What Makes a Good Book Tagline?

A great tagline can help sell books and give readers an idea of what kind of story they’re picking up. However, titles, covers and blurbs play a much larger role in book marketing, so taglines (aka straplines or endlines in the UK) are rarely discussed. We’re more likely to associate them with the subtitles on movie posters or trailers, and most of us would be hard-pressed to quote the tagline of our favourite novel. In spite of this, I’d wager that at least one out of every two books you pick up will have a slogan or catchphrase that appears on its front or back cover.

So this week I’ve collected 20 stand-out taglines from various books on my shelf and analysed which ones I like, which ones I don’t, and why I believe they do or don’t do a good job of selling the novel.

But before I launch into the results, some things to bear in mind:

  • These are my opinions of the taglines, not of the books themselves!
  • It’s often publishers that write these promotional elements, so the below examples weren’t necessarily written by the authors.
  • Taglines can vary for different editions, so I’m just using the ones from my editions.
  • My shelves are predominantly filled with fantasy, science fiction and young adult books, so you’ll notice my examples will be mostly within these genres.

10 Great Book Taglines

“35 Girls. 1 Crown. The competition of a lifetime.”
The Selection

Regardless of whether this is your kind of book or not, I think this tagline is brilliant. It tells you exactly what kind of book and storyline to expect, and also gives you an idea of what’s at stake.

“Laia is a slave. Elias is a soldier. Neither is free.”
– An Ember in the Ashes

This immediately tells you to expect romance while at the same time communicating the key conflict and characters. The book wasn’t entirely my cup of tea, but this tagline did a great job of selling it to me.

“Even in the future, the story begins with Once Upon a Time…”
– Cinder

A nice reflection of the story (fairy-tale-inspired and set in a a futuristic world). “Once Upon a Time” adds an enchanting feel to it, and you have to credit it for not using this cliché phrase in a sappy way. It also complements the cover and title well.

“Her beauty is a weapon – and Fire is going to use it.”
– Fire

I love this one because it immediately offers something intriguing. How is her beauty a weapon and how is she going to use it? It also reflects the core focus/magical element of the story and refers to the main character and the title.

“Winning will make you famous. Losing means certain death.”
The Hunger Games

This tagline doesn’t have quite the same smooth flow or nice rhythm as others, but it still does its job. You immediately get a sense that big things are at stake, and that the focus is on a game or competition of some kind.

“Dive into a world torn apart by a powerful race with phenomenal powers of the mind – and none of the heart…”
– Slave to Sensation

Again, this might lack some of the grace and flow of others I mentioned, but it clearly communicates the setting, the genre and the conflict at the heart of the story, and has enough intriguing elements to make me read further.

“Sometimes being a god is no fun at all…”
– Pyramids

This is short and sweet, conveying both the humorous tone of the novel (essential for a Terry Pratchett book!) and the central focus of the story. It also has an element of intrigue, as you ask what will make being a god not fun at all.

“A world at stake. The quest for the ultimate prize. Are you ready?”
– Ready Player One

I really like this one, but I think it only works because of the book’s title. The direct “Are you ready?” question might seem conceited in another context, but when coupled with the title, both evoke that sense of anticipation and excitement before starting a video game.

“Winter is coming”
A Song of Ice and Fire

I confess, I don’t know if this is actually printed as a tagline on any of the books… but it’s used so regularly in conjunction with them and with the TV series, that I had to mention it. The now iconic motto of House Stark instils an immediate sense of foreboding and drama, while that the same time referencing a core conflict in the series.

“Does the walker choose the path, or the path the walker?”
Clariel

This works well for the latest book in the Old Kingdom series, as it reminds loyal readers of the line from The Book of the Dead often referenced in previous books. It’s also a dramatic question about controlling fate, so works even for those who haven’t read the series.

10 Underwhelming Book Taglines

“Some loves are meant to be…. Others are cursed.”
– Beautiful Creatures

This tagline is incredibly generic and could describe any paranormal romance out there. The second clause feels too short and simplistic, creating an abrupt ending that robs it of any flow or gravitas. I haven’t read the book yet so can’t comment on how it reflects it, but it’s not selling me.

“She turns to face the future in a world that’s falling apart.”
– Divergent

This tells me close to nothing about the book, other than it’s a dystopian novel. A phrase like “turns to face the future” is meaningless, not to mention cliché. Yes, clichés are the bread and butter of taglines, but they should be used to good effect and this one isn’t. Lastly it doesn’t really even reflect the story or conflict of the book!

“Fighting for survival in a shattered world… the truth is her only hope.”
– Insurgent

Once again, the combined use of meaningless clichés results in a melodramatic, roll-your-eyes tagline that doesn’t say much of anything about the book.

“In a faraway land in which members of the royal family are named for the virtues they embody, one boy will become a walking enigma.”
– Assassin’s Apprentice

This tagline doesn’t do the book justice or even properly reflect it. It’s long and clunky, focusses on a rather irrelevant element of the novel, tells us nothing of interest about the story, and makes the book sound like a generic unoriginal epic fantasy (which it isn’t).

“Once upon a time, a demon and an angel fell in love. It did not end well.”
Daughter of Smoke and Bone

I love this series, but this tagline just doesn’t do it for me. I feel like the second sentence is too abrupt and simplistic… after the “once upon a time” demon and angel build-up I expect something more dramatic or clever than “it did not end well”.

“Winning what you want may cost you everything you love.”
The Winner’s Curse

Again, this one just feels too generic and clichéd for me. I agree, it does reflect the core conflict of the book and the fact it’s a romance, as well as explaining the title, but it just doesn’t have enough zing or difference to enchant me.

“Two men love her. The whole land fears her. Only she can save them all.”
Throne of Glass

“Only she can save them all” is just too melodramatic for my taste. Also this book is way more interesting than this tagline makes it out to be: the fact Celaena is a deadly assassin plucked from slavery fighting in deadly trials for a king she abhors is completely missed.

“Justice will come to the empire.”
– Ancillary Justice

This isn’t terrible, it’s just a bit… meh. I’m not that stirred by the idea of justice coming to the empire. I guess it conveys the genre and the tone well enough, but the book has fascinating concepts, characters and suspenseful moments that aren’t evoked by this tagline.

“A tale of three worlds.”
 A Shadow on the Glass

Again, I don’t hate this, and it certainly suggests high fantasy and reflects the core premise… but there’s not really any tension in it. I like the simplicity of it, and the element of wonder, but I’m undecided as to whether it’d inspire me to pick up the book.

“The bestselling true story of murder and madness”
The Mayne Inheritance

This annoyed me primarily because it’s a poor reflection of the book and embodies the very thing the book criticises. Emblazoned in big red sash on the front, it makes it look like a bawdy murder mystery by an author of dubious merit, not the carefully researched work of historical non-fiction it is. The book tells the tragedy of a generous family that was ostracised and shunned for a murder committed by their long-dead, mad father. This tagline feels like it perpetuates the same sensationalism and morbid titillation that the small-town gossips successfully used to brand the family for their whole lives.

So What Makes a Good Tagline?

After looking through all these dramatic, catchy phrases and thinking about what made me like or dislike them, I think some of the things that can make a tagline effective are:

  1. Reflecting the core conflict or what is at stake in the novel
  2. Communicating the premise of the novel (if it’s an intriguing one)
  3. Highlighting something unique, unusual or interesting about the novel
  4. Inspiring curiosity or intrigue in the reader (by causing them to ask questions, or presenting them with an interesting contradiction)
  5. Not being too generic or relying too heavily on vague clichés
  6. Communicating the tone and genre of the novel
  7. Having a nice rhythm and flow
  8. Being clever, funny or memorable
  9. Being clear and meaningful (not too vague, confusing, imprecise or meaningless)
  10. Creating a sense of drama or tension (without sounding too melodramatic)
  11. Using slightly interesting or unusual words/word combinations (rather than generic adjectives, nouns and verbs you see all the time)
  12. Using a poetic, dramatic or meaningful quotation from the novel (particularly if it is a later novel in a series and fans will recognise the phrase and its significance, thus rekindling enthusiasm for and memories of the story).

Of course, one tagline doesn’t have to (and probably can’t!) do all of these things to be effective, but I think doing at least some of them puts it in good stead. I’m no expert at concocting taglines myself – I find coming up with a title hard enough – but it’s still interesting to analyse the ones I encounter and see what works and what doesn’t.

Also I should point out that a tagline isn’t a log line – where a tagline is a catchy phrase or slogan, a log line must actually describe the key character/s, setting and conflict of a novel.

If you’d like to know more about taglines, here are some useful related sites and articles you can check out:

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Of course, above are just my impressions and thoughts on the book slogans I found – feel free to tell me if you agree or disagree with me in the comments. Also if you have a favourite book or movie tagline, I’d love to hear it!

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6 thoughts on “What Makes a Good Book Tagline?

  1. Yes- agree with you about the taglines for pyramids (Pratchett’s taglines are always top notch) hunger games, cinder, clariel (God how I love that series) and if course got.
    Oh dear beautiful creatures and divergent fall flat. And insurgent isn’t any better
    I actually love the taglines for daughter of smoke and bone, but for didn’t really do it for me (so to each their own 😉 ) love this post- it’s really thorough! I get what you mean about the taglines highlighting the main conflict- I always think that’s a good way to do it

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes all of Pratchett’s are top notch! Had to limit it to one in this post or I could have just filled it up with Pratchett taglines 🙂

      And I thought people might disagree with me re. the Daughter of Smoke and Bone tagline, because it’s really prominent and used regularly so must be popular. Just personally wasn’t my thing I guess. I think also maybe because I listened to the audiobooks and it gets repeated over and over with variations at the beginnings of the books/various chapters maybe that didn’t help (I love the books though!). Anyway, as you say, each to their own 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This post provided for an enjoyable, substantial read! Thank you for putting it together in such a concise, clean, informative way. You hit the nail right on the head when you put “the stakes” as being one of the top things a tagline ought to emphasize, with tone just below it. A successful tagline should be intriguing above everything. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Writing a Query Letter: Part 2 – S.E. White Author

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