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High concept books: is it high time for something else?

my little stormtrooper pony 300x225 High concept books: is it high time for something else?

(George Lucas pitches the ultimate in marketability: Its Star Wars meets My Little Pony!)

If you aim to distill a great work of literature into a single sentence, the results generally verge on the hilarious. After all, no matter what Chomsky says about sentences about being potentially infinite, a sentence generally conveys a single idea.

What is high concept?

Increasingly, agents and publishers seem to be after high concept books, that is, books with a premise that can be explained in a single-sentence log-line or pitch. (Note that high in this context does not mean lofty, but rather heaps of, or awesome.) Now, while theres nothing wrong with books that have a certain clarity of plot or theme, I cant help but wonder, in light of some of the books Ive received for review recently, whether this emphasis on high concept is to the detriment of the other key elements that make a book work.

Changes in the pitching and reporting process?

Obviously Im speculating here, but I do think this may have something to do with the way in which the various gatekeepers in the publishing industry want to see ideas pitched. (We are, after all, the Twitter generation) The problem is, of course, not the fact that these pitch approaches exist, but that what people expect to get out of these pitches seems to be changing.

For example, Publishers Marketplace is full of both single-sentence descriptive pitches (When seventy year old secretary Betty Lou hears that shes about to be fired she arms herself with the office staple gun and sets about exacting revenge)'and of the slightly infamous X meets Y-type pitch (Its My Little Pony'meets the four horsemen of the apocalypse!*). Anecdotally, Ive heard of (established) authors pitching new books based on a logline and a sample chapter or quickie synopsis.

High concept: just the beginning?

And while these pitches get across the gist of the novel, thats all they do.

Thats all theyre meant to do.

After all, even a novel that can be described in a single line, or as an X meets Y, should be able to extend beyond that summary. That logline should simply be a salient idea or premise.

But what my review pile seems to be telling me is that the emphasis on a pitch-line that not only knocks an editors socks off, but even puts a few holes in them as well, seems to be resulting in books that arent'much more than this pitch. They seem to be'overly reliant on concept and that are weak in areas of plotting, characterisation, theme or prose.

And while in some cases a great concept can sustain a reader even if those other areas are lacking, over time the problem can become exacerbated.

When high concept becomes a problem

The first example is where a high concept book is turned into a series. When a book is so utterly reliant on concept, its inevitable that the other bookish scaffolding so important to the reading experience is going to suffer. And although its possible to get away with this over a single book, when its stretched over multiple books it becomes increasingly obvious how much of the authors creation is hinging on a given concept. What tends to happen in such series is that each book takes on a similar plot arc. This is because its impossible for the author to let the story evolve beyond the original bookwhich is inextricably tied to the original pitch concept.

A second example relates to trend genres. High concept books are famous for being new twists on classic or highly accessible themes, which is where the Its leprechauns meets Oceans II! stuff comes in. Obviously, when a particular theme or subgenre is hot stuff, the markets going to be flooded with it (until we all scream for a reprieve). And the formula of the same but different is a good way of ensuring that readers will be likely to engage with a given book as being something new, while also finding it happily familiar and in touch with their reading tastes. But the danger here is that these comparisons can lead to a highly superficial approach to writing.

Its one that Ive been seeing in particular in books where the high concept is in large part to do with the setting, and Im finding that its particularly prevalent in the dystopian and postapocalyptic subgenres that are so popular right now. Both of these subgenres are highly reliant on setting/milieu, and I think its very easy for the substance of the book to be lost against a grim backdrop.

Moreover, when a high concept pitch is scaffolded onto existing books in the genre/subgenre, its very easy to end up with a number of books that all draw on a similar base but are differentiated only by a twist. And while good ol hermeneutics says that everythings influenced by everything else, I cant help but think that its the degree to which this is is a conscious decision that will translate into how effective the final product is.

Why a high concept pitch shouldnt be overestimated

So when a book is pitched as, say, Mad Max'meets Anne of Green Gables, what is one supposed to get out of that beyond a vague sense of place and tone? (A red-headed, freckled lass roams the now desolate Prince Edward Island on a motorbike, alternatively shooting people and baking them cakes?)

And I think thats the issue. Not only does War and Peace'sound a wee bit ho-hum when summed up in a sentence, but a book thats pitched as a sentence can fail just as epically when expanded beyond that.

A concept is just thata frame, an idea, a notion, a settingand while it doesnt necessarily mean that a book is going to be shallow or derivative, I do worry, as a reader who reads for style, tone, and character over plot and concept, that the emphasis on concept as a pitch device will result in a number of poorly executed books based around a great idea.

*okay, I kind of want to read this


  1. Hey now, pick someone elses home to make desolate ;) I agree with you on this though, its really annoying getting the one liners all the time and they really very rarely sway me. I need more! Also, I want more from the book than many of them seem to deliver.

  2. I kind of want to read about a red-haired vixen roaming Canada on a motorbike with a pie in one hand an a gun in the other, that sounds awesome. But I do understand what you mean by lack of substance in books. While I love reading fluff I need some character development or I loose interest.

  3. Stephanie /

    Amy, oops! I fell in love with PE Island reading the Anne books, so you have a good point that I probably shouldnt kill it off so easily! But yes, for me the one liner is nothing more than an introduction, and shouldnt be used to carry a whole book. I wonder what a solution would be, though. How much of this is driven by current pitching and reporting guidelines? And how much is the result of our decreasing attention spans? Re: the Anne example, I cant help but wonder whether Anne would have sold at all given these guidelines. A young orphan is adopted by a brother-and-sister farming household and has adventures in life and love?

    Jami: Given Annes terrible baking abilities, the pies probably more dangerous than the gun! I should probably add the caveat that obviously not all high concept fiction is going to be lacking in any of these things, but just that theres a tendency for this to happen when the emphasis is on the concept/big idea.

  4. Ive been thinking on this post since I read it a few days ago and I agree with you that the market has been flooded with high concept books lately, particularity in YA I think, where the pitch Girl meets vampire/werewolf and falls in love was enough to secure a book deal, now only to be replaced by In a dystopian world, girl meets boy and falls in love.
    I really look to the characters to differentiate the books I read in the same genre so if that is missing I am going to quickly lose interest.

  5. Stephanie /

    I think you just managed to sum up my entire post in two brief sentences, Shelleyrae. Thats exactly what I was getting at!

    I read for character as well, and like you I expect a book to provide a series of characters that I want to spend time withand Ill take that over a stunning plot any day. My mentions of Anne of Green Gables werent entirely tongue-in-cheek, as I completely fell in love with Anne as a character, and would happily spend hours with her even if she just sat around doing her sewing and baking cakes.

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