When I used to sit at editorial meetings, presenting possible books to the team, I always wanted to be able to say one thing.
“This author has a big idea.”
A big idea, in this environment, was gold. It’s one of the things agents and editors are always looking for, because it so often translates into bigger sales.
Remember, traditional book publishing is a business, first and foremost. While an editor or agent might see the inherent value in any number of books, it’s our job to sort through a mountain of valuable, deserving books and pull out the ones that are also likely to sell.
It’s not either/or, it’s got to have both.
Generally, when a book with a “big idea” comes along, that’s a good sign that it has both inherent value and sales potential.
So what, exactly, is a big book idea? Is it possible to tweak a “smaller” idea and make it go big? And what should you do if you love your book idea—but it’s not “big”? I want to explain just that. Let’s go!
What Makes a “Big Idea” Big?
The term “big idea” refers to a book concept that’s easy to understand and thus has a big potential readership. Put another way, it’s an idea that people “get” right away, and which a lot of them will know they want.
A big idea breeds a big audience which breeds big book sales—and that’s what publishers are looking for.
I’ll be honest: Most literary agents and book editors have a “know it when we see it” philosophy around big book ideas. After so many years of publishing books—to greater and lesser success—you simply know a big idea when you hear one.
That said, there are qualities big book concepts have in common. Here are just a few, illustrated by books that are selling well at the time of this writing:
- Easy to articulate. You can explain the concept in just a sentence or two—it’s not complicated.
- The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo
- Girl, Stop Apologizing by Rachel Hollis
- Easy to understand. As soon as we hear it, we get it.
- Brave, Not Perfect by Reshma Saujani
- Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth
- Magnetic. It’s exciting, intriguing and/or surprising; it puts us on the edge of our seat.
- Atomic Habits: Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results by James Clear
- You Are a Badass by Jen Sincero
- An “A-ha!” moment. It’s pointing out something that’s been here all along, but we haven’t seen it until now.
- Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell
- The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle
- Pithy title. Often the title of a “big book” is short, sometimes just one word.
- Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges by Amy Cuddy
- Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
- Serves an obvious purpose. It makes a promise of a benefit or a piece of knowledge that lots of people want.
- Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport
- The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson
That’s just a partial list, but hopefully you’re starting to get the idea.
Now you may be reading this thinking, “Um. My idea…it’s not that.” What do you do if you know your book idea isn’t “big”?
You’ve basically got two options. The first is to try to tweak, refine and hone your concept so that it has more of the velocity editors and agents are looking for. Let’s explore that option first.
Option #1: How to Make Your Book Idea “Bigger”
So you’ve got a transformational book in mind, but you’re not quite sure if it’s “big enough.” This is a helpful question to ask yourself, regardless of whether you’re aiming for traditional publishing or planning to self-publish.
It matters because big book concepts are easier to understand—and thus land more powerfully, simply and effectively with readers.
If there’s one mistake I see aspiring authors make, it’s failing to focus from the very beginning on reader adoption. Meaning, thinking deeply about what will cause a reader to pick up their book over the others on the shelf.
I guess we forget how many books we pass up on a single day, because the concepts were not magnetic to us. How many books literally never make it to our radar?
I want your book on reader radars, near and far! So here are four simple rules for making your book stand out on that bookshelf:
- Focus on making a single, digestible promise. See if you can refine it until the concept (and the title/subtitle) makes a single promise or offer to the reader, one that is very easy to understand.
- Answer a question readers already know they have. Put yourself in the shoes of an anonymous book buyer, browsing the bookshelf where your book will sit. What questions are they looking to answer? What pain points do they want to solve? Now make your title/subtitle a beacon for that reader, promising the solution they crave.
- Make the cover simple, so all eyes are on the title. When a publisher acquires a book with a “big idea,” they want to make sure nothing stands between the potential reader and that idea. So you’ll often find these books have very clear, clean, type-focused covers—rather than busy covers where the illustrations are the focal point.
- When titling the book, think crisp, clear and short. Big idea books tend to have shorter-than-average titles, with longer, more explicative subtitles if needed.
None of this sound right for your book? If you’re penning your life story, writing a book of poetry, crafting a picture book for your grandkids or simply don’t want to think about marketing, there is still a viable option for you.
Option #2: Publish Your Beloved Book—For Yourself
Sometimes the book you are longing to write Just. Isn’t. Big. Guess what? That’s fine. In fact, it may be necessary.
Many authors whose names you know published “a book before The Book.” Meaning, they wrote a small, unsalable book before they had a breakout hit.
The book they needed to write came before the book that was meant for wide reader adoption.
Knowing this fact gives you power: You can choose to tweak your concept so that it’s more salable, or you can write and self-publish the book exactly how you want to. (This is a perfectly acceptable choice, and one I go into at great depth in this blog post.)
If you’re publishing “for your heart or your art,” then you don’t need to worry about whether you’ve got a “big book” on your hands. Your priorities are right on track.
I hope this distinction comes as a huge relief. You don’t need to write a big book, unless you want the outcomes a big book can bring. (A traditional publisher, wider adoption of your work in the world, personal branding, etc.)
If this is you, you should feel the fire in your belly and a strong desire to write a book that lots of readers will be magnetized by, just based on the concept.
And if changing your idea to fit a readership sounds either impossible or unappealing, that’s a great sign that you’re on the right track with your current idea. Keep going!
And if you want to run your idea by a book editor entirely for free, you can always schedule a call.