Literary agent Kristin Nelson has sparked a debate among writers this week over her blog lament on the desire of publishers for ‘big’ books. With the economy still on an uphill climb, it’s understandable publishers are being more cautious, but what does that mean for us as writers? What is a ‘big’ book? Is this the same thing as high concept? I like definitions, but it’s hard to find ones that agree on these terms. As far as I can tell, ‘high concept’ started in the film industry to mean a concept that was easily understood and could be sold to a wide audience. Think ‘Jaws’: man-eating shark terrorizing town. ‘Titanic’: doomed love on a ship the audience already knew was going to sink.
These were both big movies, and both of those concepts are easily understood, but it is not so easy to predict which ones have wide appeal. Titanic yes, but Jaws? It did tap into some fundamental human fears of nature outside of human control . Maybe that’s why Jurassic Park succeeded. Dinosaurs are scary to begin with, but man-eating dinosaurs are really scary.
High concept can also mean high stakes. All those movies dealt with life or death, and not just to one or two characters. To bring it into the realm of literature, look at Harry Potter. I don’t know if that would have originally been pitched as high concept, but in essence it was. The stakes are not only for Harry’s life, but also for the future of the wizarding world.
So what do you think? How would you define a ‘big’ book? Is it the same as high concept?