The Power of a Good Tagline
Someone, somewhere, was very proud of that tagline. Is this game made up?
As any indie author – or indeed, any book publisher – will tell you, covers matter. A good work of art can be the deciding factor between making money with your project and making a loss. An awesome image makes people look at your book at least twice, rather than pass it by. It’s also the best way to give prospective readers some idea as to what to expect from the novel itself.
But for all the importance of a beautifully-rendered dragon, spaceship or warrior’s pectoral, there’s another element that can hook a reader and drag them along on your characters’ journey.
The tagline* is that little bit of text on the front cover that isn’t the title or your name in MASSIVE LETTERS. Sometimes it’s a quote from the book, other times its an evocative hint at the perilous misadventures to be found within. You’ll have seen many examples. Thrillers often sport phrases like, “She thought it was all over…” or “His life will never be the same… nor will his death!” In fantasy, it might be something like, “One crown, two kings” or “A hero will rise!” In Sci-Fi, “Who can stop the Gel-Dar?” or “In space, no-one can hear you avoid describing how FTL works.” Some of them are brilliant, and make you click ‘buy’ without hesitation. Others make you think, “sure, that sounds like everything else!”
(One of my favourite taglines of all time can be found on the front of the VHS case of Clone Master, a 70s Sci-Fi flick: “Dr. Simon Shane has to save 13 lives… each of them his own!” Fantastic. There is no arguing with that level of genius.)
What teenage libertarian hasn’t lived by that maxim, huh?
When I was playing with the cover of Healer’s Ruin, back when it had the original artwork depicting Chalos and Samine, I played around with the idea of having a line of text along the top of the cover. It read, ‘What if the hero of the story… was fighting for the enemy?’ Now, I quite like this tagline, and it hints at the postmodern shenanigans I was attempting with the book when I first started writing it; the idea that the main protagonist was fighting for the wrong side, with the true hero of the story figuring only on the periphery of the narrative, really appealed to me because it was an unusual POV. As the book developed, it became about a lot of other things… Imperialism, war, bi-polar disorder, the power of myth. And eventually the tagline lost some of its meaning and began to feel less relevant, less central to the experience of the story. So, with a somewhat heavy heart, I dropped it.
But I remain committed to the lure of the tagline, and my next book – which is a couple of months from publication, touch wood – will most likely have one blazing fiercely above the cover art.
So how do you come up with a tagline?
The key to a good tagline, I think, is to ask a simple question. Some examples you will see are simply statements of what happens in the book. “An evil has returned” or “A hero must overcome his fear of the darkness”, that sort of thing. This is fine, but rather passive.
As taglines go, this is one of the absolute best.
The ones that work best on me involve active participation. Put the reader in a quandary, ask them how they would respond to a situation. You’ll be surprised how a single line can engage a complete stranger and make them buy into your narrative. So, “Can fear of the dark be overcome?” is more active than “A hero must overcome his fear of the darkness”. It not only gives a clue as to the challenge to the hero in the narrative, it also asks the reader how they would overcome their own fears… immediately linking them to the hero of the story. This kind of engagement is really important if you want someone to invest time in your work.
So to sum up, I’d say a good tag line does 3 things.
Captures the tone of the novel.
Achieves synergy with the message of the cover art, giving the potential reader a firmer grasp of what to expect.
Engages the reader actively.
If you’re working on a tagline, it can help to list some of your favourites from books and movies. Remember that one from Alien, “In space no one can hear you scream”? It’s great, isn’t it? And notice the use of the word “you”. Not “them”, not “Ripley”, but “you”. A perfect example of a tagline that actively engages the potential audience.
*Alright, so if there’s another term for this, hit me up. But for now, I’m calling it this. Because the power of erratically naming things flows in my veins!