Let’s say you’re on an elevator, the door opens, and someone you know steps in. She says, “I hear you’re writing a book. Wow, that’s great. What’s it about?”
Can you answer that question before you get to the next floor? You may be thinking, “Of course, I can. It’s my book, isn’t it?” Yes, but chances are you will be still be talking when the elevator door opens again. Completing this critically important sentence in 30 seconds or less is not easy. In fact, it takes most people quite a while to describe their books in a way that other people understand.
That’s the key. You may think you have explained your subject quite clearly, but if the other person doesn’t get it, try again.
Why does it matter?
Think of that sentence as the foundation of a house you are building. If it is not strong and solid, the house won’t stand up. Everything depends on how well you construct that foundation or, in this case, your sentence. You will test it many times during the planning process. You will use it or some variation of it in your proposal. You will refer to it in your introduction, display it on your back cover, and base your promotional materials on it. It is the single most important sentence you will write.
Why is it so hard to write this sentence?
For one thing, writing it forces you to focus on your topic in a way you may not have done before. You must capture the essence of your book in one brief, descriptive statement that tells the reader what to expect. This book will answer a question, solve a problem, explain how to do something. Your sentence is a promise to the reader about the book’s purpose, content, or benefits. This is not a promise you make without thinking it through.
One test of a good sentence is whether it makes sense as a subtitle. Here are a dozen examples of sentences that turned into great subtitles.
- 26 successful businesswomen share what it takes to make big money on the internet (Lynne Klippel)
- A personal coach’s 7-step program for creating the life you want (Cheryl R. Richardson)
- A practical manual for job-hunters and career-changers (Richard N. Bolles)
- Growing older: what to expect and what you can do about it (Robin Marantz Henig)
- How to beat the odds of dying in an accident (John C. Myre)
- How to get from where you are to where you want to be (Jack Canfield)
- How to turn one book into a full-time living (Peter Bowerman)
- How to write, print and sell your own book (Dan Poynter)
- How women’s and men’s conversational styles affect who gets heard, who gets credit, and what gets done at work (Deborah Tannen, Ph.D.)
- Strategic website marketing for small budget businesses (Bobette Kyle)
- The foolproof system for taking control of your schedule—and your life (Julie Morgenstern)
- What everyone who writes should know about writing (Patricia T. O’Conner)
What makes these subtitles worth passing along? They are all concise, coherent phrases that complete the sentence, “My book is about _________,” And they do it in the time it takes an elevator to travel between floors.