,” and “story”—all of which are given that much more weight by being included in the title and subtitle, rather than just the metadata.

Together, your title and subtitle have the potential to be one of your most powerful marketing tools. Take the time to brainstorm not just obvious or catchy titles—but those that will give you the most bang for your buck when your readers start running those searches.

self-publishingK.M. Weiland is the author of the epic fantasy Dreamlander, the historical western A Man Called Outlaw and the medieval epic Behold the Dawn. She enjoys mentoring other authors through her website Helping Writers Become Authors, her books Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel, and her instructional CD Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration. She makes her home in western Nebraska.

Photo: Amazon links contain my affiliate code.

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  1. Natalie Shannon

    I am working on a vampire novel. I was upset because I had trouble finding a “unique” title. I had a working title called “Bloodlines” or “Blood Ties” or “Blood Life” I decided to do a search on to see if my title was like other vampire novel titles. I found that almost every title had the similar or exact words as my title.

    After reading your article, I decided that having similar titles to other vampire novels was actually helpful. I want my target audience to be those who read this type of novel. Having a “unique” vague title that made it difficult for vampire novel readers hard to find would hurt me. What better searchable keywords for a vampire novel than “blood”

  2. Evan Donald

    Indeed, Titles and Subtitles play an important role in online writing, or else you can’t gather any audience. In today’s era, Internet has been the primary source of information, thus most of the non-fiction books should have at least an online copy for their material. When it comes to authorship and writing informative articles online, titles and subtitles help push what the article is all about like incorporating with core keywords, so that search engines could find your articles and include them on their search pages, so that readers could find as well. Online articles are really different from those books published offline. With online, authors need to be careful and sensitive to what their readers actually want.

    • KM Weiland

      It’s a whole new world ever since the Internet took over. Nowadays searchability is king.

  3. Michael W. Perry

    Wow, tons of helpful advice. Here are some more.

    * When you’re stymied, ask friends for suggestions. I was stuck on just the right word for describing what my other children’s hospital book was about, a term that required an understanding of teen girls. I asked a friend who teaches writing at college. She hit on the perfect word, embarrassment, hence: Hospital Gowns and Other Embarrassments: A Teen Girl’s Guide to Hospitals.

    Teen girls, she told me, are obsessed with embarrassment, so it’s just the right word for them. And the tie to those embarrassing hospital gowns was so adept, it was worth making the title a bit longer.

    if you find the book online, you’ll see that the combination of “Gowns” and “Embarrassment” then led me to the perfect cover. It helps if your cover and title have the same vivid message. I’ve seen too many books whose cover, while pretty, says nothing about the book.

    * If you find the perfect picture but groan at what the stock photography outlet is charging, visit other stock photo services and look for it there. The one where I first found that Gowns cover wanted over $100, I found it elsewhere for just $13. Some services are pricey. Some are cheap, but often have some of the same photos. I’ve had good luck with and The prices have been so good, I’ve been able to add marvelous pictures at the start of every chapter for my hospital series.

    Just be advised that almost all of the stock photo outlets want to lock you in as a customer by selling photos by credits in an account rather than money paid on purchase. You buy the credits and then use them to buy the photos. The good news is that those credits are sometimes on sale and are almost always discounted when you buy a large amount. So find the photos you need and then calculate how many credits you’ll need. Also take care that the rights you are purchasing are the rights you need for a book cover or interior.

    In my case, the terms were such that I could use those photos in the interiors of both books, saving even more money. A rep told me that I’d only need a pricer contract if I sold over 250,000 copies of the books. I told her that if the books sold that well, I’d be quite delighted to upgrade that contract.

    * If the book is part of a series, particularly a fiction series, consider putting that in the subtitle, i.e. “The Third in the Hornblower Series.” Online retailers are getting better at tagging books in a series (and doing so a new feature for Smashwords authors), but having that information in the full title will follow it everywhere.

    * As others have mentioned, try to make that title as unique as possible. That’s one argument for not using a common cliche. And never, never give a book the same name as a rock group or a popular technology (i.e. iPhone). The Google hits for such terms are enormous, that your title will be so far down the list they’ll never find it.

    * If you decide to write under a pen name, take similar care to be distinctive. That’s why I’ve always envied J. R. R. Tolkien and G. K. Chesterton. Both have names that are easy to spell but so uncommon that they’re not competing with a hundred other authors with the same name.

    Search Amazon of “Perry” and you find a host of them, including two popular women’s writers. Giving my full name doesn’t always help either. Amazon’s search includes any author list with all the words entered, even if they are part of different co-authors. Search for my full name there, and four of my books will show up but the first is fourth.

    So if you’re considering a pen name, check it out on Amazon and see what sorts of search results appear. You probably don’t want a name like a prolific and popular author.

    * Be sure at add keywords to your book if a retailer permits that. One reason I publish directly to Amazon and Apple is that gives me a chance to insert keywords into their subject search database. Some, particularly Amazon, let any page visitor do that too, so it’s never too late to add them to your books.

    * After your book is out, test how well your ideas worked to prepare for the next book. For My Nights with Leukemia: Caring for Children with Cancer, an advanced Amazon search with “leukemia children” places it at the top of the list when entered as the title and on the first page when entered as the subject. That first page placement for the most likely search terms is what you want.

    * Finally, encourage people to review your book. Most people are shy about their opinions, so getting those first few reviews is the hard part. In my case, if anyone’s bought or even taken a look at the samples of my hospital books, I’d be delighted for reviews.

    –Mike Perry, Auburn, Alabama

    • K.M. Weiland

      Lots of great stuff here, Mike!

  4. Katie Cross

    I don’t deal with non-fiction, but think that a lot of these rules still apply to the fiction genre. Good for you on your success with your book!

    • K.M. Weiland

      Definitely still apply. Fiction can be more difficult to title from a keywords perspective, since it’s much more artsy and catchy and less concerned with subject matter. But we can still take full advantage of these guidelines (even to the point of adding creative subtitles).

  5. Michael W. Perry

    Here are my suggestions based on almost 14 years of wrestling with these issues:

    For the title, keep it short and memorable, three or four words at most. Short, so the type can be large, displayed on no more than two lines, and on a website the cover is readable. Memorable, so people remember it until they find it to buy and can tell friends about it. Catch phrases and cliches are OK here.

    For the subtitle, be clear about what the book is about. Sometimes that title plus subtitle is all they will be told. This is the place where you’ll want to include important keywords. Search engines often give priority to words in titles/subtitles over descriptions.

    For the cover, don’t make it an afterthought. I’ve harmed good books with lousy covers, so I’m trying to learn. For my most recent titles, I used stock photo services and spent hours finding just the right picture. Hundreds of photos in, you may begin to doubt you’ll find the perfect one, but keep at it. You will.

    Here’s how my latest book stands up:

    Title: My Nights with Leukemia. The “My” makes clear it’s a personal story. The “Nights” adds mystery, as does the “with Leukemia.” Is this a book about when I had leukemia or something else?

    Subtitle: Caring for Children with Cancer. That makes clear what the book is about, hitting all the right keywords, caring, children and cancer. It still doesn’t explain what I did for such children. For that they must read the description.

    In the description I explain that the book is about when I worked night shift on the Hematology-Oncology unit of a top children’s hospital as part of a nursing staff. Leukemia is the most common childhood cancer. Those kids were my patients.

    Now for the cover. Find my book on an almost any online store and you’ll find a most powerful picture–pretty little girl made up to look like a bunny. For the print edition, the back cover is that same girl after she’d gotten chemotherapy for leukemia. She’s pale, with only a few wisps of hair.

    That, I explain in my description is why, when I first began work at the hospital, Hem-Onc was the last place I wanted to work. Children with leukemia typically don’t look sick when first diagnosed. It’s the treatment that leaves them looking like survivors of some dreadful concentration camp. Who’d want to be a party to that? Not me.

    And yet, when I went on night shift and discovered that Hem-Onc was my permanent assignment, I found I wanted to work with those kids to the exclusion of all else. The book explains why that was so and what that work and those kids taught me. It also makes telling observations about medicine, nursing, hospitals and dying children.

    I wrote the book primarily for nurses and nursing students, but there is much there for anyone who cares about the meaning of life. Here’s an observation that long troubled me and that matters so much, I included it in the book’s description:

    “Binky’s kindness to us illustrates something that took me many years to understand. Why did some children, despite all their pain and suffering, show so much thoughtfulness to those around them? They didn’t have to do that. Everyone would have understood if they’d been grumpy or even exploded in anger. Time after time, these children would thank me for doing some little thing, and I’d have to restrain myself from saying, “Oh, that’s nothing. They pay me to do this.” Only after much thought did I realize what I had been seeing—something very special.

    “Imagine for a moment that you’re a child with an illness that will soon take your life. You’re not wealthy, so you can’t think of all the charities your accumulated millions will fund. You’re not successful, with a long life of accomplishments behind you, nor are you famous, with millions of adoring fans eagerly awaiting news about you. You’re only a little kid who has just begun life and yet you’re dying. All you will accomplish in the rest of your life will take place over the next few weeks in a small circle around your bed and with the few who enter that circle.

    “That’s what I was seeing with those remarkable children. They were giving meaning to their short lives by being kind to us. We were all they had, and by allowing them to be kind to us, their lives mattered.”

    I don’t know if I did justice to my subject matter in that book, but I certainly tried.

    –Michael W. Perry, Auburn, Alabama

    • K.M. Weiland

      I’d say you certainly did it justice in the title/subtitle/description area!

  6. K.M. Weiland

    Thanks so much for hosting me today, Joel!

  7. Jason Matthews

    Even fiction titles should consider keywords. For example, you may be set on titling your novel Lingering Doubts, but if it’s about a murder investigation in the Caribbean and you hope some browsers will find it with subject keywords, it would be wise to add a subtitle. Perhaps Lingering Doubts: Murder in the Caribbean isn’t the best title in some regards, but it will do a lot better with (Amazon) search engines and hopefully draw in new readers who otherwise wouldn’t have found it.

    • K.M. Weiland

      Very true. For that matter, we can also use “subtitles” on fiction for other purposes of clarification as well. I was getting complaints from readers that they had failed to realize, upon purchasing my $.99 short stories, that they *were* short stories, even though it was clearly stated both on the covers and in the descriptions. I added the subtitle “A Short Story” to all of them, and the complaints immediately ceased.

  8. Michael N. Marcus

    A few more tips:

    Come up with about a dozen possible titles. Print them up in big type, one title per page. Hang them on the wall. Stare at them. Close your eyes and say the words and analyze what you visualize — or don’t visualize. Within a few minutes, you’ll likely eliminate a third of the titles.

    Try multiple variations of your favored titles with minor differences, just changing or dropping a word. Sometimes substituting a shorter word will mean that your title can take up two lines instead of three, so you can use bigger type or a bigger cover photo or both. “Club” and “group” take up less space than “organization.” “Pasta” is shorter than “macaroni.” It’s OK to use a single-character ampersand instead of a three-character “and” in a title.

    When you get down to two or three “finalists,” make dummy book covers with appropriate type and artwork. Print them out and wrap them around real books (even if you plan to publish e-only). Hold them at different angles. Carry them around with you. Ask typical purchasers (if you know some) what the titles means to them. In 2008 I was shocked to learn that people completely misinterpreted my favored title for a future book. I changed it and the book has sold very well.

    If you’re writing a nonfiction book, the subject will suggest the book’s title. The subject has to be in the title to attract browsers in stores if your books are sold there. The subject-in-title is also critical for online shoppers searching for keywords or key phrases in search engines or on websites.

    Whoopi Goldberg is both funny and smart. Her book’s title, “Book,” is only slightly funny, and not at all smart. It provides no indication of the subject (“Whoopi!” might have been a better title). A Google search for “book” shows over ONE BILLION links. Most are not for Whoopi’s book.

    The subtitle gives you a second chance to sell your book. It’s very important online, and in stores. Pick a good one. Sometimes a title and a subtitle can be switched, or a new title can combine elements of both.

    You can also have a ‘fake’ subtitle loaded with keywords that would be ugly on a cover, but very effective for capturing searchers on

    Michael N. Marcus

    • K.M. Weiland

      Great stuff! It’s also super helpful to get the objective advice of other people. We can stare at our own titles so long, we lose all chance at objectivity. Plus, the very fact that the book itself is our baby can make it difficult for us to be unemotional about choosing a title that is the best from a marketing perspective.

  9. Rayne Hall

    I’ve used the same approach for the titles in my Writing Craft series.
    “Writing Fight Scenes” says on the tin what it does. :-)
    The target audience are writers who want help with writing fight scenes, so I reckon “writing fight scenes” is what they’re most likely to search for. The alternative was “How to Write a Fight Scene” but I chose the shorter one.

    With non-fiction, I find it easy to come up with titles. I used to write (under a different pen name) lots of books of the how-to type. My publisher at the time was savvy about marketing and he taught me the value of titles that say what’s inside.

    With novels, it’s trickier. Without cover picture and blurb, “Storm Dancer” doesn’t immediately suggest dark epic fantasy. We can use certain words to signal the genre and subgenre, e.g. a title with the words ‘hot’ and ‘blood’ suggests a vampire romance with erotic elements. But it’s not as clear as with non-fiction, and those thrill words soon get overused in titles.

    With the Ten Tales books I’m editing (ten stories by ten authors on a given theme) I have the advantage of subtitles. If I don’t get a keyword into the main title, I can put it in the subtitle: Haunted: Ten Tales of Pirates. Scared: Ten Tales of Horror. Bites: Ten Tales of Vampires. Cutlass: Ten Tales of Pirates. Seers: Ten Tales of Clairvoyance. Spells: Ten Tales of Magic. Beltane: Ten Tales of Witchcraft. Undead: Ten Tales of Zombies…. Right now, I’m looking for a title for a Ten Tales book with dragon stories. Suggestions, anyone? :-)

    • K.M. Weiland

      Fiction titles are their own special brand of challenging. You might find this post I wrote on the subject helpful. For me, personally, I always have a hard time solidifying a story idea in my head until I have at least a working title. Once I know the title, I can build the story around it.

  10. Greg Strandberg

    Thanks for the tips. I have several non-fiction books and I always find coming up with a title a bit tough.

    • K.M. Weiland

      Titles *are* tough. We have to balance so many factors, including catchiness, applicability, clarity, and, as we’ve already discussed, searchability.



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