One of the things I most often see authors struggle with is figuring out their book concept—what their book will actually be! It seems easy enough–just think about what you love, then write about that, right?
Except that a book isn’t for you. A book is for readers—ideally the readership you’ve already built through your platform. There’s no point in spending nearly 2 years going through the publishing process if your book won’t make readers’ lives easier and more enjoyable. And a publisher isn’t likely to invest in your book if they don’t think readers will find value in it.
So, how do you find that perfect intersection between what you love to write about and what readers will love? Here’s the process I recommend for all my authors (although usually we walk through this and research together!):
- Figure out what you’re excited about. As with any brainstorming process, everything starts with you. This is your book, and it’s going to take a lot of sweat and heart to make it a reality. What excites you? What could you enthusiastically work on for over 18 months (which is how long it usually takes between proposal and finished book)? What areas do you specialize in, and where could you most contribute to the broader conversation in your field? Start jotting down ideas and concepts that initially spark excitement in you—you should have many at this stage!
- Ask your audience. Now it’s time to look outward. One of the things we do best as literary agents is helping authors find that sweet spot between the book they’re excited about and the book their readers will be excited about. After all, if the topic you’re most excited about is a comprehensive manual on how to properly load the dishwasher, your readers might not be too thrilled.So, what gets the most traction with your readers? What articles or posts or talks get your audience most excited and engaged? What’s their catnip—that one topic that gets everyone to perk up? It’s so important to remember that your book is a service to your readers—it’s really for them, not for you. So listen closely to their likes and dislikes and start crafting a book concept that will make life easier (and more enjoyable!) for them.
- Compare your platform. Here’s where it gets tricky, because this is where you need to turn an analytical eye on your own career progress. This can be flat-out hard. You may not be where you need to be (if so, start here for tips to build your platform!) or you may be in a good spot, but from your vista there’s so much left to do. But most often I hear from authors who have no idea where they are in relation to others, especially when it comes to specific website analytics. It’s a common refrain: “My site traffic is X, but I have no idea if that’s good enough.” (Here’s a handy explainer on how to tell if your platform is big enough for a book.)This is where you’ll have to do some deep research into where others are, even though you won’t be able to get the full picture of certain back-end stats. Start with people in your category and with a similar background to you who have done successful books. You should easily be able to find their social media numbers, including likes and other engagement metrics, as well as the amount of press mentions, TV or radio appearances, speaking engagements, etc. they may be regularly doing. Then, write down everything you’re doing. How do you stack up?
(Pep Talk: I know it can be tough to compare yourself to others on the internet, but taking a good honest look once in awhile at where you are and where you want to be will make it so much easier to strategize your growth. Just make sure you cut yourself a break and don’t berate yourself if you’re not The Pioneer Woman yet. She started out as just a gal behind a computer, too!)
- Get yourself to the bookstore. Next, block off an afternoon or morning to dig deep into the stacks of a bookstore. If possible, bring a laptop or tablet. Beeline for your subject area shelves and take a good look around. What’s on the shelf? What’s prominently displayed? What are the subtopics already written about, and what’s missing? Who are the people who have written these books? Who has published these books? What books are most attractive to you, and what books are most interesting to you? What would you buy? What do you hate?This is the time to familiarize yourself with the publishers who do books you most admire, since the quality and concept viability of a book can vary drastically between publishers. Smaller publishers may take a risk on a more niche topic (and therefore, do a smaller first printing), while larger publishers are typically looking for authors and concepts that can support large first printings.
Use your laptop or tablet to also look up the books on Amazon—what is the book’s selling rank? What do the endorsements say and who are they from? What do the customer reviews say? How is the book description positioning the book? Finally, read each author bio very closely then do more online research into who the person is. How do you and your platform compare to that person?
- Balance your concept with your platform. This is where everything comes together to figure out your cozy little spot in the marketplace. Now that you have a better sense of what your readers want, how you compare to other successful authors, and what’s already out there, you can zero in on where your sweet spot is.I tell every single author I work with one thing at this point: your concept should be determined by the size of your platform. If you’re at the very top of your field, you can probably write a book about anything within your category, without worrying too much about having a hook. Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen (a Stonesong client!) is a perfect example of this—she’s one of the top bloggers in the industry, so her cookbooks simply provide more of her beloved recipes to readers. If you have a strong platform but you’re not at the very tip-top of your field, you may want a book that still has broad appeal but that also has a hook to it. If you’re still working on building your audience, you may want a concept that has stronger legs—as in, a concept that will bring readers to the book regardless of whether they’ve ever heard of you.
- Add value. Once you’ve settled on a general concept, it’s time to start refining and reinforcing its strength. What features or angles can you take to make it even more helpful to readers? What can you do to make it feel even more unique? This can be anything from a unique aesthetic (a certain style of photos and illustrations) to special features (sidebars, spreads, quizzes, quotes) to richer information (your own original research, deeper research from third parties, contributions from other experts in the field, etc.).
Now that you have your perfect book concept, go forth and make that perfect book!