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Is your idea book-worthy? Ask these 11 questions to make sure.

February 15, 2019

It’s easy to tell people “I have a book idea.” But before you invest your time in writing, you need to make sure that idea is powerful enough to build a book on.

Here are 11 questions to ask yourself before you exert significant effort towards becoming a nonfiction author. If you can’t answer these with a firm and confident “Yes!”, then you’d better work on the idea before you work on the book.

1 Do you have a great title?

Great books are memorable because they’re based on an idea worth sharing. Great titles make sharing easier. A title that works is one that catches the ear, connects with the idea, and becomes a sort-of insider slang term for your concept. You know, like The Tipping Point or Bad Blood. To improve your title, hold a title brainstorm.

2 Does your subtitle explain the concept succinctly?

While a great title makes you say “Hmm,” a good subtitle makes you say “Aaah.” Titles create tension; subtitles release it. The subtitle is a short phrase (less than 10 words, typically) that shows what the book is promising. Subtitles of books I’ve worked on include “Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies,” “Boost Your Career by Saying What You Mean,” “The Power of Putting Customers at the Center of Your Business,” and “How to Turn Unreasonable Expectations into Lasting Relationships.” An effective subtitle ought to intrigue anyone in your target market.

3 Have you defined your audience?

Who absolutely must read this book? Customer experience professionals? Founders of startups? Marketers at large brands? Parents of autistic children? Unless you have a specific group in mind, you don’t have an idea, you’re just musing. You should interpret all the other questions in the context of this specific audience.

4 Is the idea big enough?

For an idea to be book-worthy, it has to be big. Big does not mean change the world. Big means that the idea has consequences. “You should get rid of clutter” is not a big idea. “You should decide which of your possessions sparks joy, and get rid of the rest,” is a big idea. The reason is that once a reader understands the idea, they can apply it in ways that make a powerful difference.

5 Is there enough to say?

The bane of business books is repetition: too many of them seem to go on for chapter after chapter saying the same thing. A powerful idea has dimensions to it. There’s a five-step process to explain, or six historical precedents to explore, or four personality types to apply it to. Unless you can write down seven or ten or fifteen chapters of distinct elements or consequences of the idea, it’s not really an idea — it’s an article.

6 Is it new?

Someone else has written about what you’re hoping to write about. What differentiates your idea from theirs? If there’s already a good book on the topic, you’d better either disagree with it, go a lot further with it, or show it to us from a completely different perspective.

7 Can you prove it?

Ideas need evidence. You need statistics, case studies, or other source material — preferably primary material that no one else has. If it’s just your unsupported opinion, then you’re a street-corner declaimer, not an author. Where are your facts coming from?

8 Do you have stories (or can you get them)?

Books — including nonfiction books — are made of people and stories. If you’re telling your own story, it had better be unique and fascinating. If not, you’ll need case studies and examples. Where will those come from?

9 Are you the one to write it?

Even if it’s your idea, you may not be the best author for it. Does your experience or reputation put you in the best position to write it? Even if it does, you may need help from someone who’s a better writer than you, like a coauthor or ghostwriter.

10 Does it resonate?

Hiding your idea is a mistake. Talk about it with colleagues. Blog or podcast about it. See what people think. You may find that the idea catches on with people. More likely you’ll see how you need to tweak it to help your audience recognize that it’s worth embracing.

11 Do you have the resources to promote it?

You’re eventually going to need to launch this book. Unless you want months or years of work to fall flat, you’ll need help promoting it. Does your position afford you a big megaphone, do you have a place where you can share it in a big speech, or do you have friends who can help talk the thing up? Even if you don’t have a marketing plan fully worked out, you should be thinking about the natural audiences that will noisily help the idea get out into the world.

This post originally appeared on his blog, Without Bullshit


  • Josh Bernoff

    Josh Bernoff is the bestselling author of six books including "Writing Without Bullshit." He helps business authors to succeed. He blogs daily at Bernoff.com.

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