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Book-worthy Ideas

By Josh Bernoff, author of Build a Better Business Book

Is your idea worth building a book around?

Given the amount of effort required to plan, research, write, and promote an effective book, this is an important question. If your idea is too small, or too vague, or not interesting enough, then creating a book around it is a fool’s errand. But if the idea is solid, with major consequences, then writing a book might be just what you need to get people talking about it.

So let’s dig into what makes a book-worthy idea.

What is an idea?

That’s one of those questions that seems both obvious and confusing. But here’s my proposed definition:

An idea is a previously unsuspected connection among concepts that leads to nonobvious consequences.

This applies to every nonfiction book I’ve ever worked on—fifty books in total. Ideas are always built on existing concepts. What makes the idea interesting is a new way of looking at those concepts. What makes it worth working on is that it has consequences: once you understand the idea, you need to change how you think, how you plan, what you do, and how you talk about it.

For example, David Epstein’s book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World (Riverhead Books, 2019) explains how the most successful people pursue and connect a diverse collection of expertise rather than specializing in one area. James Clear’s book Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones (Avery, 2018) is built around the idea that changing habits can generate remarkable results, along with a systematic way to understand and implement those changes.

The best ideas like these are simple—not simplistic, but simple enough to explain in a sentence. And they have three other qualities: they are big, right, and new.

Big ideas have consequences

It’s tough to write books about small ideas—you’ll run out of material. For a book that matters, you need a big idea.

That big idea can still be limited to a specific field of study, like marketing, direct marketing, or even email marketing. But it must be big enough to have facets and consequences worth writing about at length. It must create ripples. You can write a whole book about those facets, consequences, and ripples and then build a career off of your expertise in them. You’ll never run out of material.

The right ideas are believable

Here’s an idea: Social media will make the world a better place. That’s an attractive concept, but the evidence is mounting that it’s just not true.

For an idea to be persuasive, you need evidence that it’s worth taking seriously. That evidence could be data. It could be examples and case studies. It could be a synthesis of proven ideas from other people. But there has to be evidence.

New ideas stand out

To be successful, a book needs to be differentiated. You have to be able to finish the sentence, “This is the first book that . . .”

Now, there are no completely new ideas. But there are always ways to differentiate your book. Maybe you’ve written the first book about how to use AI to write movie scripts. It won’t be the first book about scriptwriting or the first book about AI, but it will still be unique in its field.

You can distinguish your idea by applying it to a new audience or a new problem, or by being the first to describe it in a step-by-step way. There are lots of ways to differentiate. But unless you differentiate your idea, you’re just a copycat. No one is well known as the second person to come up with an idea.

Simple, new, big, and right ideas spread

Simple ideas are easy to repeat.

Big ideas have far-reaching consequences.

The right ideas stand the test of time.

New ideas pique interest and attract attention.

Combine all of these, and you’ll be able to build a solid book whose premise people are likely to understand, care about, and repeat. That’s a formula for an idea that catches on.

Josh Bernoff is the author, coauthor, editor, or ghostwriter of eight business books including the social media bestseller “Groundswell.” Book projects on which he has collaborated have generated over $20 million for their authors. His blog, at www.Bernoff.com, featuring daily posts of interest to authors, has generated 4 million views. He lives with his wife, an artist, in Portland, Maine.

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