How to Come Up with a Great Book Concept

6793422062_e847f58243Let me start with three reasons working on a book with a lousy concept is a bad idea:

  1. Beautiful, compelling writing is terribly important to publishers, but if your beautiful writing is in the service of a concept that no one will buy, publishers will have a hard time getting excited.
  2. A far-reaching platform is also a huge asset, but again if your concept bites, what’s the use? What’s the point of leveraging a massive platform for a book that people are not interested in? Throngs may flock to you, but if you hand them SPAM, they will be less likely to come back, and they will not send others to you.
  3. What’s the point of investing a massive amount of time and energy into a concept that won’t sell? Your time and energy are more valuable than that.

I have been in pub board sessions where I could literally see the tension in our bodies. We fairly writhe in our seats when we love the writing or the platform, or both, but dislike the concept. We writhe because we see all that potential going to waste.

And yes, sometimes we get it wrong. Sometimes we turn down a concept that another publisher picks up, and it becomes a big success. But that is the very rare exception. Far more often we give a concept the benefit of the doubt only to wish we hadn’t later. Often we dislike a concept because we have seen similar concepts fail.

By the way, the reverse of all the above is also true. It’s pure magic when beautiful writing and a good platform work together with a sweet concept. That’s the stuff that gets us up in the morning! That’s the stuff that changes lives and makes a real difference out there.

Needless to say, this up front work of coming up with a great concept is really important.

I want to recommend a two-step process for developing a compelling topic:

  1. Find the need.
  2. Brainstorm a title.

Find the need. It’s important to isolate the impulse to buy. This isn’t about getting rich or helping the publisher get rich. It’s about the fact that you and I don’t plunk down money for a book unless we really want it. That’s just reality.

Ask: What is the need to which your book will be the answer? What’s the itch you’re going to scratch? What’s the pain you’re going to take on as your own?

This isn’t necessarily about clever concepts, either. We see a lot of clever concepts that reflect genuine creativity, but don’t scratch an itch. And here’s what we say when we see one of these: “Clever concept, but will it sell?”

This isn’t about the need you think people have. It’s about the need they think they have.

Social networks can be key here. Talk to friends. Do some surveys. Ask, “Would you buy a book on…? And if you wouldn’t, what would you buy a book on?”

Spend some time on this. Read books and articles and blogs to help you develop your idea.

Be willing to change your concept. Sometimes a subtle change makes all the difference. Sometimes a change means more work for you, and this work is worth doing.

Brainstorm a title. Some proposals reassure, “Don’t worry. I’m not married to this title. We can change it.” Make no mistake. The title you use in your book proposal has a significant influence on how publishers will respond to it. We know it’s not final, but your title still affects our reception.

Again I would point to the great power of a community here. Enlist some friends—friends you trust, friends whose opinions you value. Throw a brainstorming party, get one of those big 3M pads of paper, and go crazy. Consider doing three of these sessions. Use the ideas that come from these team sessions as fodder for brainstorming sessions you do later by yourself.

You may want to brainstorm not just titles but subtitles too, and eventually title and subtitle combinations.

Then, in your proposal use the best title and subtitle you came up with, but include a list of ten to twenty alternatives too. Titles are essentially concept labels, so if you include several, we’ll see various possible angles for the concept. By providing a list, in a sense you’re helping us brainstorm with you. We’re seeing the possibilities alongside you, and we may be able to add an additional possibility or two.

This is my best shot at helping you come up with a great book concept, but do you have other ideas? What has worked for you or people you know?

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34 thoughts on “How to Come Up with a Great Book Concept

  1. This makes sense for a non-fiction book.

    But what about a fiction book concept? I honestly think it might be harder to conceptualize as a “need” than a non-fiction work.

    I don’t want to oversimplify that a fiction book only meets the needs of escapism or enjoyment for the reader. Though that’s part of it. There is also the concept of what’s in the marketplace, and how this story is different. There’s also the idea of the message or theme of the book, and whether that meets some sort of need.

    I could overthink this for days. I’m going to go write my fiction and let bigger brains than mine figure out if it will sell…

    • AK, that may well be the best approach for fiction. I’m a nonfiction guy. I tend to think the best story wins in fiction, so honing your craft is not a bad idea at all! Sorry to frustrate you. Hang in there!

      • I’d reiterate Chad’s point that the story is what matters in fiction. I’m a lover of great writing, so for me the style of the book is as important as the story. But recently I had a 30+ year book publishing sales professional say these exact words to me in response to me saying “But she’s such a good writer!”: “It doesn’t matter. Story sells.” So in terms of getting published and selling, yes, focus on creating a compelling plot that makes someone keep reading and recommend it to their friends. Even I, a mildly snobbish literary writer, will hesitate to recommend a gorgeously written book I love to some of my friends because I know they weren’t English majors and are more interested in plotting than prose.

  2. My MS deals with PTSD, inter-racial marriage, loss of children and finding a Godly spouse. It also has the sub-plot of The Long Walk of the Navajo. I’m fairly sure there is enough meat in there to sell quite well.
    But then again, if I had some Amish vampires, maybe it would boost sales.

  3. Great information, thanks! I love the tip about being willing to change. I think that flexibility is huge, sometimes a subtle shifting can make something so much stronger. I see that in the revising process so much.

    Also, I think I find while blogging when I am real and vulnerable in my writing, others respond to that. They are willing to share their struggles. I have gathered many thoughts and ideas about people’s needs through those conversations and resulting friendships.

  4. Agree so much about the willingness to be flexible with the book’s concept. I originally didn’t envision The Sweetest Story Bible as a little girls’ Bible storybook nor my new guide to reading through the Bible in a year as just for women. In both cases the publishers made those suggestions, and they got it exactly right!

    Agree about titles too. “The Sweetest Story Bible” was my original title. For “A Woman’s Guide to Reading the Bible in a Year” I had proposed “You CAN Read That Bible on Your Shelf”–which I think communicated the concept of an easy-to-use guide, but I like the publisher’s title much better!

  5. Well said, Chad.

    Question: Would you rather have someone with a great concept that isn’t the best writer in the world or a great writer with a not-so-great concept?

    It seems to me both can be successfully coached through their book, but which one would you rather work with?

    • Wow, that’s a tough one. Certainly good writing is a harder and longer process to cultivate, which is why it’s such a waste when good writing serves a bad concept. Good concepts are more the result of inspiration and good brainstorming and having a sense of what’s needed out there, where culture is, etc. I don’t really have the luxury of picking one or the other, unfortunately. Both are essential.

      • I would have to disagree…surprised? Great ideas, really great ones that are worth publishing, are more rare than good writers. A great idea connected with a good editor can accomplish a great book. However, a good writer with and average idea is still an average book well said.

        Unfortunately, it’s too easy for a good writer to get published with an average idea.

  6. This is a great post. I heartily agree, Chad!! I start with Scripture, for in my study, themes pop out over and over. Just in case the Lord is leading me to write on one, I start a file folder on each and start collecting ideas. Often one idea morphs into another, and another book concept emerges.

    That being said, there is the second component, which you have so aptly described. What do people need? I frequently speak for groups of women, and I listen carefully to what they share with me between sessions. The more I talk with people, the clearer common needs become.

    When you write a proposal, the need you seek to meet needs to be expressed and then answered in how your book will help readers. It’s how I sold my first book,

    I saw that many women wondered about how much God valued them. In my study of the conversations Jesus had with women, I found awesome things that showed Jesus’ heart for them. It was a clear answer to the problem I had seen– He meets us where we are and moves us forward. A book was born!

    • Julie, you make an excellent point about scripture and what one feels led to write as a starting place. That’s absolutely right, and I may well edit my post to emphasize this. The trick is in finding where what we feel led to write intersects with where people’s needs are. I always think of the incarnation at this point. God didn’t stay in the heavens to help us, nor did he come to earth as a giant or with a bunch of armor. He met us right where we are. We should follow his example with our writing. It sounds like you’re doing exactly that with your book! Bless you. Thanks for commenting.

  7. Wow, Chad, this is the first time I’ve come over to your blog, and this couldn’t have been more timely for me, as I’ve had several people suggest to me I should write a book and I’ve started mulling it over, trying to figure out how to do so and make it different than other books already written on the subject.