Pub Talk: High-Concept, Very Nice Deal and Pre-empt

Come on in. Sit down and order a drink. There you go. Slam back that margarita, baby! It’s time for us to talk about some stuff we’ve been avoiding.

A list of seemingly important–yet undefined–terms has been slowly scribbling itself in my head. Maybe I’m just daft, and everyone but me knows what they mean. I keep seeing these words tossed around in various places, but they’re like gibberish. Correction: they were like gibberish. Now, they’re more like freshly learned cusswords in a foreign language.

Finally, the clinking of these mysterious phrases and words rose to a crescendo. Their insistent clanging and clashing moved me to do a little e-search to connect an understanding to their syllables. So, if you have ever wondered what the hell they mean, order another round, (you lush) and sip while you read.

“High Concept”

I have come across interviews and agents’ want-lists where this term is used as though everyone should know what it means. It had me scratching my head. Like, does it mean the underlying premise of a story is fathoms deep & riddled with emotional and/or psychological complexity? Apparently, no. The term comes from the much shallower seas of movies and screenplays.

The most prevalent definition is this: The book can be sold by the title or tagline alone.

These elements speak for themselves and make folks want to buy into the idea.

In rebuttal to this definition, one blogger argued that, actually, this aspect makes the book sound more “low concept” since the meat of it can be summed up in so few words. In fact, he complained, aren’t all books “high concept” since they can all be condensed into a tagline? He sounded bitter. 

“Very Nice Deal”

I kept seeing odd terms like this on the sale announcements over at Publishers Marketplace. “So-and-so sold Awesome Book to Amazing Publisher in a very nice deal.” Some deals are just “nice”. Some are “good”. What’s the damn difference? There HAS to be one, right? Yep. There is. Here’s ‘The Key’. [Honest, I didn’t make this crap up.]

“nice deal” $1 – $49,000

“very nice deal” $50,000 – $99,000

“good deal” $100,000 – $250,000

“significant deal” $251,000 – $499,000

“major deal” $500,000 and up

Now, you too can be in-the-know and translate the  m.y.s.t.e.r.i.o.u.s.  phrasing. You’d think an institution in the writing industry could have come up with more descriptive terminology. Who am I to judge? As long as I end up in one of the listings, they can call it whatever the hell they want. Although, I do have my [dreaming] eye on a “good deal” or better.


More PM confusion. “Sold such-and-such to whats-his-name in a pre-empt.” As in…? What is this trying to tell me? The book was bought before war broke out? The editor struck first before the agent could attack her? Kinda.

Apparently, manuscripts can go to auction. (I’ve e-searched this concept a bit, but don’t have all my questions answered yet.) Editors/Publishers throw out a number of what they are willing to pay. They also include other incentives such as foreign rights clauses [or something?] and bonuses based on the book selling X number of copies in the first year, or for it hitting the bestsellers’ list, etc.

The Agent serves as the auctioneer, accepting offers, and passing them on to the author. Together, they decide which publisher and offer is the best fit. That decision is not solely based on who throws out the highest dollar amount, but also takes into account the marketing plan, rights retention, bonuses and other intricacies.

A pre-empt is a pre-auction offer from a publisher. Its purpose is to keep the book from going to auction where that publisher might lose out in a bidding war. Not all pre-empts are accepted. It depends on whether or not the agent/author team feel they can snag something better.

Wow! You drank 6 margaritas already? But we only discussed three little terms. No, no. Put your money away. I invited you here. I’ll pick up the tab.

I am quite open to further explanation and correction if my understanding of any of this is wonky. Authors, agents, editors: feel free to fix my errors.

If I’m wrong, I’ll blame it on the booze. If, however, I am right–and especially if I land a major deal–I will be dead chuffed! <—That’s another term I e-searched this week. I’m not giving that one to you in a salt-rimmed glass, though. You’ll have to look it up yourself.

13 thoughts on “Pub Talk: High-Concept, Very Nice Deal and Pre-empt

  1. Very informative! I’ve always wondered what High Concept meant, and Preempt is a term that I haven’t heard in reference to publishing. Good stuff to know, indeed. =D Thanks for the insight! … Can I have another margarita now? Hold the tequilla. ^_^


  2. I like the idea of ‘very nice deals’ and ‘pre-empts’, but what genre would that apply to and to whom? Would that happen for a first-time author of contemporary LGBT fiction?


  3. Pingback: An Agent’s Clarification on High Concept « The Write Frame of Mind

  4. I have a game I like to play sometimes. It’s the “Pitch the DVD sitting on the shelf” game, wherein I devise Twitter pitches for the movies I own. When you do that, you figure out really fast what the difference is between high-concept movies and not-high-concept movies.

    For example, try twitter-pitching Magnolia. Or Crash. Or Adaptation. Completely impossible. They are GREAT movies, but definitely not high-concept.

    They’re also the movies that are basically impossible to explain to your friends. I am personally of the belief that everybody in the world should see Magnolia, but they invariably ask, “What’s it about?” and I’m left going, “…..uh. Entropy. It’s about entropy.” Which is not really an appropriate response to that question.


    • Ah, yes. Magnolia. Enigmatic to explain. No doubt about that.

      I have the same trouble with my top movies of all time: The Fountain, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Waking Life, Slacker.

      Waking Ned Divine, Harold & Maude, Ever After, and A Knight’s Tale are quite a bit easier.

      Now the question is: Would agents define your current work as High Concept? Do you care?


  5. Yeah, those terms around what kind of deal are just a lot of silliness in my opinion. The high concept think though, I might argue on just a TINY bit… yes, it is the easy tag–but the tag isn’t the meat of it. The tag is something so tempting everyone wants more. Out of 12 books, i think I have two that fall under the term ‘high concept’ and the one of those that is clean is the one that got me my agent–currently being shopped. The ghost of a teen who committed suicide to escape the horrors of a mental hospital finds it might be starting all over again as the building reopens as a reform school. (followed by ‘My Lovely Bones meets Girl Interrupted). It’s a simple idea, but never been done and full of potential, and I knew it from before I even wrote it. Now whether the book lives up is another matter, so far we’ve had 8 passes from publishers and I revised–going out again soon. But THAT is an execution problem. (it was an ABNA semifinalist in 2011)


    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts. The follow-up post starring Agent Michelle Witte unpacks the “High Concept” idea even further.

      Congrats on being an ABNA finalist & for scoring an agent.
      Now, to tackle the Publisher issue. G’luck!


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