How to handle conversations that begin with “I have a good idea for a book”
Anne Trubek is the founder of Belt Publishing, a small press focused on quality non-fiction about the Rust Belt and Midwest. Her Notes from a Small Press newsletter is packed with useful insights into the publishing process, and this recent edition about assessing whether a book idea has commercial potential is as relevant to acquiring editors as to aspiring authors.
About 82% of Americans think they have a good book idea, as I have deduced from my study of people I meet in airports and at Belt events. Now, it’s definitely a very feel-good and motivational thing to say sure, everyone has a book in them, but I do not believe this (I also do not think everyone has a movie in them, or a restaurant, or surgery, or whatever bit of expertise people think they could totally do). I do think everyone has a good essay in them, though, and Belt’s city anthology series bears this out to a certain extent.
So when I meet people who tell me they have a book idea, and they ask me what I think about that idea – maybe Belt would be interested? – the first question I ask is: “What else has been written on this topic lately?” Usually, the person has no idea. But – they should.
Many non-writers who are sure they have a great book idea but (sorry to say) do not, are not thinking about their idea as one in a marketplace of other ideas, bound and shipped. They are – and I do not mean this in a mean way but a technical way – thinking selfishly. They are thinking about how fascinating their grandfather who fought in World War II is, or how interesting has been their divorce. And that’s fine! It may be there is a fascinating history or memoir there. But the key if you have an idea for a book is to ask not about how interesting the topic is to you, but if someone might want to spend thousands of dollars on this idea (to make it into a physical object) – and the answer to that lies in whether or not others might want to spend money to read this?
This question – what else has been written on the topic? – is asked to suss out the answer to that question, and usually is answered with “I don’t know.” Then I suggest the person research the answer, and look into the viability of their idea. Has it been done to death already? Does there seem to be a need for more books about the topic? How does this idea fit with similar books that have been published in the past year or two? Does it duplicate, enhance, or imitate? Publishing is trendy, so if it is an idea that has led to many good- or bestselling books of late (“I had a break-up and decided to go hiking by myself and met so many interesting people!” “I grew up poor and boy oh boy let me tell you about the laziness of my people!”), it might find a home, because a publisher figures it might do as well as those others. Or, the reverse might happen, and a publisher might say: “That’s been done to death already.”
I did this same research for the book I am now writing, and found surprisingly little along the lines of a reference-y book about the publishing process. (Now the writing process? The world does not need another book on this topic.) The word on the street is that “books about publishing don’t sell,” but in my opinion that refers more to memoirs by old guys about their experiences publishing other now-old guys, and my book is not so much about being a publisher as it is making the publishing process more transparent.
So the comp titles I chose (comparative and competitive titles, books published recently that sold fairly well) are What Editors Do: The Art and Craft of Book Editing, Getting It Published, and The Business of Being A Writer. As you can see, none of these are exactly like the one I am writing, so I think there’s a hole in the market my book can fill (and also that University of Chicago Press has a monopoly on good books on this general topic!) But it’s a risk – it may in fact be that “books about publishing don’t sell.” We will see, next summer…
So, if you too have an idea for a book that you often say to yourself and others you think you should write, first, check to see if others have also had the same idea. That is, if you want to publish a book with a traditional publisher, acquire a good understanding of the general lay of the publishing landscape in this area first.
tl; dr: Imagine you have a new idea for a potato chip. You would probably go to the potato chip aisle to see what other chips the stores were selling first, wouldn’t you?