State your brilliant book idea in just 3 sentences
A premise is the main idea behind your story or writing project. In nonfiction, it takes the form of a two- to three-sentence statement of the book’s basic idea, usually identifying the central problem or question and proposing a solution. The premise must be apparent to the reader in the opening pages.
A well-constructed premise is useful to you as an author because it makes sure you know what your main point is and how you are going to argue it. It’s also useful for your marketing efforts as it forms the foundation of your back-cover blurb or Amazon product description. And it’s essential as part of your submission to an agent if you are publishing mainstream.
Agents and publishers want to see your premise because it tells them at a glance what your book is about and whether it has sales potential. Sales potential is all about the audience and the information they are looking for. We speak of the audience’s needs — the specific skills they want to learn, the problems they need solutions to or the curiosities they want to satisfy. If your book answers the needs of a particular audience, it has sales potential.
Writing the nonfiction premise
The premise briefly states the need or problem you are addressing and your solution. The problem doesn’t have to be an issue that potential readers face personally but could be some kind of controversy or question that affects a community or the world at large, for example: “Is artificial intelligence a danger to humanity?” And the solution doesn’t have to be a neat how-to process or collection of facts but can be a new way of thinking or feeling about an issue.
- Problem: People who find themselves single in middle age really struggle to find new partners.
- Solution: A six-step makeover to gain confidence, rekindle the fires of romance and start dating with enthusiasm.
To write the premise, we put the problem and solution together in a statement of two to three sentences. One formulation you can use is:
- Sentence 1: State the need or problem
- Sentence 2: Elaborate (optional)
- Sentence 3: “This book will …” (state how the book will tackle the issue and provide a solution)
Here’s an example using a made-up scenario:
Formal jobs are being annihilated in the new economy and young job-seekers are scrambling to create their own businesses or side-hustles– but most will have left school with zero entrepreneurial and money management skills. The result is years of hardship and frustration ahead of them. The purpose of this book is to enable parents to teach their children the attitudes, principles and skills they need in order to thrive in an entrepreneur-focused world.
The following example is a premise for my book Write Masterful Fiction.
The vast majority of novice fiction authors never make it past the scrutiny of publishers or sell enough copies through self-publishing to make a decent income. They are all let down by one thing – a simple lack of knowledge of the core skills of fiction writing. This book teaches the 10 fundamental skills and understandings necessary for writing publishable and profitable fiction.
A variation on the formula is to state the problem as a question and the solution as the point you are going to argue. This works well for ‘big idea’ or high-concept books where you are arguing a point and trying to change people’s minds. The following example is a premise for Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel.
Why has human history unfolded so differently across the globe? And what can it teach us about our current crisis? This book puts the case that geography and biogeography, not race, moulded the contrasting fates of Europeans, Asians, Native Americans, sub-Saharan Africans, and aboriginal Australians.
Here’s another example using a similar approach:
How did we lose Afghanistan? After two decades fighting the Taliban and a supporting the emergence of democracy, the American mission in Afghanistan came to a sudden and tragic end. This book gives an insider view of the last days of the chaotic withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan and argues that the certainty of final defeat was born in the very first months of the conflict.
The examples I’ve given show how the basic premise formulation can be applied to several different types of books, but you might have written something that doesn’t fit too easily into this form. Don’t worry – just make up your own formulation that indicates the question you are dealing with and gives some idea of how you are going to approach it. If your statement helps you write a more focused book and provides publishers and readers with an intriguing glimpse into what your book is about, you’ve got a winner.
Need help defining your book’s premise, structure and argument? Get professional insight with my book coaching service.
How the premise fits into the overall nonfiction book planning process.
How to craft a premise for fiction.
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