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The Curse of Being Comprehensive

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.

The Curse of Being Comprehensive

I would love to find out from aspiring nonfiction authors whether the following question (commonly found on publishing proposal guidelines) is terrifying or the most exciting question of all:

“What new contribution does the publication make to the field?”

Or this one:

“How - specifically-does the proposed publication differ from and go beyond [any competing works]? Please describe your proposed publication's new contribution in considerable detail - this is a central issue.”

Got it yet? The central question I am wondering about is essentially “What makes your book special and unique?”

Understandably, this is a very difficult question to answer.  For anyone who has studied history, the knowledge that there is nothing new under the sun is depressingly certain.

What NOT to say

I want to switch gears and consider for a moment the most common first line found in high school history papers.  It usually goes, verbatim, like this: “Throughout history, there have been many different {insert broad topic here}.  They were all very important, but the most important of them all was {insert topic of paper here.}  This opening is so ubiquitous that, when I was a teacher, I banned my high school students from EVER starting a paper in this manner.  Panic ensued.

We can laugh up here from our adulthood pedestal, but you know what?  My manuscript submissions have their own version of “Throughout history….”

It goes something like this:

“There is no other book out there on the market that covers this topic in as much detail and addresses such a breadth of material as mine does!”

And there you have it- the sentence I would love to outlaw in proposals that find their way to my desk. 

But, why not?  Isn’t being comprehensive a good thing? I see a gap in the market! Nothing else COVERS ALL THE THINGS!

The answer to “why not?” is simple: no one wants to read an encyclopedia. You know how “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” has effectively been reduced to a punchline about anything that is overwrought and excessively long?  Yea.  Don’t be that guy. 

It is a misconception that you have to explain every detail of a topic in order to discuss it with any weight. This is a travesty of an assumption and should die the death of one thousand fiery suns. 

In counterpoint, there is another old platitude that depth is better than breadth. In my book, this is the far more effective way to write.  (If your reader’s life’s ambition is to win Jeopardy, you might have a case, so have at it!)

And now for some educational psychology

As I mentioned, I used to teach writing- specifically to 14-19 year olds.  In order to do this I had to learn a lot about how the brain learns.  It turns out that your brain learns things more effectively when it already knows them.  Sounds a bit counterintuitive, right?  Well, all it really means is that human beings MUST learn things several times before they really know them. 

How can you harness this in your writing without becoming repetitive? When you are talking about a narrow topic, you have the opportunity to look at one single issue from many sides. You can cover the complexity of your subject by considering many different angles, but that also allows you to cover the topic a few times. By the end of the book your readers will have a deep, multifaceted understanding of your message. Doesn’t that sound preferable to having your content go in one ear and out the other?

An inconvenient truth

I want to make sure I mention that “my book covers X topic in more DEPTH than any other book on the market” is sadly not the solution to this problem either.  It is, in fact, a foregone conclusion that your book needs to cover your topic in sufficient depth. That doesn’t make your book special; it makes it a book and not a blog post. 

What does make your book special?  The message itself must be new. It is not the amount that you cover, but the content itself that needs to distinguish you.  And that is why writing and publishing a book is a herculean task requiring blood, sweat, tears, and a rather significant piece of your soul.

The bottom line

People do not resonate with sourcebooks or survey courses.  They resonate with messages- messages that relate to their lives, messages that ignite their hearts and minds.  If you want your book to strike that chord with your reader (and potential acquisition editors) grab that message and run with it- forget the 50 years of context and the other 100 related topics.