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Throughout your career, you may write many books, but you will only develop one brand.
That’s why it’s so important to get your brand right. One way to express your brand is through your author tagline.
What is an author tagline?
How can you use one to help develop your brand?
To find out, I interviewed my former Novel Marketing cohost, James L. Rubart. If you’ve been around here for a while, you know that Jim is a Christy Award-winning author and founder of the Rubart Writing Academy.
Thomas Umstattd Jr.: Jim, what have you been up to since we last visited?
James L. Rubart (Jim): I’m working on a six-book series project with Susan May Warren and her son Daniel called The True Lies of Rembrandt Stone. It’s the story of a time-traveling detective who goes back in time to solve cold crime cases. In February, we’ll release a book every other month, and I’ve just started recording the audio version for the first book.
Thomas: You’re doing a rapid release strategy with your every-other-month schedule. This is less risky because you and Susie are already established authors with built-in fan bases. You’re in the Christie Hall of Fame, and Susie has written over a hundred books.
The other interesting thing about your project is that you’ve created a new fictional pen name, right?
Jim: Yes. Susie, David, and I are partnering, so we’ve taken David’s name plus my name, James, and added Susie’s last name, Warren. The pen name will be David James Warren. It’s not a pseudonym. It’s an open secret, so to speak. But we wanted to use a collective pen name to differentiate these books from our other books.
We have a worksheet to go along with this episode:
What is an author tagline?
Thomas: What is an author tagline, and how do we use one?
Jim: Let’s start with a definition. In general terms, a tagline is a short, pithy catchphrase that encapsulates a brand.
- “Just Do It.” (Nike)
- “Finger Lickin’ Good.” (Kentucky Fried Chicken)
- “Can you hear me now?” (Verizon)
When it comes to writers, a tagline is a bit different, and it’s used in a couple of ways.
Taglines for Books
First, we can develop taglines for our specific books.
For example, for my first novel, Rooms (Affiliate Link), I came up with the tagline, “What if you walked into the rooms of your soul?”
Often taglines come from our back-cover copy. They allow us to quickly describe our story and hopefully cause the reader to want to know more.
But this is more of a logline than a tagline.
What’s the difference between a logline and a tagline?
A logline tells you what a book or a movie is about.
A tagline is more like a catchphrase. It doesn’t include specifics about the story. Instead, it communicates a feeling or an overall description of the brand.
For example, the logline for Lord of the Rings reads, “A young hobbit must go on a quest to destroy an all-powerful ring before its maker uses it to enslave the entire world.”
The tagline is, “One ring to rule them all.”
Thomas: In Hollywood, the tagline is called “the poster.” Screenwriters often create the poster for the movie before they write the script. They must decide what will catch people’s attention as they’re walking out of a theatre and cause them to want to see the movie featured on the poster in the lobby.
The poster will feature the actors, but it also needs words. You don’t have a lot of space or words to work with, and the words must make somebody curious. “One ring to rule them all,” doesn’t tell you much about the story, but it makes you curious.
Jim: That’s a great way to describe it. Look at movie posters, and you’ll see taglines all over the place. “I see dead people.” That would be a tagline for The Sixth Sense.
Taglines for Authors
Second, we can develop taglines for ourselves as authors. I’m working on a new one right now. For years I’ve used the tagline, “Live free.”
I’m working on a new one, so don’t judge it too harshly, but I’m considering “Mind-bending stories of spiritual freedom.”
Here’s what you learn from my tagline.
- I write stories, so you know I write fiction.
- My stories are different than the norm because they’re “mind-bending.”
- I write for the inspirational market, as indicated by the word “spiritual.”
- The theme of my life is identity and freedom, so I included one of those themes.
There’s no room to include identity as well, so I left it out. Otherwise, it gets a bit confusing.
Thomas: Identity is a big part of your books, but it was good that you left it out of your tagline. If your tagline isn’t focused, it’s meaningless. Sometimes authors try to create a tagline that captures everything they talk about. They end up with a tagline so vague that it’s meaningless.
It takes courage to be specific because it means saying “no” to some of the things you want to talk about. But it’s that focused point at the end of the spear that really makes a difference.
Jim: That’s a great point. As I said, I’m developing this new tagline, so it’s in process, but if I were going to criticize it, I would say it’s potentially too long.
Shorter is better. It’s more memorable that way.
Ted Decker’s tagline is “Dive deep.” I love that because it says a lot in two words.
We interviewed Brandilyn Collins about taglines, and hers is “Seatbelt suspense.” Again, just two words.
We should point out that you don’t have to have a tagline. Don’t feel stressed, thinking you have to come up with a tagline now. You don’t. But taglines can make you more memorable. It can provide immediate recognition, and it can create a want or a desire within your readers.
Thomas: I view taglines the way the military views plans. In the military, they say, “No plan survives contact with the enemy.”
If every plan goes out the window as soon as it faces reality, why have a plan?
Well, a plan is evidence that planning took place. Planning is important. The military plans to have all their troops in a certain place, they better have planed to feed them. Even if the original plan doesn’t happen, there is evidence that you’ve thought through the necessities and troops get fed.
A tagline is evidence that branding has taken place.
What a tagline is not.
A tagline doesn’t create a brand. It isn’t your brand, and it doesn’t resonate with readers. Most readers don’t know most author taglines.
For most authors, a tagline is not a marketing asset to convince people to read your book. It’s an exercise to help you think through what your brand is. It’s evidence that you’ve thought through who you are as an author and what you write. You communicate those things with a specific set of words we’re calling a tagline.
You might put it on your website or business cards, but it’s not like a tagline for a corporate brand. Coca-Cola tweaks its brand tagline every ten years or so, and then they spent a billion dollars putting the word “Refreshing” in front of you. Now their tagline is, “Together tastes better,” and they’re about to bludgeon you over the head with it. So, brace yourselves.
As an author, you don’t have that budget. You can’t put your tagline in front of people like a corporation can, so it’s not nearly as important for you.
Many successful authors don’t have taglines, or they don’t have taglines that you’ve heard of, and yet, they’re still selling books.
Two things a tagline can tell potential readers.
Jim: Your tagline can also be a starting point. It can tell potential readers who you are, and it needs to answer two questions.
- What do you want to come into a reader’s mind when they think of you?
- Why should your reader and potential readers care? What do they get out of it?
Ted Dekker’s tagline, “Dive deep,” immediately tells you that Ted’s stories are going to have depth to them. They’ll include deep psychological thinking, and they won’t be light and fluffy. They’re going to be deep.
Brandilyn Collins says her books are so suspenseful that you’ll need a seatbelt. The reader understands they’re going to be exciting.
Remember, taglines aren’t necessarily about genre. In fact, they’re strongest when they’re about the theme.
- Just do it.
- Finger lickin’ good.
- Dive deep.
- Mind-bending stories of spiritual freedom.
They are all about the theme.
Thomas: Developing a brief tagline can be a little bit like the old parable of the fishmonger. He has a sign that says, “Fresh fish sold here.”
Then a marketing consultant says, “You really don’t need the word ‘sold.’ That’s obvious.” So, he changes it to say, “Fresh fish here.”
Someone else comes along and says, “the word ‘here’ unnecessary.” So, he cuts the word ‘here,’ and his sign says, “Fresh fish.”
Another person says, “People can tell the fish is fresh because they can see it,” so now the sign says, “Fish.”
Since everyone can smell the fish, even the word ‘fish’ seems unnecessary, and suddenly the fishmonger has no sign at all.
At some point, you must make decisions about what must remain. In my view, Dekker’s “Dive deep” is almost cut too much. That could be for a surfing company. It could be for spiritual counseling or scuba diving certification.
It needs additional context to mean something. Whereas Jim’s tagline, “Mind-bending stories of spiritual freedom,” is almost more of a mission statement.
I think a mission statement type tagline is more useful because you can ask yourself, as you’re writing a book, “Is this a mind-blowing story about spiritual freedom?” It guides you in your writing. If it’s too broad, it can apply to anything. But if it feels a little restrictive, that’s when it’s useful because it helps you make decisions.
Jim: That’s an interesting perspective. Within the context of Ted’s website, you’d see who he is and that he’s an author. Within that expanded context, maybe it does work.
Thomas: Again, taglines are a part of a whole branding exercise. There’s more to your brand than just your tagline. It’s your photo. It’s your genre. For most authors, their brand and their genre never get separated.
Brandilyn Collins doesn’t even try to brand beyond her genre. Her brand is “Seatbelt suspense,” and she’s saying, “I’m the queen of this genre. If you like suspense, that’s what I write.”
It’s a powerful approach, and it works. Readers are usually fans of a genre more than they are fans of an author. If an author they love writes a book outside of a genre they love, most times, readers won’t leave the genre. Sometimes they will. And some readers love the author enough to cross over to the other genre.
Jim: It’s extremely rare, rare, but it can happen. Ted Decker has gone beyond his brand. Nike, as a company, has gone beyond its products. Apple has gone beyond its products. But it does not happen very often. So being clear, like Brandilyn, has a lot of power.
How do I develop a clear and focused tagline?
Thomas: How do we make that happen? If we’re working on our brand, how do we come up with a handful of words that help encapsulate who we are as a writer?
Jim: A great tagline comes from knowing the theme of your life. That’s why it’s the first thing we explore at the Rubart Writing Academy. The following questions will guide you toward developing a focused, clear, and memorable tagline.
Questions to start you on the process of developing an author tagline:
What’s the theme of your life?
Jim: What are you about at your core? The answer needs to be so familiar to you that you can say it if I wake you in the middle of the night.
What are the common themes in your stories?
Jim: If I look at all your stories, even if they’re in different genres or time periods, I can see a theme running through all your stories. Go back and look at your stories and determine what theme runs through them all.
What do you want people to walk away with after reading something you’ve written?
Jim: Some people just want people to feel happy. Others want people to laugh. Some authors want people to contemplate deep questions of life. If that’s your aim, make the contemplative question specific. Provoking deep thoughts about justice or love will require you to write completely different stories.
What do you want people to walk away with after talking to you?
Jim: I want people to feel free, encouraged, and inspired after I’ve talked with them.
Every time I talk to Thomas, I walk away thinking in ways I’ve never thought before. Thomas, do you intentionally challenge people’s thinking? Do you want to teach people something new?
Thomas: I’ve never shared my tagline on the podcast before because I use it more internally. But the most recent tagline I developed was, “I help make marketing and technology simple.” I like to help people make sense of the complex aspects of marketing. My two-word tagline would be, “The enlightener.”
The whole reason I podcast and teach is to make things less confusing for authors. I live for those “aha” moments when the lightbulb goes on, and the author discovers she can build a website herself or develop a book launch plan or build a platform.
What makes you different?
Jim: How are you unique, and what makes you stand out from other authors personally? How are your stories different or unique?
What feeling do you want to convey?
Jim: If you try to convey a feeling to people, some won’t want it. When I say “mind-bending,” some people don’t want that, and that’s ok. That tells you you’re doing it right. You’ve narrowed your focus. Different people have different tastes.
Thomas: When some people say, “No, that’s not for me, it’s actually a sign you have a good tagline. It means you’re specific enough for people to know who it is and isn’t for. A poor tagline makes no one feel anything good or bad. A great tagline makes people say, “Yes! Thank you. That’s for me!”
Nike’s tagline, “Just do it,” is very aspirational. There’s a certain kind of person who wakes at 5:00 AM to run, and there’s a kind of person who doesn’t. Nike is targeting the early morning runner, which is a small target audience.
But the power of an apparel brand is that they’re also reaching out to people who want to be runners. Those people think, “If I buy Nike shoes, then I’ll be able to wake up at 5:00 AM and run,” which, of course, is a lie. Nike shoes won’t help you much. They may help you a little bit. If you spend $100 on a pair of Nikes, you might be more likely to wake up and run. But that effect won’t last long.
What is the benefit to the reader?
Jim: If you’re already published, what do your reviews say? What words are used repeatedly to describe your work? Brandilyn went to her Amazon reviews and kept seeing comments about needing a seatbelt. Look at your reviews to see what words people use about your writing.
Ask your readers.
Jim: In your newsletter, ask them what words or phrases come to mind when they think about your stories. Ultimately, those readers matter most. But don’t ask them what they think of your new tagline. Design by committee usually ends in disaster.
Thomas: We have an episode about how design by committee destroys projects. We also talk about how to navigate feedback. You want feedback without design by committee.
The shorter, the better.
Jim: It’s easier to remember if it’s short, but don’t make it too short. Play with alliteration. Don’t make it your goal, but it’s a tool you can consider.
Test your tagline.
Jim: You’ll use a great tagline for years. Nike has used theirs for maybe 30 years. When you’re starting, test what is working and what isn’t.
Thomas: What are some more author taglines?
Jim: These examples come from the Rubart Writing Academy Reunion we had in October. We developed a new tagline for everyone who came. Maybe they will inspire you.
- Unstoppable love. It’s quick, short, and uses a powerful word. On the right website with the right graphics, it’s powerful.
- Scoot over, girl. I’m right there with you. This author is in her late 50s, and she comes alongside young girls to assure them that she’ll help, and they’ll work it out together. It sounds very inviting.
- Come with me if you want to live. This one is still in development, but it came from the Terminator movies. It could be powerful if it’s massaged a bit for a tagline. The exact wording is probably trademarked, but the idea is there. It speaks of an epic escape.
- I’ll take out the big guy. This author has overcome insurmountable odds, and that’s the theme of his life. His stories are rich with that type of hero.
- A hero will rise because a hero is needed. That hero is you. A 12-year-old kid wants to be that hero.
- Navigate the chaos. Within the right context and website images, it can be extremely powerful. We’re living in a world of chaos now, and people want to learn how to navigate that.
- From Invisible to Invincible. It’s so powerful it almost doesn’t need the context of website images. The phrase immediately captures me. So many people feel invisible, and this author writes to folks who feel invisible.
Thomas: Each of these taglines makes a promise to the reader. The promise might be that it will be an exciting story where the hero takes out the bad guy. “A hero will rise” promises that if you read this book, you’ll become a hero. “Navigating the chaos” is dependent upon the context, but it can be a great seasoning for the rest of the marketing.
Where to Use Your Tagline:
- Blog header
- Facebook Header Graphic
- Twitter Header Graphic
- Business cards
- Amazon page
- Email signatures: you can use your photo and your tagline or catchphrase.
Thomas: If you use it in your newsletter, put it in the subject line of one of your drip-sequence emails. In the email, explain who you are. It can be a good tool to introduce yourself. I don’t recommend a banner graphic in emails.
In my emails, I use the catchphrase, “Live long and prosper.” It’s Spock’s Vulcan salute, and it encapsulates how I see myself. I’m Spock on the bridge, and you, the listener, are Captain Kirk. I’m here to advise you about technical things. The hand sign was based on a Hebraic priestly blessing. Leonard Nimoy, the actor, brought that in from his Jewish heritage, which I think is cool. A catchphrase different from a tagline, but it serves a similar function.
Jim: It can seem overwhelming when you start playing with this, so give it time. Give yourself time to work with it. You don’t have to come up with a tagline in the next week or month. Play with it. Ask friends, critique partners, or marketing partners, and bounce ideas off each other.
Thomas: Again, taglines are optional. It might help, but it’s not the thing that will make you successful. It will, however, help you focus your writing and your brand.
Daniel Bishop, author of Ralley Point: Place of Refuge
Leif and Dyanna Jo are devastated after she miscarries after so many years of trying to get pregnant. The miscarriage becomes a catalyst for their roller coaster journey to becoming a foster family.
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This episode made me think about my upcoming book title. Because of my genre (Christian Women’s lit), it was suggested that I use a one-word title. I loved the idea, but the obvious title already appears twice on the first page of Goodreads. Alternate one-world titles have the same result…should I throw in the towel? Are one-word titles overrated? Thoughts on this…?
Such a great episode! In my VERY limited ability to create worksheets, I put together a PDF of the questions listed above for anyone who wants to print it up and have something visual to look at as they walk through this process 🙂 This episode gave me a lot to think about and I look forward to spending the next few months really digging into this. Here is a link to the PDF:
Like I said, VERY limited ability, hahaha. Here is the Google drive link, I made the file public.
And if the pdf is inappropriate, please feel free to delete. Not trying to jump the gun and steal your thunder or make it possible for others to plagiarize your hard work 🙂 just excited to glean from your wisdom Thomas!!
I’ve been working on a tag line. This was really helpful. I appreciate the encouragement that it’s okay for it to be a process.
Thomas, if you have not read it, I suggest you read Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of NIKE by Phil Knight. The early days of NIKE is an amazing story from how they came up with the name to how much they paid for the logo. Phil Knight tells a fascinating story about how he and others persisted in the face of failure. Great show. Thank you.