Jeevan Sivasubramaniam, managing director of editorial at Berrett-Koehler Publishers, recently posted on LinkedIn that he doesn’t see much promise in “big idea” books. I was shocked, because Berrett-Koehler is a significant publisher of great business books, and from where I sit, big ideas are central to the success of many important books.
Here’s what Sivasubramaniam wrote:
I’m often pitched “Big-Idea” books, and I have to turn down over 99.7% of them. The ideas in the books are often solid and interesting, but I still turn them down. Here’s why:
First, a “big-idea” book is one that argues for A-Z whole-scale economic, organizational, personal/psychological, or political change and re-evaluation. George Burns had a great joke about big ideas: he said that the problem with this great nation of ours is that all the people who know how to run it are too busy cutting hair or driving a cab. This is the challenge: everyone has big ideas for how things should be, so why should anyone listen to someone else?
The only people that can write big-idea books successfully are nationally-known individuals. Barack Obama’s “Dreams of My Father” was published when he was still relatively unknown, a memoir in some senses but discussing “big-picture” concepts of race and identity. The book sold a somewhat-decent 8,000 or so copies before being put out of print in just a couple of years. Then, after he ascended to the national stage, it was put back into print and sold over 7 million copies worldwide. Still the same book with the same ideas and the same author, but suddenly now also the leader of the free world—that is the only difference.
So what are the options for those still stuck in the “big-picture” mode? There are two:
1. Become a nationally-known figure/celebrity. Then you can write about anything (god knows tv-star Tori Spelling wrote about child-rearing and it was a NY Times bestseller).
2. Recognize that big-picture books are, well, boring and not many people are drawn to them. You see, people are not looking to upend their company/organization/nation and revamp everything (or themselves) from the ground-up. No one has the time and energy for that. They are looking to improve upon what is already there. Focus on the “small” and make it practical and actionable.
Big idea books are still relevant
What is a “big idea?”
From my perspective, a big idea is a concept that causes the reader to recognize that the world has changed in a significant way, and then to reevaluate a significant portion of how they live their life, or how they manage their company, as a result.
This is similar to, but not the same as, Sivasubramaniam’s description: a book “that argues for A-Z whole-scale economic, organizational, personal/psychological, or political change and re-evaluation.”
There have been some certifiably big changes in the world. The internet changed everything. Mobile changed it again. Office workers working from their homes is a pretty big change. The emergence of naked nationalist movements around the globe is significant and changes our view of politics. AI is likely another huge disruption. I’d argue that any businessperson who doesn’t recognize that these sorts of shifts happen periodically is going to be caught flatfooted.
Naturally, authors want to become the foremost expert at defining a trend like this. So they write big idea books. Their chances of succeeding are small. But the stakes are huge: if they win, they get to associate their name with a trend that everyone is talking about. And sometimes, those trends do change everything.
Sivasubramaniam says he isn’t interested in such books unless the author is already nationally known. But I’d argue that a book like this, when it succeeds, is how an author becomes prominent. Here are some books that, by his definition, Sivasubramaniam would have rejected, even though they went on to become huge sellers, because they were big idea books from from authors who were not well-known at the time of publication.
- Atomic Habits by James Clear. A systematic approach to habits can change everything. (This book is so successful that it alone could have funded a medium-sized publisher for years.)
- The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen. Launched the whole concept of disruption — made Christensen one of the biggest business thinkers of the last 30 years.
- Inbound Marketing by Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah. Completely redefined the way people look at marketing; helped launch HubSpot as a massively successful company.
- Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey Moore. Changed how everyone conceived startups and the market for technology products.
- Start with Why by Simon Sinek. Changed the definition of how companies set their priorities and communicate them to staff.
- Groundswell by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff. Redefined social media as a tool for business rather than just amusement for consumers.
- Ctrl Alt Delete by Mitch Joel. Revealed how technology has transformed the methods brands and businesses use to innovate and connect with consumers.
- The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. Revealed the details of how and why ideas spread.
Some of these authors are very famous now. But that’s because some editor took a chance on their big idea books. If they hadn’t, most of us wouldn’t know who Mitch Joel or Malcolm Gladwell or Geoffrey Moore or Clayton Christensen were.
Because the odds are against big ideas, publishers must adopt a portfolio approach
Sivasubramaniam is right about one thing: there are way more big idea book pitches than actually valid big ideas. And even big idea books that are right on target often don’t take off. Publishers — especially those outside the big four publishing houses — can’t waste resources on every big idea book that comes along, because most won’t pan out.
But some will — and those that do catch on can blow up, generating hundreds of thousands of units in sales. A book like that can make up for quite a few bets on books that don’t catch on.
As a result, I think publishers need to take a portfolio approach, much as venture capitalists do. Reject most big idea books, because they just don’t clear the bar of credibility and promise. Invest in big idea books that seem well-supported, fascinating, timed well, and promising. And then hang on and see which of the carefully selected big ideas generate breakthrough hits. This approach has risks, especially for smaller publishers, since it’s certainly possible that all of the big ideas a publisher puts out in a given year might flop. But for larger publishers, dedicating a portion of the yearly output to the most promising big idea books is a way to try to become part of an emerging groundswell.
An ideal book candidate for this portfolio would have the following qualities:
- Well-supported by evidence, not just impassioned shouting.
- Not a repeat of previous ideas: a truly new way of looking at the world.
- Extremely well-written and persuasive; enjoyable to read.
- Full of fascinating and compelling stories of people who recognized the change and succeeded as a result.
- Exquisitely well-timed: published at the exact moment that a trend is becoming visible, but before it becomes tired and hackneyed.
- Full of practical and actionable advice; not just an abstract concept.
- Has a catchy title.
- From an author with significant promotional resources, like a packed speaking schedule, a large social media following, well-placed friends and backers, a regular media slot in which to publish, and a well-funded publicity campaign.
Even books that fit all these criteria will fail more likely than they succeed. But invest in a few of these, and you might unleash the next Tipping Point.
My proposal for Jeevan Sivasubramaniam
Don’t even spend time vetting your big ideas. Send them all to me.
I’ll review them.
If they’re hopeless, I’ll send the rejection note for you.
If they’re missing key elements, I’ll work with the author to improve them. (I was, after all, SVP of Idea Development for one of the world’s most visible research companies.)
If they’re great, I’ll send them back to you. If you decide to publish, despite your hostility to big ideas, you pay me 10% of the advance and royalties.
If they’re great and you don’t want to publish them, I’ll pass them along to someone who will, in exchange for a cut of advance and royalties.
Mr. Sivasubramaniam, if your big idea pitches are so unpublishable, you’ve got nothing to lose.
Let me know what you think.