Thursday, June 07, 2007

Tagline Envy

I was on the other day (internet movie database) and I started noticing that their movie listings include, among other useful details, the movies’ taglines—often more than one. Some of these taglines are very good. Consider The Bourne Identity: “He was the perfect weapon until he became the target” or, All the Pretty Horses: “Some passions can never be tamed.” Other taglines struck me as fairly lame. The Departed: “Lies. Betrayal. Sacrifice. How far will you take it?” or, “Underhanded. Unrestrained. Undercover.” Yet there were enough good ones that I started thinking, This is what I need—a really clever tagline to help sell my Sebastian St. Cyr Regency mystery series. The problem is, I’m lousy at coming up with that kind of thing.

So what are these taglines, anyway? Basically, they’re bumper stickers. Visual soundbites. Text so short that people will actually read it, that communicates one simple idea in a way that makes it both graspable and memorable. The idea is to come up with a catchy, enticing phrase that will help sell your book/movie/car/investment firm/shampoo. Quick! Sum up your plot, theme, or tone is one memorable phrase. Ummmm….

Frustrated, I wandered the net looking for pointers. I was advised to use taglines to differentiate myself from the competition and help build my brand (Publishers are always talking about “branding” authors. Maybe I’m showing my age, but I get this Rawhide image of singed cowhide.) Taglines, I’m told, are shortcuts to help my target audience know me and remember me. Sounds great. But how do I this?

I’m told to sum up my product’s essence in a way that uses memorable phrasing, creates personality, and telegraphs the message I want to convey. Yes, I know that, but HOW? Ask a question, say the experts (“Does she or doesn’t she?”). Use a two-fold delivery with a twist (i.e., Shooters’ “Yesterday was about honor. Today is about justice.”) Use specifics rather than vague words or generalizations.

In the end, I’m left with the realization I can write a 100,000 word book but I can’t write a one sentence tagline. I should have known. Hell, I didn’t even come up with a clever name for my blog.


Chap O'Keefe said...

In my youth, taglines were very much in vogue on paperback covers, just -- as you note -- they are today in movie publicity and on DVD covers. In those days, supplying the gems wasn't the job of the author but of the editorial department. My first job, in the office of a thriller series, included producing titles, longer blurbs, chapter headings (remember them?). . . and taglines. I still enjoy doing these ancillary things and find as much pleasure in them as writing a book itself. Which is just as well since many publishers seem to have passed on the responsibility for them to authors , although taglines on covers have largely vanished.

Steve Malley said...

I think of these as 'barbeque lines', since those are the sorts of places I get to practice them. Y'know, you get that exciting question, "What's your book about?", and you have maybe five or ten seconds' attention before their eyes glaze over.

It's another form of query hell, is what it is. Your story's as lean as you can make it at 100,000 words. Then you have to turn it into one page. Then into a couple of paragraphs in a query letter, the briefer the better. Now, a tagline.

Actually, a bbq, lawn party, etc. is a great way to practice. Keep trying different answers to 'that question' until you hit a line that works.

My latest: One tough cop. A pack of vicious killers. A twelve year old girl caught in between.

It's not great, but nobody's eyes glaze, and lots of people ask more questions. And that's all a tagline is, really. Just a tease to get you to want more.

Steve Malley said...

If it seems hard, take heart! I was just reading a John Conoly interview here:

And he had this twelve word description of his latest book:

Stranger comes into town. Trouble ensues. People die. A confrontation. A solution.

Kate S said...

Ack! I have no advice to offer here since I suck at that too. :)
Taglines, blurbs, bios, synopses, queries - just shoot me now!

Chap O'Keefe said...

Are we trying too hard here? Maybe overlooking something obvious?

Candy is looking for a tagline for her whole series and some clues might lie in what the reviewers have said about the published books.

If I had to draw up a short list, it would probably have entries like:

"The heir to an earldom uncovers the dark side of Regency England"

cs harris said...

Thanks, Chap. That sounds pretty good! Reviews are often a good source for sound bites. And Steve, yours is great! Maybe I need to go to more bbqs. And Kate, it's nice to know I'm not alone.

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