Updated: Feb 11, 2020
High concept. Agents seek it. Publishers demand it. Movie studios thrive on it. Authors? They just want to know what the heck it is. The problem is that if you were to ask three professionals from the publishing industry to define high concept, you would likely get four different answers.
As it turns out, defining high concept is not as easy as one might think. Perhaps the best definition is found in the language used by Justice Potter Stewart to describe pornography when he wrote the majority opinion for the United States Supreme Court in Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964). Justice Stewart wrote:
“I shall not today attempt to further define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ['hard-core pornography’]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it."
Was Justice Stewart talking about pornography or high concept?
There are many definitions to the high concept novel:
It can be pitched in one sentence.
It has a unique premise.
It has mass public appeal.
It can be pitched as “what if.”
It can be pitched as a crossing of two well-known works “XX meets YY.”
Using the above formula, the next blockbuster New York Times bestseller could be, “What if a milquetoast man traveling the world seeking affirmation was really a CIA assassin (Jason Bourne meets Walter Middy).” No? as it turns out, defining high-concept is a bit of a slippery slope. However, there are some constants to the elusive definition.
It is safe to assume that of the definitions listed above, two are absolute musts if you want your manuscript to be noticed when you query. First, the premise must be unique. It has been said that every story has already been told. If that is true, how is that readers continue to buy some books at a rate that lands them on bestseller lists? Because the author found a way to make the premise of their story unique. The concept of the story may be familiar, but there is a unique twist that sets the work apart from all others. Second, the manuscript needs to have mass appeal. Publishers are in business to make money. Likewise, self-publishers would like their books to sell well enough so they can ditch the dreaded daytime job. Either way, mass appeal is the key to mass sales.
While unique premise and mass public appeal are certainly requirements of high concept novels, a work that contains both of those elements AND can be pitched in a single sentence is much more likely to be noticed by agents during the query process. Agents receive hundreds of queries per week. Simple mathematics and common sense dictate that in addition to representing the clients they already have, agents don’t have time to read every word of every query from every potential new client. If you want to be the exception to that rule, grab them with your one sentence logline and make sure both the unique premise and mass-market appeal are obvious.
Agents, publishers, and movie producers might not be able to tell you exactly what they are looking for when it comes to high concept, but trust me, write a good enough manuscript and just like Justice Potter Stewart, they will know it when they see it.