Content or Keywords? How to write a book subtitle or tagline that grabs readers by the throat

The title of this post is a little too violent, but it exemplifies the purpose of this post: your subtitles and taglines need to engage readers.

Firstly: a subtitle is usually what goes on a non-fiction book, and non-fiction book readers are mostly looking for information and content, so you need to focus on keywords (sort of, more on that later).

A tagline or strapline is that thing that goes on fiction covers, tells them more about the genre/topic/setting while also making them interested in buying the book.

If you do these right, they are the thing that tip readers over the edge and convince them to buy, so they’re important.

But here’s the problem:

1. You need people to find the book first, before it matters at all. For that to happen, you need to include keywords that readers looking for your type of book are going to find. Especially for non-fiction, this is why I usually prefer longer subtitles – you need to cram in as many keywords as possible, but it also needs to flow well, be interesting, and not sound like you’re keyword-stuffing. That’s tricky, but it can be done in most cases.

For fiction however, this keyword stuffy gets clunky. It feels condescending to tell readers that your book is “A vampire thriller romance horror mystery set in the Balkans in the 1890s.” It’s not very sexy. You could do better. And while a descriptive tagline like that can help readers find you, it may not convert as well as a powerful tagline, like

“She’d lived a thousand lifetimes, but she never knew true love until the night she died…”

That’s a hook that gets readers’ attention because it promises them a tragic love story, not just facts and categories.

2. But, if you just have a sexy, clever subtitle, without all those keywords, it can be hard to find you.

Solution (Part One)

I recently mocked up covers for 21 non-fiction books for the 21 Day Bestselling Author Platform I’m developing, and I had to tweak all of my subtitles: these were specific, benefit-heavy keywords full of subtitles and I thought they were pretty good already. They would have been great for discoverability.

But they were lacking in intrigue. (You can see all the covers and subtitles here).

I also wanted to keep the design the same, which left me only two lines to fit the whole subtitle: that forced me to be conservative with words, and tweak things down to focus on the one, main benefit of each book and communicate it in a way that makes it seem unskippable.

Here are some examples, with the old, rough subtitles and the new ones in bold below:

How to write a bestselling book (focus on the product, the categories, the writing, the STORY.)

How to write a book that millions of hungry readers will be desperate to buy.


How to make a beautiful book that sells itself (cover design and formatting for ebook and print).

How to make a beautifully designed book that people will want to sleep with.


How to set up an email response system that makes your readers love you (autoresponders and drip content).

Turn readers into addicts with an email series campaign of unmissable content.


How to get 10 reviews in an hour, get blurbs from famous people, and generate hundreds of reviews for your book without even trying.

Get blurbs from famous people and hundreds of book reviews without begging.

I had a lot of trouble with this one:

How to identify, target and attract your target readers like a bee to honey (who are they, where do they hang out, how will you reach them).

For now it’s:

Identify, target and detour your target readers like bees to honey.

The word “Detour” is unusual, but stronger than “entice” or “attract” – you need to interrupt what they were doing with an offer so good they need to go check it out right now.

Solution (Part 2)

I made these changes because, once someone is actually in front of the book, these subtitles are more impactful: even if they don’t give away exactly the strategies that will be discussed in the book, they grab readers by promising major benefits and identifying the real pain points.

The drawback is that I’m missing some important keywords that people will be searching for: here’s how I will compensate.

1. I can still add the keywords and categories in the Amazon description.

2. I can also decide how to arrange my title/subtitle fields on the amazon page (I will probably put the “subtitle” in the title field, and put the less important, repeating “21 day author platform” in the subtitle field.

3. The title usually needs to much the book cover exactly, but in my experience they are less picky with the subtitle: so I could add a little to my subtitle field, for example, “21 Day Bestselling Author Platform: Getting Book Reviews”. I could use that field to stress the topic and hit any keywords that I missed.

4. I want to put any really important keywords in my description, in bold text, h2 tags, or in bullet points.

5. I will start writing related guest posts for each book on various websites. For example, I might write 3 articles on book reviews and end it with a short byline about me and the book in the series about book reviews, and link to the Amazon page. I could put these on big sites with lots of traffic, or I could put one on a Squiddoo/Hubpages page, or I could hire someone on Fiverr to distribute one to all the article farm sites, or post one on LinkedIn, or Medium, or other sites that all guest posting… or pitch them to bigger self-publishing sites or blogs. In these articles I can make the titles longer and fit in more keywords, and also use tags/categories or other tricks.

6. For each book I would probably also need a gimmick or case study (which I can do with non-fiction)… for example in a book about book reviews, I would do a test launch of one of my own books, and share my secrets and results, under an exciting title like “How I got 300 reviews in under 1 hour from no list from total strangers.”

7. And of course, I’m also compensating for lack of keyword/natural search visibility by structuring this as a series: it will be easy to miss one book, but because this is a big series, even if you miss one you’ll probably stumble upon several others, not to mention the fact that the first book in the series will be permafree. Each book will focus on getting people to download the free first book and continue through the series; each book will link to the next book in the series. This gives me the opportunity to focus on cooler subtitles that will convert better, than merely focusing on keyword-stuffing.

But if you only have one book, and you don’t plan to give it away for free, visibility will definitely be an issue for you, and in that case, having people actually find your book is more important than whether or not they think your title or subtitle is a little heavy on keywords: win them over with a great cover and a great description.

Considerations for fiction

Most authors completely fail when it comes to titles.

They’ll usually pick some obscure word (or worse, something common that dozens of other authors are using), and use that alone as the title. It’s probably a word that nobody ever searches Amazon for.

For example… here are a couple covers I made recently for my own projects.

post apocalyptic thriller YA Dystopian Fantasy


I haven’t added taglines or subtitles yet, but I probably will. On the other hand, I love these covers as is, so I may hesitate to add more. The covers are strong enough that, if I get them in the right categories, and put them in front of the right readers, and if my story is satisfying, they should stay up on the top of those categories for some time – in which case, visibility is not really an issue for me.

But if/when they start dropping down below the first page of search results, and I want to boost them back up again, I will need to consider my keywords.

Most authors just add a title and series title, maybe something like:

The World Remains: The Survival Series Book One


Prescient: Cassandra Chronicles Book One

Those aren’t so great: if your readers already know about you and your series, they know the series name. They are going to find you anyway. You’re trying to get discovered by people who don’t know you already, and they aren’t going to be searching for those words.

So something stronger would be:

The World Remains: A post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller


Prescient: A YA dystopian fantasy novel

It’s a bit cheesy, but I can put the subtitle in the subtitle field and most people won’t even consciously notice it (but it will still help it show up in searches for those terms).

I’ll still want to add a strong strapline/tagline that engages readers – I can add that on the book cover and also in bold at the top of my book description. It will be a sentence that doesn’t really hit any keywords but does entice with the story.


“When the world ended, he was alone with his books. When it began again, he was the only person who could set things right.”


“She thought she was losing her mind… until her visions started coming true. Now she’s the only person who can see the devastating future that awaits… and the only one who can stop it.”

Those aren’t actually great, I can do much better, but you get the idea.


People have to FIND your book, and then you need to hook their attention and make them want to buy it. So you need to take these considerations (title, subtitle, tagline, keywords) very seriously. But you can’t just use keywords, you need to be able to boil down your book to its essence, its main benefit, its core value, and describe it in a way that engages people’s attention and makes them want to buy it.

About Derek Murphy

I help authors and artists turn their passions into full-time businesses, make a bigger impact, and blaze a luminous trail of creative independence. Right now I'm in Taiwan finishing a PHD in Literature, writing several books, and managing a handful of online businesses. Find me

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