How to Come Up with a Great Book Concept

A Simple Two-Step Process

Let 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.

Step 1: 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.

Step 2: 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.

Bonus Content: I hired an artist to design an infographic that presents the information in this article in an easy-to-use visual format. I also created a video training that walks you through the infographic step by step.

Access the infographic and video.

Question: 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? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • I really appreciate this post! Sometimes I get overwhelmed with all the helpful book writing content available online–I’m currently pruning my emails so I can focus on just a few writing ‘gurus’. Your content remains at the top of my list–always worth my time, Chad. Thanks for your practical suggestions in helping us to find our voices and create better, more meaningful art. I’ll be mulling over this post for a bit.

    • Chad R. Allen

      Thank you for the very kind words, Katie. I’m grateful for the opportunity to serve you, and thanks too for taking the time to comment.

  • Carole Harmon

    Your descriptions on determining the readers’ perceived needs are very helpful–“What’s the itch you’re going to scratch? What’s the pain you’re going to take on as your own?” These triggered my thoughts to come up w/my first potential book concept, based on what a few people have told me would strike a nerve in many readers. Thank you.

  • Wow, I knew to include a few title/subtitle options, but I never thought we should include up to 20! It appears I need to do more brainstorming. Thanks for the great tips.

    • Chad R. Allen

      You’re so welcome, Julie, and yes brainstorm away. See what comes.

  • Morgan McKenna

    Chad, you’re on target about testing and re-testing your concept. As a writer, it’s not enough to identify a problem that I think needs solving. As real as I may think problem “X” may be, if others do not perceive or experience “X” as a problem (preferably a pressing one) then I will only waste a lot of time, energy, and resources. Sure, I may think I can convert readers into believing that “X” is an issue in their lives. But, unless I have a brand name already, that is unlikely. Even if I do, it’s still better to discern what potential readers’ real pain-points are.

    • Chad R. Allen

      Couldn’t have said it better, Morgan! Spot on.

  • Fergusson MacRay

    Dear Chad R. Allen,

    Someone appears to be financially profiteering and spiritually capitalising on your work. We assume you are unaware of this and have not given your permission, since your work is not given credit.

    We’re sorry to inform you that you have been a victim of the Culprit in the Pulpit; that culprit being none other than Amanda Wells. A website online has been keeping a careful record of her plagiarism and unfortunately, Amanda has taken a particular liking to your work.

    If you haven’t already given Amanda permission in the past to use your work, then please contact her and ask for credit for your work.

    We have messaged her privately about the matter hoping she would do the right thing, but instead, we’ve been blocked from seeing her Facebook Pages. Hopefully you’ll have more luck reaching her. She has two Facebook pages under her name, Amanda Wells.

    We sincerely hope that you will be compensated for the work that has been shamelessly stolen from you.

    • Fergusson, thanks for looking out for me, but Amanda has my permission, and I don’t require credit. Love her video! She’s quite a good speaker, I think. Take care, Chad

  • I have 8 books…My 2nd, DIY Medicine.A Repair Manual seems to attract the most attention…I work out all my new research on my blog…Was thinking of grabbing the most viewed blog posts for Book 9, & titling it something like DIY Medicine Repair Manual:Greatest Hits…Maybe possibly not giving away free versions, if I can restrain myself…

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  • Thank you, Chad. You are right on. I’m working with a publisher right now and they loved everything about my writing and passion in my book proposal but the market is too crowded for the concept. They suggested I explore a different concept so we can hit the nail on the head for it to stand out so I’m working on that right now. Thanks for sharing these helpful ideas.

    • Hey, congrats, that’s great news! Sometimes a little tweak makes a big difference!

  • shalice miller

    i love this page.

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  • Danika

    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.

  • 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.

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  • 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.

        • I think we’d agree the best-case scenario is to have both!

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  • So, Chad, AHEM.Speaking seriously and vampire-free for a moment…how do we know if book subject is BEYOND what the CBA wants or is considered cutting edge?

    • …let alone the title?

      • Hm, I can’t think of a surefire way to determine this apart from hearing directly from a publisher. But you can determine a lot just from familiarizing yourself with a publisher’s works and from CBA works in general.

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • Thanks, Chad! Great info here. I’m RT’ing. Merry CHRISTmas!

    • Thanks, Cynthia. A merry Christmas to you and yours too!

  • 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.

    • Hey Jennifer, good to see you here again! Yes, Amish vampires are a must these days, it seems. 🙂

      • I believe the term is “Transylvania Dutch”.

        • Ahahahaha!!! Well played!

          • Ah, I can see the titles now. Lancaster Rising. Twilight on the Farm. I can even see a cover: the back of an Amish buggy driving up the road with a little trickle of blood following. Hey, this is getting good!

          • Hey Chad and Josh, would the buggy have big mommy and daddy stick vampires and then little stick bats on the back window?

  • AK

    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.