Evaluating Your Book Idea

In the beginning, is a message.

You have something to say. A message that wants to get out of you. That needs to get out of you or else it will keep you up every night and drive you crazy.

At some point, the idea occurs to you like a voice from heaven, “I should write a book.” It’s a terrifying, wildly unreasonable idea. Your identity is bent out of shape just thinking about it.

Could I be a writer? Could my writing be published for others to read? And most outrageous of all, could I get paid to do that writing?

The good news is, there are more publishing options than ever before. We are living in the midst of an explosion of publishing unseen since the first printing press. Absolutely anyone can publish a book today, in some shape or form, with a little perseverance.

The bad news is, there are more publishing options than ever before. Where once the requirements at least were clear, and the gatekeepers known, now there are only hundreds of decisions to make each and every step of the way. 

My idea began with an online course called Building a Second Brain. The message developed slowly over several years, through my writing, teaching, speaking, and coaching. Only gradually, as I began to see there were timeless principles that didn’t depend on any particular technology, did I start to think about turning it into a book.

As you consider whether a traditional book deal would be right for you, there are six main factors to consider: Audience, Competition, Marketability, Potential costs, “Why me?”, and Sales potential. Let’s discuss what each entails.


The first question to clarify for yourself is, who exactly will purchase this book? 

It is essential that your answer not be a hope or a wish. You absolutely must test it in the real world. Write about your ideas and collect feedback online. Start a book club or discussion group to learn about people’s needs and problems. Try teaching it in a live setting at work, in a coworking space, or on Zoom.

The more specific you can be about who that audience is, the easier it will be for others to envision them. Start a list of magazines and newspapers they read, TV shows and podcasts they consume, and blogs and social media accounts they follow. Even better, start a blog, podcast, or email newsletter so you can become the source they go to for information and advice.

Questions to ask:

  • Who will be interested in reading your book? 
  • Is there a big enough audience?


One of the first questions you will be asked is, what is the competitive landscape?

The book market isn’t a blank slate. Your book will not be the only one on its topic. You are connecting to a web of conversations and an existing culture around productivity or cooking, love or gardening, or whatever it is you want to speak to. It is critical that you understand that existing context – what is working and what isn’t, what people are saying and what they’re missing, and what need isn’t being met by current books.

Begin by starting a list of similar or competing books. You can visit one of these books’ pages on Amazon, and then follow the rabbit trail of “recommended titles” until you have a good list. Buy these books, read them, and take good notes. You need to start seeing your niche objectively, in terms of business potential, which requires a completely different lens than you’re used to as a writer.

Questions to ask:

  • What other books like yours are already out there? 
  • How much do they cost? 
  • How are they marketed?


Your book proposal is really a business proposal. You are asking a large corporation to invest a significant amount of money to build an operation that everyone hopes will be profitable. There is just as much risk and potential reward in publishing a book as in starting a business. And the failure rates are also similar – approximately 90% of published books never earn back their advance and thus never make money. 

You should start paying attention to how books you consider a success were published. Especially books in your niche. Poke around bookstores and libraries and visit topical websites. Subscribe to the email newsletters of the authors you admire and join their communities. They will be your peers and your readers, so start building relationships early. Your goal is to develop an understanding of the zeitgeist, so you can capture it with your book.

Questions to ask:

  • Do you have a way to reach your audience? 
  • What skills and contacts do you possess that would help get the word out?
  • What is unique about your book that the media might pick up on? 
  • Which publications or blogs might write about you and your book? 
  • Which online communities could you reach out to? 
  • Which influencers or thought leaders or media personalities could you reach out to? 
  • What kinds of organizations or groups might be interested in your book?
  • Which trends in society or the media does your book relate to?

Potential costs

Depending on your book, you may need a budget to purchase the rights to photos, illustrations, or excerpts from other authors, or for a book tour. These costs add up quickly, so consider which of them will be essential.

Questions to ask:

  • How much will you have to pay for necessary photographs and/or excerpts by other authors? 
  • Will you need to travel?

The “Why me?” factor

This question will appear throughout the process of developing your book proposal. It’s smart to have a compelling answer ready. Publishers will want to know why your expertise and experience make you not only a good person to write this book, but the perfect and only person to write it.

Questions to ask:

  • Why are you the person to write this book? 
  • What do you have to say that’s new and different?

Sales potential

Everything in your proposal must ultimately build toward justifying the sale for each of the gatekeepers you will face.

The first gatekeeper you have to satisfy is the publisher, and having strong answers for each of the questions above will be essential for making the case for your book.

You must become an expert at answering the question, “Why would a publisher, a bookstore, and eventually a reader plunk down money to buy your book?”

In the next post, we’ll look more closely at what it takes to develop an audience and test your idea to make sure it is something people want to read. 

Like this?
Become a subscriber.

Subscribe →

Or, learn more.

Read this next:

Chain of Thought

Transcript: ChatGPT for Radical Self-betterment

'How Do You Use ChatGPT?’ with Dr. Gena Gorlin

🔒 Jan 31, 2024 by Dan Shipper

Napkin Math

Crypto’s Prophet Speaks

A16z’s Chris Dixon hasn’t abandoned the faith with his new book, 'Read Write Own'

13 Feb 1, 2024 by Evan Armstrong

Thanks for rating this post—join the conversation by commenting below.


You need to login before you can comment.
Don't have an account? Sign up!

Every smart person you know is reading this newsletter

Get one actionable essay a day on AI, tech, and personal development


Already a subscriber? Login