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Why you should never ask an editor what you should write about

Anna Leinberger Posted by Anna Leinberger, Editorial Manager, Acqusitions, Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.

Anna is a writer and editor for Berrett-Koehler in Oakland, CA. More on killer book proposals and writing can be found on her BK Blog.

Why you should never ask an editor what you should write about

A favorite amongst aspiring authors’ reasons for why their book is unique is “No other book covers the entire subject matter! Everything else only focuses on one thing!” As I have written before, there is actually a reason for that- generalist books are neither compelling nor successful. There is inevitably a follow-up question when I share this feedback: “What books are you looking for on this topic?” This is not a great question, but exploring why will yield some excellent advice for the aspiring author.

A brief recap

In case you are new to the blog, here are the cliffs notes on why a book on everything is a bad idea.  Reason 1:  No one thinks a book about everything is for them. It will always be for someone else if it is not closely tied to a potential reader’s interest. If someone is going to dedicate their time to sitting down and reading a book, they want to know that the book is going to be very specifically tailored to their interests.  In a sense, it is an ROI calculation- is this book going to be useful enough to ME to warrant my investment?

Reason 2: If you try to cover everything, you end up not covering anything in enough depth to warrant a book. A book needs to explore ideas in much more depth than an article. If your book is just a collection of chapters that only go into as much depth as an op-ed or an article, you don’t really have a book, just a collection of articles.

What is my response?       

When I am asked “well, what topic do you want a book on?” the answer is simple, and I am sure initially annoying.  I flip things, and ask the author the very same question! “Actually, I would ask you the same thing.” The author is the subject matter expert, the leader in the field.  They are the one who is in the best place to tell what book is needed in their field.  As an editor, my job is to identify experts, and to help them say what they want to say in the most effective way possible. However, it is difficult for an editor to be an expert in every field that they publish in. We have a general understanding of the market, but no one has a better understanding of the most important topics in your field than you!

The bottom line: when looking for your next book idea, ask yourself the question “What does the field need?” And that is your answer.