A running joke I have in my informal writing and social media is the title of my eventual memoir. For a while, it was going to be “Blondes, Bombs, and Bourbon: The Jeff Somers Story.” Then it was “Confidently Incorrect: The Jeff Somers Story.” Most recently, I’ve settled on “Who Needs Pants, Anyway: The Jeff Somers Story.”
Obviously, if I ever do write that memoir I’ll probably choose a better title for it. But these fun fake titles are all examples of branding: I’m an author who doesn’t take himself seriously, and who hates the fact that society forces him to wear pants all the time. They’re also examples of what we call taglines.
What’s a tagline? A tagline is a short, pithy sentence that:
- Perfectly captures the brand identity.
- Succinctly tells the consumer what this company or product is all about.
- Catches attention and draws interest almost subliminally.
- A staple of advertising—Nike’s “Just Do It” and “All the news that’s fit to print” from The New York Times are famous examples.
Authors need taglines as much as companies. We all have (or should have) a brand, and we get that brand infused into our social media, our graphics, our giveaways, and our online presence. But in a blog post or a podcast we have time to develop and communicate that brand identity. A tagline is necessary when all you have is a few microseconds to catch a potential reader’s attention. Let’s say you’re a fan of thrilling adventure stories, browsing around looking for your next great read, and you see “The Grandmaster of Adventure.” Chances are you’ll at least stop to check out that writer—and very likely walk away having bought at least one book by Clive Cussler.
The use of taglines goes beyond your personal brand—you should develop taglines for your books and series as well in order to increase the chances that readers will discover you. That’s right: It’s all taglines.
A quick note: A tagline is not a logline. A logline is a very short description of a story—not exactly a summary, as it’s typically only a sentence or maybe two, but a pithy rundown of the central conflict. An example of a logline vs. a tagline can be found in the classic sci-fi film Highlander. The logline would be: “A group of immortals must battle each other throughout history in order to claim a mysterious prize.” The tagline is “There can be only one.”
You should probably create a logline for your books as well—as writers quickly discover, a writing career is pretty much synopses all the way down, and each synopsis gets shorter and shorter. Eventually, we’ll all have to come up with a single word that represents our books, in which case I choose supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. But even if you already have awesome loglines for your books, you still need to craft a terrific tagline for both them and yourself.
Creating taglines can be a lot of fun, but they serve a wide variety of very important purposes in terms of marketing yourself and your work.
A tagline helps potential readers discover you and your books. You might be writing some of the best thrillers or romances in the game, but if you have zero name recognition readers may not click on your name or book titles when they’re looking for their next great read. A tagline quickly communicates your style, brand, and (sometimes) genre, and because it’s short it won’t bog down someone searching for new books—they can read your tagline and choose to click or move on. The difference between seeing “John Smith” and “John Smith, king of crime thrillers” is the former clearly requires further investigation to even determine if John Smith will appeal to you in the first place.
In the modern age author branding and marketing takes a lot of different forms. From social media to old-school stuff like business cards, your marketing opportunities come in different sizes, and sometimes you’re going to need a bit of marketing pizzazz (that’s a technical term) that can fit in a small space. Taglines exist for those small spaces.
While it might seem like the work of marketing yourself always fall to you, sometimes opportunities present themselves. If your book gets selected for a round-up on a popular blog, or a journalist turns your work up while researching their latest article on the state of 21st-century publishing, having a ready-made tagline for them to use is always preferable to letting someone unfamiliar with your work come up with something. In other words, a tagline is your opportunity to define yourself and your work before someone else does.
Writing under tight restrictions is often a real challenge. Novels can be ironically easier to write because of their open-ended nature—you can just keep writing until your solve problems or hit a groove, then go back and edit ruthlessly. But when writing something like a tagline the brevity precludes pouring words until they clump together successfully.
When developing taglines, there are a few universal aspects that apply to both your personal tagline and book or series taglines. Think about some of the great advertising taglines in history, like Nike’s “Just Do It” or “All the news that’s fit to print” from The New York Times—your tagline should be pretty short—under 10 words, ideally, and between 3–7 words is the sweet spot. Any shorter and it’s just a phrase, any longer and you risk losing peoples’ attention.
While it might be tempting, this is not the place to stuff keywords. First of all, if you have keywords jammed into every single nook and cranny of your social media and platforms, it makes you look a bit desperate for attention. Secondly, it’s not an effective way to brand yourself, because that’s not how taglines work.
Think of a personal tagline as the advertising slogan for your writing business. Are you a futurist explaining deep concepts? Are you a thriller writer who leaves palms sweaty? Are you a romantic who thinks every story is better with kissing? That’s what you’re trying to convey.
So what should be in there? If we’re working with 3–10 words, you’re not going to get a coherent mission statement in there—or a plot summary. What you want is a feeling. You want to convey a sense of who you are as a writer. If it’s a tagline for a book or series, it should convey the tone and a hint of the genre. The most commonly-used tagline for The Lord of the Rings (I am fairly confident J.R.R. Tolkien never sat down to contemplate taglines, but then he probably didn’t need to) is “One ring to rule them all.” The fantasy element communicated is very subtle, but it’s there, and it conveys the epic tone and style in just six words. That’s a pretty terrific tagline.
You may have already done some work on this without realizing it. For a book or a series, look through your plot summaries, synopses, back cover copy, interviews—anything you’ve written or said to support the book. There may be some great sentences in there you can repurpose pretty easily. If you’re working on your author tagline, you can do the same with that nifty author bio you crafted into 250, 150, and 100-word versions. You can also take a look at any media coverage or reviews you’ve received to see if someone has already coined a tagline on your behalf.
Once you have some raw materials and ideas for your taglines, it’s time to sit down and grind. That’s right: Put on your best *Mad Men/
- Relax—these don’t have to all be works of genius
- Play with words, try different configurations, and experiment with imagery and rhythm
- Experiment with the goofy, the weird, the self-consciously “cool” and see what sticks. You might be surprised at the tags that rise to the top if you allow yourself a little room to wander
- For your personal author tagline, remember you’re selling a persona, a public version of yourself, so don’t be afraid to be dramatic or to over-emphasize an aspect of that persona. No one is going to take you to tagline court and accuse you of having an inaccurate piece of marketing copy.
Have some fun with this! Writing taglines doesn’t have to be serious business.
Once you’ve written a few dozen taglines, narrow it down to a handful. Toss out the obviously jokey ones, the awkwardly-phrased ones, and any tag that doesn’t support your author brand or the tone of your book or series. When you’ve got a couple of strong possibilities in hand, it’s time to do some testing.
The fact is, writers are rarely the best judge of their work. I routinely sell stories I never thought were up to par, and people often praise writing of mine that surprises me—heck, when I sold my second novel, The Electric Church, my agent asked me why I hadn’t shown it to her earlier. The answer was, I didn’t realize it was good enough to publish.
Here’s how to approach testing and evaluating your taglines:
- Call in some favors. When evaluating your tagline candidates, ask trusted peers or publishing professionals you know or work with for their opinion.
- Consider A/
B Testing. This is where you launch two ad campaigns (say, on Google AdWords, or Facebook) using different tags and track which one performs better. You could also gather some beta readers or other volunteers (folks on your newsletter list, for example) and simply send out a survey and ask for votes.
- Confirm your originality. You may be a genius, but there’s a decent possibility there’s at least one other writer out there as smart you think you are. Before running out the door with your perfect tagline, do some deep searches to ensure no other writer has used it for themselves or their books. No one’s going to sue you over a tagline, but if people notice it’s going to be confusing and embarrassing in equal part.
Taglines within genres often mine the same vocabulary and imagery. If you’ve got an epic fantasy and your tagline has the words sword or dragon or magic in it, I heartily recommend you do an originality check. Similarly, if your gritty crime thriller has the words streets or murder in it, if your romance has the words prince or passion in it—you get the drift. When people say there’s nothing new under the sun, they may very well be thinking of taglines—consider, for example, the ubiquity of the tagline “Death is only the beginning.” It’s a cool tagline, yes, but once you realize it’s been used multiple times by different authors it kind of loses some of that cachet.
- Be patient. Your tagline is going to be representing you and hopefully supporting discovery of your work. Once you deploy it, taking it back is going to be difficult, so be patient and put some time into your choice.
Finally—if after all this you’re not happy, or you get negative results from your testing and market research, don’t be afraid to go back and write up another 20 tags to start the process again.
Taglines are marketing, and all marketing is necessarily self-centered and a little boastful. You’re trying to convince people to spend time and attention on you and your wares, after all. But it’s important that your tagline not be perceived as bragging—or deceptive.
Be very careful about putting terms like “bestseller” or “award-winning” in your taglines. This is certainly ill-advised if it’s not true, but even if you are technically a bestselling author (because you topped Amazon’s chart for an incredibly obscure sub-genre of a sub-genre for one hour back in 2015) or have won some kind of an award, this will backfire if your potential readers don’t recognize the honor you’re claiming. If you call yourself or your book “bestselling” and a quick Google doesn’t confirm it on the first page of results, potential readers are going to think you’re lying to them and move on. And if the award you won is obscure, the sad truth is you’re not going to impress people with it.
That’s not saying you shouldn’t brag on these achievements. But they belong in something longer, like your bio or About Me page. There you can offer sufficient context to overcome any initial doubts and offer links so folks can confirm you are, in fact, very famous and important even if they have never heard of you.
Something else to consider is the fact that not all readers care about bestseller status or awards, so wasting precious tagline space on those words should be a very careful choice. Think of it this way: A portion of your potential readership will care about your achievements. But all of your potential readership can be persuaded with a compelling tagline.
Like all marketing, a diamond-sharp tagline that will eventually be enshrined in the Tagline Hall of Fame will probably not sell scads of books. You won’t drop your shiny new tagline on your social media profiles and suddenly see a surge of interest. It’s a slow burn process, selling your brand and your books, and your tagline is just one component of a collective effort. The best approach to your tagline is to set it and forget it—for a while.
Once you’ve injected your awesome new tagline into the world, give it some time to spread—but return to it now and then and gauge its effectiveness. This can be challenging, because taglines just sort of sit there—they’re not active marketing, they’re passive by nature. A few ways you can try to determine their effectiveness include
- Google your tagline in quotes and see how far it’s penetrated—and confirm it doesn’t bring up unrelated pages, or competing authors’ books or sites.
- Track sales against the introduction of your tagline.
- Track web traffic on your websites, blogs, and other presences against the tagline’s debut.
- Track social media followers/
links against the tagline’s debut.
These aren’t ideal metrics, but they will give you some idea of how much impact your tagline has had. If there’s zero movement, it doesn’t mean your tagline is bad—there are many reasons people may not even be encountering your tagline. But it’s one piece of data you can use to make an evaluation.
A killer tagline can’t make your book better or your writing career more successful all by itself—but it’s a crucial part of any marketing and promotional effort. Crafting them for yourself and your books should definitely be on your Must-Do list.