How to write a book that could become a bestseller – for authors of fiction, nonfiction, and children’s books. This article contains the single most important secret that you need to know… how to come up with a high-concept premise.

How to Write a Book that Sells

“It’s the first reality-TV based thriller,” I said.

“Think… Survivor meets Outbreak.”

That’s part of the pitch I used to get interest for a first novel by journalist Jim Brown. 24/7 quickly went to auction and we got an offer for 6-figures, based on a 40-page synopsis (and a second, completed novel called Black Valley).

We basically sold… an idea.

For a lot of money.

Want to know how to write a book that sells?

Write a “high-concept” book.

* * *

How to Write a Book that’s a Bestseller

As a former literary agent, I’ve given keynotes, seminars, and workshops
at more than fifty writers’ conferences throughout the United States and
abroad. As a result, I’ve participated in thousands of one-on-one pitch
sessions (10-15 minute meetings where authors “pitch” agents).

Here’s what I’ve learned: Most authors think they know more
than they really do, about writing a book that sells…

how to write a fiction or nonfiction book

There’s almost always one critical element missing from every pitch
(even by experienced authors): The “high-concept” premise. But that’s
exactly what you need if you want to write a bestselling book and
get the attention of a top book agent and publisher.

A high-concept premise is the essence of every good pitch,
whether you’re writing nonfiction, fiction (including
literary fiction), or children’s books.

And (aside from you already being famous), a high-concept premise
is the only way to guarantee that someone will read your book.

Literary agents, editors, movie executives…

And the book buying public.

Why?

Because we’re busy.

And we’re jaded…

how to write a fiction or nonfiction book bestseller

Yes, we’ve seen and heard it all
(or… at least, we think we have).

So you (as an author) have to at least make it seem like
what you’re writing is fresh and new. Even though you and
I both know (deep down) there’s really nothing new under the sun.

To help you do that, I’m going to do my best to define the term
“high-concept”… then give you a bunch of examples (fiction and nonfiction).

* * *

How to Write a Book – Definition of High-Concept

Defining the term high-concept is difficult because it’s dynamic.
It’s a lot like trying to explain the word love (not so easy).

how to write a fiction or nonfiction book that you love

Is this love, or were you thinking of something a little more “romantic”?

Now, I’m going to tell you exactly what high-concept is.
I’m also going to tell you what high-concept isn’t.

And, I’m going to give you examples of both.

Here we go…

* * *

How to Write a Book with High Commercial  (or Bestseller) Potential

19 Reasons to Make Your Book High-Concept

  1. It’s a welcome slap-in-the-face for publishing professionals
    who’ve been lulled to sleep by thousands of boring submissions (hey, it’s the truth)
  2. It instantly communicates an idea and gives it context
  3. It’s the difference between good and great
  4. It’s taking something timeless and making it timely
  5. It’s making something familiar and/or faded… fresh
  6. It’s clever (but that doesn’t mean it isn’t also authentic)
  7. It’s standing out, getting everyone’s attention, creating curiosity
  8. It sometimes (but not always) means being bold, creating a spectacle,
    and/or creating controversy
  9. High-concept is memorable
  10. It’s often newsworthy and media-friendly
  11. It gets people talking, sometimes shouting, other times whispering
  12. It’s simply positioning or re-positioning
  13. It’s what Houdini created when he unchained himself from manacles ; it’s what P.T. Barnum used to fill his tents, employing the talents of Tom Thumb (but you don’t have to be a clown or create a circus to do it)
  14. It’s embracing  your role as both expert and entertainer or master of intrigue
    and mystery (even if you’re just writing cookbooks)
  15. It might mean using a metaphor to make the mundane seem magnificent
  16. It often bends (and sometimes breaks) rules and conventions
  17. It’s arguably more important than the characters in a novel because
    no one will ever meet (or care about) your characters without it
  18. It’s might capitalize on current trends (and sometimes creates new ones)
  19. It’s understanding that important themes, valuable content, and
    a beautiful writing style aren’t always enough

Now, some examples to help you apply these principles to your writing…

How to Write a Book that Sells

Nonfiction High-Concept Examples

Nonfiction Example #1

How NOT to Write a Book with Bestseller Potential:
How to Find Your Soul Mate

Better Example:
The Marriage Plan: How to Meet and Marry Your Soul Mate—in One Year or Less

how to write a fiction or nonfiction book high concept

* * *

Nonfiction Example #2

How NOT to Write a Book with Bestseller Potential:
Funny Parenting Stories

Better Example:
Why is Parenting a Trap? A collection of childish aggravations
that champion the use of contraception

* * *

Nonfiction Example #3

How NOT to Write a Book with Bestseller Potential:
Everything You Need to Know for Your Divorce

Better Example:
The Amicable Divorce (written by a divorced couple promoting the book together)

* * *

Nonfiction Example #4

How NOT to Write a Book with Bestseller Potential:
Your Puppy’s First Six Months

Better Example:
Party Dogs! A complete planning guide for every kind of canine celebration
(including birthday parties, weddings, anniversaries, and other special occasions)

* * *

Nonfiction Example #5

How NOT to Write a Book with Bestseller Potential:
How to Get Ahead in the Corporate World

Better Example:
Eat–or Be Eaten: Survival Skills and Battle Tactics for the Corporate Jungle

bestselling book

* * *

Nonfiction Example #6

How NOT to Write a Book with Bestseller Potential:
How to Succeed in Life

Better Example:
Everything I Needed to Know About Life I Learned in Law School

* * *

Nonfiction Example #7

How NOT to Write a Book with Bestseller Potential:
How to Find Your Dream Job

Better Example:
How to Win By Quitting: Leave the job you hate to find the profession you love

* * *

Nonfiction Example #8

How NOT to Write a Book with Bestseller Potential:
The Family Dinner Cookbook

Better Example:
30-Minute Meals by Rachel Ray or Ten Dollar Dinners with Melissa D’Arabian

* * *

Nonfiction Example #9

How NOT to Write a Book with Bestseller Potential:
How to Re-ignite the Spark in Your Romantic Relationship

Better Example:
How to Keep Your Man Wild and Your Tigers Tame
(by a female tiger trainer and former Playboy Playmate)

not how to write a fiction or nonfiction book

* * *

And now, some fiction examples…

How to Write a Book that Sells

Fiction High-Concept Examples

Fiction Example #1

How NOT to Write a Book with Bestseller Potential:
A minister becomes a detective after two members of his congregation are murdered.

Better Example:
A nine-book mystery series where a prison chaplain (and ex-con) is “released” early to investigate murders in the prison system. The primary theme of each book is one of the nine fruits of the spirit in the Bible. The chaplain’s own personal growth with each theme is key to unraveling every mystery.

* * *

Fiction Example #2

How NOT to Write a Book with Bestseller Potential:
Two people meet and fall in love.

Better Example:
A recently divorced woman who’s lost faith in the dream of everlasting love, finds a message in a bottle washed up on the seashore. Inside it is a message from a man to the love of his life, that he misses. Several other notes in bottles appear. The woman eventually finds the author of the notes (writing to his dead wife) and falls in love.

how to write a fiction or nonfiction book message in a bottle

* * *

Fiction Example #3

How NOT to Write a Book with Bestseller Potential:
A man finds out he’s dying and sets out to do a series of good deeds for strangers.

Better Example:
Before becoming a martyr in the end, an ordinary but idealistic young boy figures out how to revolutionize the world… by starting a chain of goodwill, when he comes up with a school project or experiment called pay-it-forward.

* * *

Fiction Example #4

How NOT to Write a Book with a Bestselling Premise:
A spoiled teenage girl learns gratitude and a work ethic.

Better Example:
An eighteen-year old high-school student gets breast implants as a graduation gift from her parents.

* * *

Fiction Example #5

How NOT to Write a Book with Bestseller Potential:
Another tired Western (do they even make those anymore)?

Better Example:
Cowboys vs. Aliens.

how to write a fiction or nonfiction book cowboys and aliens

* * *

Fiction Example #6

How NOT to Write a Book with Bestseller Potential:
Yet another predictable and boring suspense-mystery-thriller that no one cares about.

Better Example:
The first reality-TV based thriller. Survivor meets Outbreak. Twelve contestants participate in the latest reality television program to win two million dollars and their hearts’ desire. The game is hijacked when the contestants learn that they are all harboring a lethal virus. The contestants are told that they will continue to play against each other for the prize, but each day one of them will die. And America will vote on who lives and dies.

* * *

Fiction Example #7

How NOT to Write a Book with Bestseller Potential:
A teenage boy struggles with his parents’ divorce.

Better Example:
A teenage boy must face his new “freak” status when his parents make the evening news. His parents are getting a divorce, but that’s not the interesting part. The boy’s “father” is no longer a man. He recently had a sex-change operation.

* * *

Fiction Example #8

How NOT to Write a Book with Bestseller Potential:
An oppressed slave eventually becomes free.

Better Example:
The General who became a slave. The slave who become a gladiator. The gladiator who came to rule an empire.

write a book gladiator

* * *

Fiction Example #9

How NOT to Write a Book with Bestseller Potential:
A young boy sees his father murder his mother.

Better Example:
A young boy sees his father (under the influence of alcohol) kill his mother with the family car in the driveway, in what might have been an accident. The boy then has to decide whether or not to tell the authorities what really happened, which would result in dad going to prison and all three children going to foster care.

* * *

How to Write a Book that Sells

High-Concept Isn’t an Option

A high-concept premise isn’t an option anymore if you want to write a book with bestseller potential (in other words… so you can get a top literary agent, a major publisher, and a major book deal). Instead, think of a high-concept premise as the elegant styling that’s a required part of every high-end luxury car.

Yes, it’s what;s under the hood that matters most (but that’s not the first thing you see).

As an author you can’t rest on the fact that you’re writing clear, clean prose… the fact that you’re crafting good content…the fact that you’re creating compelling characters and/or writing with an original voice.

Those things are a given.

And those things (alone) won’t get you published.

write a book nonfiction

Or, to be more fair, I should say that they won’t get you published well. In other words, that’s not how to write a book that can become a bestseller (so you can make enough money to quit your day job or stop leaning so heavily on your trust fund).

Dig deeper, think bigger, and figure out a fabulous new way to build a high-concept frame as a foundation for your book (something special that feels fresh and new).

Even though every theme in literature and entertainment has already been explored, there are endless new ways to express those themes and package them…

…if you want to write a book that sells.

Times change.

Technologies change.

Hello, ebooks, now officially outselling all hardcover and paperback books.

How to Write a Book that Sells

High-Concept Strategies

Here are some tips on how to write a book that people want to buy
(transform your ordinary idea into something extraordinary):

  • Start paying closer attention to the high-concept pitches that are all around you (at the bookstore, on television, in magazines, on street corners). If you want to write a bestselling book, you have to study others using high-concept ideas successfully.
  • Study your market and try to figure out how you can position (or reposition) yourself and your work in a way that is fresh and new.
  • Ask yourself if there’s a high-concept approach being used in one genre or category that you could adapt to help write a book that sells in your genre.
  • Look closely at yourself for clues about writing a book that sells… one that only you can write. What’s unique about your personal story, passion, philosophy, life experience, skills, flaws, vulnerabilities, etc., that you alone can bring to your books?
get published write a book

If you want to write a book that sells…

Make it High-Concept

If you write a book that’s high-concept you will:

  • Increase your chance of getting a top literary agent and a major publisher
  • Increase your chance of getting published in hardcover (instead of just paperback)
  • Increase the chance of your book being adapted for feature film or television
  • Write a bestselling book instead of a mediocre book

Learning how to write a book with bestseller potential isn’t “selling out.”

It’s selling your book… for a lot of money.

It’s being smart.

literary agents write a book

Oh, yes (it also means you will have learned
how to write a book that’s much more interesting).

And, as a reader, I see nothing wrong with that.

If you want to know how to write a book
that sells (and I really hope you do)…

…make it high-concept.

Mark Malatesta

Your “Undercover” Agent

P.S. – For more tips on writing a bestselling book, read my article about How to Become a Bestselling Author.

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