Nonfiction Titles: Dead Bodies at the End

Last month I blogged about fiction titles in Wherever She Is, There’s a Title. Because I was dealing with fiction, most of the titles were short, and none contained subtitles.

When it comes to nonfiction, subtitles abound. Take Dava Sobel’s small but wonderful book, Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time. That’s a 17-word title. In comparison, Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, comes in at a mere 11 words.

In both cases, the factor that increases title length is the subtitle: everything that follows the colon. Subtitles are a critical part of nonfiction books — they give the reader more information than a punchy title can. And with more information, readers are apt to learn more about and perhaps buy the book.

When I was writing my nonfiction book about women in baseball, my working title was Women in Baseball. I had no thoughts whatsoever of a subtitle. This working title was vetoed by my editor, who said he wouldn’t even present the manuscript to Acquisitions until the manuscript had a better title. “New title,” he said. “Your job.”

So I brainstormed. Luckily I happened to be reading a best-sellers list while brainstorming and saw there George Wills’ Men at Work, a baseball book. In a nanosecond I turned that title around and came up with Women at Play. But I sensed, and my editor agreed, that this title needed a subtitle (just in case the public might think women were playing at shuffleboard or such). So I came up with Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball. The title is a mere 9 words long, but it tells readers all they need to know.

In Stein on Writing author Sol Stein warned: “What many nonfiction writers neglect is the appeal more imaginative titles hold for readers.” I pondered this advice when trying to title the collection of research notes from which I wrote Women at Play. I kind of wanted an imaginative title . . . but I also wanted truth in advertising. Because the reader would be getting a collection of research notes — well-organized research notes, important-information research notes, research notes with explanations, but, still: Research. Notes. — I wanted that clear from the beginning. So, despite my pondering and despite Stein’s advice, I went for a title that represented what was within: Research Notes for Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball. That’s a 12-word title without even adding a subtitle.

RN3Oh, yes. I had a subtitle in mind, mainly because I knew the work would comprise three volumes. So at least the words “Volume 1” would be part of the subtitle of the first book. But that was not enough. I went hog wild. With each of the three volumes, almost the entire front cover was required to hold the title and subtitle. Research Notes for Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball, Volume 3, Maud Nelson, The Philadelphia Bobbies, Leona Kearns, Margaret Gisolo, Nellie Kearns. That’s a 25-word title.

I want a prize.

Notice that both Malcolm Gladwell and Dava Sobell put the catchy part of their titles first, and followed the catchy part with an explanation of what the book was about. Much of the information today on titling nonfiction suggests doing this very thing: catch first, explain second.

In general, I agree with this approach. But I deviated from it and did the opposite when I titled my book on how to write a mystery novel. There, I wanted the topic up front, so I went with Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel. That’s the topic, and that title will come up on many a search engine when people query “writing mystery novel.” But I certainly understood that this title, by itself, was bland. If I could come up with a catchy subtitle, perhaps I could interest more people in the book.

I asked myself what the selling points of my book were, and I immediately came up with “lots of examples. Lots and lots and lots of examples.” So I wrote out, Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples.


But no sooner did I tell myself it sounded lame than, Wham! I came up with something that struck me as humorous, exciting, and getting to the heart of what mystery novels feature. That phrase was, Plus Dead Bodies. And so I had my title and subtitle: Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies. The title states the subject matter, the subtitle promises examples and humor.

It’s hard for me to say which of my nonfiction titles I like best . . . but I kind of favor the unexpected ending of the dead bodies.

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