High Concept or Bandwagon?
by Our Guest on April 2nd, 2009

Like Hollywood, publishing can be a bandwagon industry. The marketing people notice that something is selling particularly well, the buzz goes out that this is the new hot item and suddenly the shelves fill up with row after row of books in a similar vein.

What was high concept now becomes the thing everybody and their sister is doing.

And yet, within that cascade of sameness, certain books will still jump out as special. As Sharon pointed out yesterday, well before TWILIGHT there was BUFFY, and there are a lot of similarities to be found between the two. And before Buffy there was Anne Rice with her pioneering take on good and evil vampires and even a dose of adolescent angst in the form of Claudia. Fans of NARNIA, LORD OF THE RINGS and HARRY POTTER can easily find the parallels between all three – and yes, C.S. Lewis was influenced by Tolkien and J.K. Rowling was influenced by both. Yet despite some of these works having been inspired by what came before them, each became a blockbuster in its own right.

So what keeps a high concept idea from falling into the midlist? Magic.


Yes, that’s pretty hard to pin down and define, but there it is: an almost mystical coming together of chemistry, emotion and a unique, underlying chord that simply resonates deeply with the reader. In TWILIGHT, for me it was the yearning between Edward and Bella. In HARRY POTTER, the courage of an orphan constantly facing danger and the loyalty of his friends. THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES and THE RED TENT exuded magic in the form of The Sacred Feminine, the powerful bond between women as creators and nurturers of life.

So how do you make this magic? Ah. If I knew the secret of that, I’d be on the NYT Bestseller List, now wouldn’t I? I mentioned the midlist, and it’s so important to remember that there are countless wonderful books that are not considered high concept or bestsellers but nonetheless touch readers’ hearts. The promise of those books is what keeps people striding deeper into the bookstores, past the proud displays of the front tables to the diverse choices to be found, usually spine out, among the general stock.

As Bonnie advised us, we do need to keep market trends in mind and be open to unique ideas, but at the same time write from our hearts, tell our stories as best we can and know that magic most often occurs without a lot of fanfare, but can affect a reader just as powerfully.

6 comments to “High Concept or Bandwagon?”

  1. 1

    There’s nothing better than walking into the general stacks — like you said, spine out — and finding that special book and singing it out to the world. Phoo, anybody can read a bestseller; but can you find the secret treasure?

  2. 2

    I’m constantly finding new gems–books that haven’t gotten the big hoopla but are terrific and as you said, magical. I discovered Karen Marie Moning when I was in a book store and a lady beside me asked if I’d ever read her. I discovered Jo Goodman by reading blogs. I discovered Julie Ann Long when I got one of her books in my goodie bag at a conference.

    You’re right, Allison, magic exists everywhere. You just have to be open to it.

  3. 3

    THANK YOU!!! For the post and the interview with Bonnie…I’d come across the ‘high concept’ phrase, but really had no idea what it was (exposing my total ignorance here, I thought it was some kind of a high-brow literary thing :oops: ). I’m all cleared up now, and trying to figure out how my current story could be described!

  4. 4

    Linda, I think we all sometimes still scratch our heads over the idea, but I’m glad this has helped!

  5. 5

    It did help…and I others might enjoy it as well, so I’ve posted a link to it from my blog. Have a great weekend!

  6. 6

    You are so right! Magic! All we can do is hope we’ve got some!

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