High Concept: What is it? Do you need it? And how do you know if you have it?

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, a high concept example.

High concept is something I repeated say I, and other people in the industry, am looking for. But what is it?

My succinct definition is highly unique concept with mass-market appeal. This also relates back to my post last week on agents and editors not knowing what they want until they see it. I, as an agent, do not do the creative portion of the job. The high concept book is one that revels in creativity and that ‘specialness’ that will bring the mass-market together in a way that we as readers didn’t know before. I don’t know I want it because you, the writer, haven’t written it yet. [If you have, send it over ; )]

What are the high concept key ingredients? 

  • The premise is often bigger than the characters.
  • You can easily explain it in an exciting two line pitch.
  • The short pitch will raise eyebrows and immediately attract attention.
  • High concept isn’t just a ‘big book’, it’s a big book that is based on premise.
  • It can be controversial.
  • It can have a big twist.
  • It is something that seems so obvious and straightforward, but no one has thought of it before.
  • High concept is usually commercial-literary, while ‘big books’ are commercial.
  • The idea and themes are universal.

The trajectory of a high concept book looks like this: an agent sees it and must have it, knowing it is something special; the agent is easily able to write a great pitch letter to editors based on a short, succinct and very intriguing hook; once the book has an editor the editor is able to garner in-house attention through early excitement; sales staff are then able to impress booksellers with a book that will stand out and sell copies; the book is then stocked with front of store placement; and finally customers do the rest! The marketing and publicity opportunities for high concept are plentiful. And, simple and very intriguing hooks are what attract Hollywood attention.

Does my novel have to be high concept?

As many have said before me, every book doesn’t have to be a high concept blockbuster. There are genres and markets that don’t require high concept fiction to make it successful; however, in a highly competitive market where publishers are making their lists lean and mean they are often looking for high concept so projects can stand out.

Examples of high concept

The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Village, the movie by M. Night Shyamalan

Zone One by Colson Whitehead

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

Spork by Kyo Maclear

Cowboys and Aliens, the movie directed by Jon Favreau

How do you know if you are writing high concept?

The above bullet point notes should help, but you’ll know it is high concept if it’s something that you are taking a chance on, something you are creating that’s never been done, you are writing non-linearly, and if you have created something new while tackling timeless universal emotions and dilemmas.

It’s an enormous undertaking and the thought can overwhelm writers, but publishing isn’t merely about getting an agent and an editor. The goal is to have a novel stand out and be successful. The goal is to earn out your advance and gain royalties. Don’t hope for mid-list, hope–and write–for a breakout book that is going to tap into human emotions that cross territorial boundaries and provide a great reading entertainment experience.

Q: What books do you define as high concept? 

[Image via Sheknows]

Published by Carly Watters

Carly Watters is a SVP, senior literary agent and director of literary branding with the P.S. Literary Agency. She is a hands-on agent that develops proposals and manuscripts with attention to detail and the relevant markets. PSLA’s mission is to manage authors’ literary brands for their entire career. Never without a book on hand she reads across categories which is reflected in the genres she represents and is actively seeking new authors in including women’s fiction, commercial and upmarket fiction, select literary fiction, platform-driven non fiction and select memoir. She occasionally represents children's book projects. Carly is drawn to emotional, well-paced narratives, with a great voice and characters that readers can get invested in.

7 thoughts on “High Concept: What is it? Do you need it? And how do you know if you have it?

  1. Cool post Carly. I’ve always been curious how literary classics would fit into this model. For instance, I doubt that DFW was thinking about a movie deal when he wrote Infinite Jest but I’ll bet that he’ll still be read 100 years from now: where it is doubtful that Cowboys vs Aliens has that sort of longevity. And, a two sentence pitch of Ulysses probably wouldn’t have gone over very well. Do you worry that focusing on mass market appeal and marketability produces ‘tabloid’ literature? All flash and no substance?


    1. I think readers want flash and substance in today’s low-attention span world. Ulysses is so damn long would it be published today, who knows? : )

      Publishing is a business so it is the place where art meets commerce. Books need to stand out in their market and there is a market for DFW like there is a market for The Night Circus.

      Interesting comment though, Kordan. I like where your head is at!

      P.S. Did you get my book recommendations via Twitter?


  2. So, I have to ask–did something in the literary universe spark this topic for you, or was it random? I ask because EVERYONE seems to be talking about this recently, and I was wondering why? This is literally the sixth blog post I have seen about High Concept in less than a week! What’s funnier is that everyone has a different definition of exactly what High Concept means, leading me to believe that it is almost as subjective as the rest of the industry. Everyone can agree on what it is, but only AFTER they see it. :)


    1. Ha! I’m not sure why it is a hot topic this week, but it is something that the industry talks about a lot! Yes, it is subjective, but it is the beauty of publishing: discussion about what makes books great! Yes definitions vary, but tastes vary too–with readers, agents and editors. I hope I didn’t confuse or contradict what else is out there, but contribute to the conversation from my angle.

      In regard to not knowing until you see it: it sounds like a cop out, but it is something full of intuition that is hard to describe. If I say I want to represent a book about x meets y and that book comes in, is it what I really wanted? Does it work the way I imagined it would? But when I see something out of the blue that makes me sit up straight in my chair with a smile on my face, that’s when I know it’s what I’ve been looking for, you see?

      Hard to explain, but worth it when you see it.


    1. No. I personally wouldn’t. There is not much that’s new or fresh about it. It’s just striking a chord with women, providing some major escapism and in a world where women feel they have to be in control of everything it shows them the other side of the coin.


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