IVP - Behind the Books - Definite Articles & Unlikely Books

January 22, 2009

Definite Articles & Unlikely Books

“That sounds like a good article.” That’s how a colleague responded recently to my excited presentation of a book proposal. Ouch.

What determines whether an idea would work better as a book or an article? When a friend asked me recently if I had anything that helps a writer determine the answer to that question, I had to admit I couldn’t really say. I asked around, and in fact none of us remembers seeing anything authoritative on the subject. So I thought I’d make something up.

1. Audience, audience, audience. Are there enough people out there who would drop $15-20 and a couple of weeks’ worth of reading time to digest the idea under consideration? “Enough” is a difficult threshold to measure, of course, but here’s a proto-filter:

Readers (as opposed to non-readers)

Book readers (as opposed to readers who don’t make time for books)

Book readers with a vested interest in the topic

Book readers actively on the hunt for books on the topic

Book readers actively pursuing the topic and not filtered out by other factors.

For example, many people read, but only a percentage of those reading people are Buddhists, and only a percentage of those Buddhists who read give a portion of their reading time to books. Not all Buddhist book readers read books about Buddhism, but undoubtedly some do. Only a few, however, would feel compelled to purchase and read a high-end theological critique of Buddhism from an evangelical Christian perspective. And finally, some of those Buddhist devotees of high-end theological Christian critiques of Buddhism have taken vows of poverty that preclude their spending money on books.

I am undoubtedly missing some layers in my filter, and in the case of my example there may well be a sufficient alternative audience outside of Buddhists (scholars of world religions, for example), but you get the idea. Books are significantly more expensive than articles, and so to earn their keep they depend on a highly committed audience. Is there enough demand to warrant the supply?

So the first category distinction between what constitutes a book and what constitutes an article is the question of adequate audience. The second is like it.

2. Content, content, content. In terms of pure word count, a short book is generally ten to twenty times the length of an average article. So, put simply, does the author have ten to twenty articles’ worth of ideas about the topic under consideration? Are those ideas distinct enough from each other to avoid redundancy when stuck together? Are they integrated enough that they make sense bound together into a book?

Another way of looking at this is by looking at the skeleton of your idea. How many sections does your thesis break out into? If you can’t subdivide it into more than two or three ideas, then perhaps before long you’d run out of steam writing it. If you subdivide into seven to ten “chapters” but can’t imagine yourself writing more than a few paragraphs about any of those subcategories, then maybe this idea can’t sustain a booklength treatment.

Now, just because an idea doesn’t yield a book’s worth of content doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea; it may well be a great idea. A more prudent editor might leave it to a periodical publisher to comment on the positive case for an article, but I’m not especially prudent. Therefore let me offer these preliminary thoughts.

  • Whereas book publishers are often anonymous in the eyes of the reading public, periodicals have a loyal following—people who pay for the privilege of regularly reading a printed magazine, or people who happily archive a website among their “favorites.” As such periodicals have a particularly refined, distinct identity. Articles that fall in comfortably with that identity are good candidates for that publication. Periodicals within a particular category, of course, have overlapping areas of interest even as they have notable distinctions from one another (watch the movie 13 Going on 30 for an example of this—and for a funny re-creation of Michael Jackson’s video “Thriller”). So typically more than one periodical can be a potential home for a good article.

  • No one person can offer the final word on an idea, but one person can offer the first word. So if you have an idea that hasn’t been explored before and might stimulate further conversation, it’s probably worth pursuing as an article. On the flip side, countless people can offer the same word on an idea over and over and over again, so check your take against the question “Is this really, really, really fresh?” If it isn’t rehashing someone else’s stuff, if it actually advances an ongoing conversation, then it’s probably worth pursuing as an article.

“That sounds like a good article” is the kiss of death on a book proposal, but it’s exactly what you want to hear from a periodical publisher. In either case, there’s a lot of work—both introspection and research—that precedes it, and a lot of work—writing and rewriting and supporting and promoting—that follows it. So whatever distinctions there are between articles and books, neither one can be said to be easier. Whatever publishing direction you choose to take an idea, you need to know who you are, what you have to say, and who you’re dealing with.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at January 22, 2009 1:38 PM Bookmark and Share


This is one of the best explanations I've heard on how to know if you have a viable book idea!

Comment by: L.L. Barkat at January 27, 2009 6:08 PM

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