Challenge,  On Writing,  publishing

Losing An Art Form In Book Sales

Just Was Brought to My Attention…

That publishing is losing an art form. Television still has it, so do movies, so do gaming and other licensing areas. But books are losing this art form completely.

Tag Lines. 

That’s right, writing a tag line to catch a reader’s attention used to be an art form on book covers and helped sell millions of copies of books. But now, due to simple lack of knowledge, the art form is vanishing.

So what is happening? Well, in traditional publishing, massive budget cuts have taken out most of the sales force, leaving a few for only the bestsellers. Where the sales force used to write the cover copy and tag lines for all the books in a line, now low-level baby editors right out of Vassar are tasked with the job, usually from month’s old memory of scanning the book. And they write passive and dull sales with a lot of plot and wouldn’t know a tag line if it leaped off the page and bit them.

And on the indie side, same thing. Writers think, because they can type, they know how to write sales copy (They do not.), and they also have no understanding of tag lines, even though they have been seeing them on books they buy for decades.

So today someone pointed the fact out that on books, tag lines are rare things.

I was stunned, so I did some research and yup, they are, by my thirty minutes of scanning and my gut sense of watching them vanish with so much poor sales writing in the indie world. Tag lines are now so rare that they should be put on the endangered list in book sales.

And what is sad is that tag lines are maybe one of the most powerful tools to catch a reader’s attention to buy a book. 

What is a tag line?

A simple, catchy, one or two line phrase on the cover of a book or at the top of the back cover. It is also used in sales copy on Amazon and other places for electronic sales.

Example: My Men in Black novel The Grazer Conspiracy… Tag line… When aliens check in, they check them out

Example: My Alien’s novel Rogue written under the name Sandy Schofield… tag line… The Answer to a Madman’s Prayer…

Tag lines are near titles to tell the readers the comment is about the book, not the author.

I put tag lines on any book that needs the design element. If I already have a series under a title and USA Today Bestselling Writer above my name, the cover doesn’t need more print. So for a paperback, I put a tag line on the back or in the sales copy at times. Or I used to. WMG doesn’t often use tag lines anymore because Kris and I have a ton of credits and other things they can use.

But I know how to do Tag Lines, how to use them to increase sales.

But at the moment it is a dying art in books. Not in television, not in movies, not in gaming. But wow, author’s just seem to find more ways to not have their books sell. And we indie writer’s can’t blame traditional publishing anymore.

My favorite all-time tag line is still “He suffered and was killed. And the next day he was reborn, and ascended to the moon and was seated on the right hand of death.”

Signet edition with a Power’s cover of one of the first books I have a clear memory of reading. Published in 1960. Hugo nominated 1961. I offered to write the sequel to it a number of times, but he never let me.

The book is Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys. Now dated, but luckily Gene Roddenberry didn’t steal AJs form of teleportation for Star Trek. Otherwise there would be hundreds and hundreds of James T. Kirks running all over the galaxy.


  • Julie

    Thanks for reminding me about Rogue Moon! I read my dad’s copy when I was a kid and too young to really understand it. Just bought it on Kindle for a reread and see that the tagline has been left off this new edition.

    • dwsmith

      It’s very dated, Julie. Sadly. But interesting ideas for the time, sixty years ago.

      A point to everyone else. Note AJ has been dead for a time, his novels, without any real push, are still making money for his wife and kids. Sixty years after he wrote most of them. Just a copyright point.

  • Harvey


    I can’t agree enough. I often come up with striking tag lines for my novels and novellas. I see it as an enticement, a narrow bridge from the title to the story. A tag line deserves as much care as the first line of a story.

    • dwsmith

      Sometimes more. They see the cover and tag line way before the first line. But you are right, Harvey.

    • Donna Mixon

      I still put taglines on Terry’s covers. You taught me to. And we’ve had tremendous success with them. Why would I stop?

      It’s the juicy worm on a hook in the water… and hopefully enough to get attention once the reader notices the splash of the cover.

      It is not something I expect we’ll do away with unless the cover image is simply too busy to include.

      It is difficult to understand why big publishers would do away with sales tools which have worked so well. Except because they got rid of the experienced folks who knew what they were doing.

      • dwsmith

        Exactly, Donna. For all genre books and regular fiction, the sales force no longer exists, let along anyone on staff that knew how to write ad copy and sales copy. They had long ago moved to other industries. Publishing deemed them not important and a force that could be cut.

        Again one of the reasons I shake my head at writers who think traditional publishers will promote them. Nope.

  • Kessie

    James Scott Bell has tons of info on how to write taglines, so they’re still alive in one corner of indiedom! I think the thriller genre still uses them heavily, but not so much with fantasy and speculative fiction. For my superhero trilogy, the tagline is, “One by oath, one by blood, one by election.” For my paranormal romance trilogy, it was, “Befriend many, serve some, trust few, love none.” And boy, did it take a lot of thought to build those.

  • Thomas Bennett

    You do a video or two on taglines in your “Sales Copy Workshop” Could you do a lecture series or a workshop on taglines? Maybe not enough interest. But working on my first novel, and it’s something I’d like to learn more about. Maybe I’ll take a look at romance movie tag lines and see if I can figure something out. Should be fun 🙂

    • dwsmith

      Maybe a Pop-Up on them. But like the Sales Copy workshop, I doubt many would sign up because writers think they can all write sales copy. That is like saying I can speak English, so I should be able to speak French without learning it. Nope. In six weeks I can give people a basics, but not much more, and many forget fairly quickly even after that. Sales copy and tag lines are tough. Possible to learn, but writers have to realize they need to learn the skill. That’s the battle.

  • Dave Raines

    I read Rogue Moon when I was really young, I’ll be I would see whole new things now. Thanks for the reference (and the reminder about tag lines).


    A widower tries to protect his only daughter when she is chosen to repel the evil that has seized the Bridge between Heaven and Earth.

  • Mike Zimmerman


    You gave me flashbacks with this post. Back in the day, ’93-’00, I was a marketing and jacket copywriter for Putnam-Berkley, soon to be acquired by Penguin. Truly a bygone era, as we had 4 copywriters on staff that handled Berkley, Jove, Perigee, Riverhead, and all of the genre imprints like Prime Crime, Boulevard, and of course Ace. After a couple of years, the dept expanded to 8 copywriters, and eventually 12 when we took on all the Penguin imprints. All on staff, all full time. Can you imagine? No idea if they even have any now. But we handled everything for every title — cover, catalog, and any marketing or physical items like risers or shelf talkers. I was handling more than 100 books a year.

    The tagline, as you say, was a special art form. Most bestselling titles didn’t need one because we could use the NYTimes bestseller line or a really good quote from NYtimes Book Review or Washington Post (newspaper quote hierarchy was NYTimes, Post, USA Today, LA Times, Chicago Tribune, and then whatever other city papers we could pull a line from — I always thought SF Chronicle had some heft).

    But genre books from largely unknown authors *needed* a razor sharp tagline for exactly the reasons you say. One line I wrote in particular has stayed in my mind 25 years later and I can’t explain why. It was for an Ace novel by Jerry Jay Carroll — “If it walks like a human…and talks like a human…run. INHUMAN BEINGS.”

    Our approach was very much the same as movie taglines. If “In space, no one can hear you scream” is the gold standard, we tried to produce the equivalent for whatever book we were working on. And sometimes even the biggest authors needed taglines. I also have one I did for Tom Clancy stuck in my head: “Jack Ryan has always been a soldier. Now he’s giving the orders. EXECUTIVE ORDERS.”

    Like I said, you’re giving me flashbacks.

    Also, I remember you and Kris writing quite a few novels for Ace during that time. I wrote about 90% of Ace’s covers in those years so I’m guessing my copy is on a lot of your books. I hope that’s a good thing (he said with a smile).

    Dean is right folks. Taglines! Learn ’em!

    Mike Zimmerman

    • dwsmith

      Oh, wow, Mike. I love that INHUMAN BEINGS tag line. Super. Yeah, it is sad what happened to those days. Now there are no copywriters except for a few bestsellers. Editors are tasked with doing it.

      Thanks for the story, Mike. Helps people understand how much has changed and what they need to learn. Thanks!!

    • Sheila

      Wait… Wait… Wait…

      Okay. Sorry. Had a moment remembering all those Ace paperbacks. What a great era that was!

      But, on topic, thanks for sharing your experience. It’s great to hear from those who were “in the trenches”, as they say, and know of which they speak. Which is why reading Dean’s blog, and Kris’, is so informative and fun.

  • Brenden Shouse

    Will you consider writing a book on this topic? I would buy a book in a heartbeat, or a popup course like an earlier commenter mentioned. I thought my taglines were good but they don’t sound anywhere near as well as the ones in your post and in the comments.
    “Taken if Liam Neeson was played by the Wolverene,” is my best one and it feels woefully inadequate now.
    A tagline is supposed to be more like”No matter how fast you run your past catches up to you,” and less like “Superheros in Space Opera”?

    • dwsmith

      I might. A good idea and I would write it here as blog posts. Not a bad idea. And then add extra for a lecture or Pop-Up. MIght be the way to go at this. And yes, you are right in the last line. Exactly.

      • Sheila

        Please, please, please! I try to give my books a good tagline, because I remember how it was done from the old days (from my reading and study of the writing business, not from my own publishing). It’s a lost art, and many noobs don’t know it was ever done.

  • Danielle Williams

    I don’t come up with a tagline for every story, but I sure enjoy making ’em! This website the best place I’ve found for tagline research: –Taglines from just about every movie poster out there.

    My favorite tagline I’ve come up for my own book? It’s between: “Apartment walls are thin. Reality may be thinner” for a twisted horror story, and “Bright minds hide the darkest secrets” for a science fantasy novel.

    I’d love to see more posts on taglines!

  • J.A. Marlow

    To those who left those links, thank you! I’ve copied them over to my reference file.

    I always develop taglines and have found them a powerful tool. I rely on passive marketing, and these are one of the best. I use them everywhere. I keep an eye out for good ones and copy them over to my reference file. Then when I’m working on my own I have a ready resource to go look at examples, to get my head into the ‘write sales copy’ workspace.

    In my circle of writer friends I’m known as the go-to person to help write these. I actually like writing a focused attention-catching liner. Something very satisfying about it.