June 27, 2019

The Case of the Ever-Expanding Literary Subtitle

“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.”

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