The BIG Book Myth: Does Your Book Have to Be BIG?

tracking wonder - Big Book Myth

Consider the book you want to write.

Why do we get caught up in thinking we have to write a 300-page “big” book or nothing? That’s the question my pal Charlie Gilkey invited me to consider, and that’s the question I want to get perspective on.

Do you think that to write your first or next book, it must make a cannonball splash? That it needs to be The Book?

The Book comes fraught with expectations. The Book must range from 250-350 pages. The Book must bring you into the limelight – or re-establish you there.

If that rings familiar, how is that expectation serving you?
Why do we get caught up in that swirl?

A Big Idea or a Big Story

True, your idea or your experiences or your fictional plot might be so complex as to merit a final manuscript of 250+ pages. I’ve worked on hefty books that merit the weight. And some ideas and stories are so topical that they merit a longer scope, bigger publishing campaign, and wider distribution & attention. Fair enough.

The Prestige & Reputation Thing

But maybe, just maybe, when it comes to getting your (next) Big Book published, you might care a wee bit too much about what “they” will think. “They” usually meaning not your readers and community whom you’re writing for in the first place but – the family & friends who’ve been asking you about your book for a while or your colleagues and others in your field.

Are you wanting to prove yourself? If so, to whom? Usually, if you’ve established an engaged, loyal audience, you’ve already proven yourself to them.

A Metaphor We Still Dream By

There’s another psychological root. When it comes to books, we’re still acculturated to “bigger is better” and “big is significant” – two cultural metaphors that Mark Johnson and George Lakoff touch on in their seminal book Metaphors We Live By.

Certainly the rush of media and online buzz gets us jazzed and hyped about the mega-book deal and big book buzz launch.

Recently, I co-led a group of remarkable people through an event to advance their business, brand, and book. We passed around numerous books to let them flip through the pages and feel the books. More than one person admitted they still equated big (and hardcover) with substantial – even though they knew that presumption was not always true.

Here’s a question: Could you re-scale the fantasy into a scalable, doable, satisfying dream that has as much if not more impact than The Big Book?

Why not a Flash Book?

Your readers have active lives. Yes, they hunger like you to slow down and savor stories, ideas, advice. But many of them digest those stories, ideas, and advice in a variety of ways – namely in digestible bites, possibly with an elegant or spacious or simple design that lets them absorb and also that complements the reading experience.

If you’re daunted by writing a book or lost with your current project, consider writing a Flash Book.
Flash fiction by definition is brief, sometimes a few hundred words, a page, three pages.

A Flash Book might be 35-170 pages. Or it might be printed in small and spacious form so that the total number of pages increase but not the number of words.

You experience project completion sooner. You still must hone your stuff from ideation to publication. You get to test content and value sooner. You serve and send out your message, medicine, and story sooner.

All without compromising quality and substance.

Big Ideas for Books that Aren’t Big

  • Write a short graphic memoir or long-form personal essay in book form that captures a portion of your larger memoir (which is not your autobiography).
  • Finesse writing one or more inter-related short stories or pare down and write a novella.
  • Publish an extended essay or talk on a topic in your expertise or idea leadership as a Kindle single.
  • Shape your best 20 blog articles on a related topic in your field of influence into a short book.
  • Write a manifesto book. Lay out the 10 principles of your business or brand. Rally your patch of the planet.
  • Create a simple spiral workbook that gets your clients and future customers putting your signature methods into practice.
  • Make your own form. Make each page a postcard or each page a call-out and exercise to your ideal reader. Integrate poetry into prose.

You still don’t think it’s reputable, significant, or viable?

Consider these examples.

The lyrical essay book Desert Quartet by Terry Tempest Williams (58 poetic pages with Mary Frank’s sensual line drawings)
or award-winning author Alice Hoffman’s Survival Lessons (74 personable 4×6 pages on how to reinvent yourself)

Manifesto books from business artists and business owners such as:

  • Amy McTear’s We Need You (96 beautifully illustrated pages)
  • Srinivas Rao’s The Art of Being Unmistakable (130 spacious pages – now in contract with Penguin Random House)
  • Seth’s What To Do When It’s Your Turn (160 magazine-quality pages self-published) or his Tribes (147 spacious pages)
  • Michael Port’s The Think Big Manifesto (164 spacious 4×6 pages)
  • Charlie Gilkey’s Small Business life Cycle (86 spacious pages)
  • Design thinker & strategist Marty Neumeier’s “whiteboard book” Zag (157 spacious, big-print pages)
  • Difficult Conversations (128 practical pages) from Harvard Business Review’s 20-Minute Manager series
  • The creativity book by Keri Smith, Everything is Connected: Reimagining the World One Postcard at a Time

Still not convinced that small can be significant? If you lean intellectual, philosophical, scholarly, psychological, then consider these:

Extended essay books from “big name” philosophers Roland Barthes’s The Pleasure of the Text (67 pages), Heidegger’s Discourse on Thinking (91 pp), Michael Polanyi’s The Tacit Dimension (102 pp).
Extended essays from psychologists Robert A. Johnson’s Owning Your Own Shadow (118 pp) and William James’s Habit (68 pp).

Here’s the funny thing: Even though some people value tiny houses, energy-conserving small cars, and small is beautiful economics, when it comes to writing and publishing a book, the “big is significant” metaphor remains.


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