What is High Concept?

Recently I asked my followers on Facebook what question I should answer in my next “vlog,” and the overwhelming response was “What is High Concept?” Here’s my three-minute response,with a written recap below.

High concept is primarily a term used in pitching movies but these days, we find it a helpful shorthand to describe a certain kind of book.

When an agent says they want high concept, they’re looking for an idea that can be captured in just a title and a brief, pithy tagline—and from that brief description, will immediately attract interest.

A high-concept pitch has inherent appeal – just from the one line description. The idea itself has immediate sizzle when someone hears it.

Some genres almost have to be high concept to sell –such as thrillers, suspense and sci-fi novels.

Some genres don’t – for example, women’s contemporary fiction or historical romance – but remember that your story will be easier to sell to agents, editors and consumers if it’s a higher concept idea.

High concept is MUCH more than simply a “great idea.” It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s just fresh and totally unique. It’s an idea that – when you say it – it immediately paints a picture in the listener’s mind of what that book is about.

High concept means the PREMISE of your book will get attention, before anyone sees even one word of your writing.

Not all books are high concept – nor should they be! But sometimes agents and editors are looking for a high concept novel in a certain genre. For example, the only YA novels I’m interested in looking at are high concept, because that’s what I want to read, that’s what my kids want to read, and that’s what I think I can sell.

That means I’m not looking for a quiet story of a high school girl coming of age in a small town high school – even though that may be a great book. It means I’m looking for something in the basic premise of your book that intrinsically garners interest, such as the Ally Carter books my daughters just finished reading—The Gallagher girls series. The title of book 1 is I’d Tell You I Love You But Then I’d Have to Kill You. That alone is high concept. The series is about a top secret boarding school for girls who are training to be spies. So the series premise is high concept.

A pitch for book 1 might be: Cammie Morgan can hack a computer, tap a phone, and kill a man in seven different ways—but when she meets an ordinary boy who thinks she’s an ordinary girl, it may be her most dangerous mission yet.

And that’s a high concept premise.

You can find a lot more information online about what high concept means to various people. Just realize that high concept means you can hook someone with just a title or a single sentence.

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Books & Such Literary Agency. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!

55 Comments

  1. Begin with the High-Concept Premise | Mia Sosa on April 18, 2015 at 11:47 AM

    […] By now, some of you might be asking: What the heck is a high-concept premise, anyway? Literary agent Rachelle Gardner offers this useful explanation: “When an agent says they want high concept, they’re looking for an idea that can be captured in just a title and a brief, pithy tagline—and from that brief description, will immediately attract interest.” For more on this topic, see Ms. Gardner’s video and write-up here: http://rachellegardner.flywheelsites.com/what-is-high-concept/. […]



  2. einar on December 5, 2013 at 9:36 AM

    Soldaten og hans kvinner (High concept?)



  3. charles on December 5, 2013 at 8:38 AM

    Thanks for the clearly addressed definition of “high concept.” My genre is mystery/suspense with a dash of challenging romance. Look forward to your future newsletters, vlogs, etc. Thanks!



  4. […] articles about it on the web: Rick Neal talks about it from a role playing game point of view, and Rachelle Gardner, so I’m not going to explain what it is here. What I am going to talk about is why a high […]



  5. Daniel Kenney on July 19, 2012 at 6:18 PM

    Rachelle, when pitching a high concept book in a query, is it appropriate to say something like “Moby Dick meets Pride and Prejudice” (not serious of course). I know this type of comparison is sometimes used in movie pitches but wondered if it is appropriate in a book pitch?

    Thank you!

    Daniel Kenney



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  10. bloom321 on March 21, 2012 at 1:54 PM

    very good i havent read such a high quality peice of work in a long time good job. The text flows very nicely and it is very easy read and it was also fun and broght up some interesting points.bloom



  11. Watch TV free on February 27, 2012 at 1:00 AM

    I hardly write remarks, but I browsed a bunch of remarks on this page What is High Concept? | Rachelle Gardner. I actually do have 2 questions for you if it’s okay. Could it be just me or do a few of the remarks look as if they are written by brain dead visitors? 😛 And, if you are writing on other sites, I would like to keep up with everything fresh you have to post. Would you post a list of the complete urls of your shared sites like your linkedin profile, Facebook page or twitter feed?



  12. Tamara Paulin on August 8, 2011 at 4:21 PM

    Is it safe to say that most realistic fiction is *not* high concept? And/or could anyone help me out and name something that is both realistic and high concept?



    • Rachelle Gardner on August 10, 2011 at 4:50 PM

      LOTS of “realistic” fiction is high concept. Most thrillers and suspense novels are realistic, i.e. they take place in the here and now and the characters are people, not vampires, aliens or creatures. Yet they have strong, high-concept hooks. Almost any genre can be high concept, and in fact, the idea of “high concept” is relative to the genre.



      • Tamara Paulin on August 12, 2011 at 9:45 PM

        Thanks! I’ve been confused by popular YA chick-lit, which are a little more subtle. The big hook in many of these “regular girl moves to new town” stories may be the author’s brand, and not the premise. 🙂



  13. Jaime Wright on August 8, 2011 at 11:53 AM

    WOW! Fantastic vlog, Rachelle.



  14. Kay Elam on August 6, 2011 at 5:10 PM

    Thanks for the best definition I’ve heard of high-concept. Love the VLOG–it is professional yet cozy.



  15. Glenda Parker on August 6, 2011 at 2:11 PM

    I am really new in trying to get my books published. I have never heard of some of the terms that i am finding on blogs and websites but you have cleared up a lot of them for me. Thank you so much for the time you put into helpings.



  16. Laura @aLifeOverseas on August 6, 2011 at 6:44 AM

    Fantastic vlog which really gave a clear, concise description of this term {which, honestly, I hadn’t heard before}.

    I so enjoy your tips and “insider’s scoop” as given at your blog. Thanks for sharing with the rest of us!



  17. Benjamin Gorman on August 6, 2011 at 2:33 AM

    Tomorrow I get to pitch my manuscript to agents a couple times at the Willamette Writers Conference. My book, it turns out, is very high concept; I’ve had two agents as for the manuscript without even hearing my pitch because they heard the hook secondhand. I’ll lead with my hook, but I doubt it will hurt to toss in the phrase “high concept” when we discuss marketing. Thanks for clarifying the definition, because I would have been reluctant to use it for fear of employing it incorrectly. As always, you’re a great help!



  18. Martha Ramirez on August 6, 2011 at 12:19 AM

    About a year ago an agent mentioned that he was looking for high-concept novels. I remember Googling it and finding good info on it but it was nothing compared to this. Thank you! You’ve simplified it in a fun kind of way.

    BTW Lovely video. You did a great job!



  19. Debbie Baskin on August 5, 2011 at 11:52 PM

    I really enjoyed meeting you on Utube! Thanks for the advice.



    • Ludmila on May 21, 2012 at 6:51 AM

      I really REALLY wanna c it again but i just wish they woulf repeon the show in San Francisco!! New York lets it run 4ever but u cant find a show anywhere in California! Cnt wait 2 b able 2 do it with my high school or college or whenever it comes available 2 rent on MTI or sumtin I dnt care wat it takes! I will b in Wicked!! Mwahahaha!!!



  20. Yamile on August 5, 2011 at 11:14 PM

    High concept is like “Cowboys and Aliens.” even without seeing the movie, I have a pretty good idea what it’s about, and I’m intrigued. Also for War of Thrones, I heard an agent describe it as “The Sopranos in Middle Earth.” You can picture the whole thing without necessarily reading a page of the book or watching a single episode of the mini-series.



  21. Leslie Deaton on August 5, 2011 at 10:43 PM

    Great VLOG, your message was so clear and concise. After reading, I’m pretty sure my YA Fantasy A Marked Past qualifies. I’ll keep watching and learning more and more. Thx!



  22. otin on August 5, 2011 at 10:07 PM

    These vlogs are the best!

    Could something be high concept to one agent and not to another?



  23. DR on August 5, 2011 at 4:50 PM

    Thanks for clearing that up!
    I was thinking it was something like a subject with depth; like hope, or torment, or rebellion.

    It intrigues me all the different ways books can be classified, possibly because I can’t seem to place mine!

    Poor Death’s Claim 😛



  24. Rachel Wilder on August 5, 2011 at 3:58 PM

    I too voted for High Concept in the Facebook poll. Now I know exactly what it is and the novel I’m nearly done with may be high concept.

    Thank you for such a helpful, wonderful explanation.



  25. bekah on August 5, 2011 at 3:00 PM

    I like the environment of the vlog.. interesting twist of effective communication/teaching.



    • Milton on May 22, 2012 at 10:22 AM

      Hi, I got your info thru a very good friend of mine, and I was wrideonng, how far south of Oregon do you travel for business? I live in Corvallis, OR., and my husband & I are looking for a photographer. So, before asking more questions about your services, I wanted to know if Corvallis, OR was too far to travel? Thank you for your time, and I hope to hear from you soon.Mari.



  26. Loree Huebner on August 5, 2011 at 12:56 PM

    Thanks for answering that. Love the vlog.



  27. Taz on August 5, 2011 at 12:11 PM

    I’d not heard of “high concept” until now and am pretty excited to uncover more about it. Sometimes this pitching business feels like it’s not who you know, but what lingo we can get down pat to make the best business happen. The rules remain the same: get it right and do it off the map with amazingness. Best tip I ever heard for this sort of thing is to pitch like you’re still writing the story and with the same enthusiasm except shorter.

    I’ll watch the video tomorrow when I can use the volume. Thanks so much Rachelle!



  28. joan Cimyotte on August 5, 2011 at 12:02 PM

    A man who rekindles his faith and finds happiness might be a medium concept. I’ll have a grande latte! Oh, I guess I’ll just have a tall drip brew.



  29. Jenny on August 5, 2011 at 11:25 AM

    This is helpful. Thanks!



  30. Sarah Thomas on August 5, 2011 at 10:12 AM

    This helps immensely. I’m thinking a good test of high concept is to imagine Don LaFontaine reading the hook. If it sounds like something you can’t wait to see in theaters, it’s high concept. If it sounds like a goofy parody, it’s not.



  31. Beth MacKinney on August 5, 2011 at 9:19 AM

    Your vlogs are great, Rachelle. Thanks so much for all your valuable insights!



  32. Anna Banks on August 5, 2011 at 8:47 AM

    Just started reading SAVE THE CAT, which is geared toward screenwriters, but a writer of novels would do well to heed the advice there too. All about developing high concept, hook, and fleshing it out.

    Rachelle, thanks for all the thought and effort you put into teaching us.

    Happy Friday everyone! 🙂



  33. Gwen Stewart on August 5, 2011 at 8:46 AM

    Hi Rachelle,

    Another great Vlog!

    I’d love it if you could extrapolate on high concept in women’s historical or romantic fiction one of these days. 🙂 Some of your clients wrote fabulous historicals featuring real people of history. In my admittedly amateur opinion, that seems high concept, even if there’s no element of thriller or sci-fi.

    Have a wonderful Friday! Thanks for another informative post.



  34. Heather Sunseri on August 5, 2011 at 8:45 AM

    Great vlog!

    I must check out the Ally Carter books. I think *my daughter* will love those. (Wink. Wink.)



  35. Kathleen Basi on August 5, 2011 at 8:44 AM

    Rachelle, this is the clearest, most understandable explanation of “high concept” I’ve ever gotten. And it’s something I’ve been very frustrated by not “getting” up till now, despite reading many people’s attempts. Kudos to you for laying this so clearly!



  36. Wendy on August 5, 2011 at 8:16 AM

    High concept excites me…to read and to write. Boarding school of spy girls, I need to check that out. YA is fascinating me lately (probably b/c my girls are getting older).

    Another superb vlog. I plan to record one soon. I’m a wee scared, but I’ll do it. Deep down I think it could be fun and you make it look easy. 😉

    Hope you get to take your dog on some fun walks this weekend.
    ~ Wendy



    • Colin Smith on August 5, 2011 at 10:37 AM

      Interesting that, isn’t it? Five years ago, I wouldn’t have given a moment’s thought to writing YA. Now that I have two teenagers, and my son is about to join their ranks in a few months, YA has a lot more appeal. 🙂



  37. Jackie Ley on August 5, 2011 at 7:31 AM

    Terrific post – and it’s such fun to listen to your vlog while trying to read the titles on your bookshelf!



  38. Katy McKenna on August 5, 2011 at 7:28 AM

    Rachelle, I was one of your facebook friends who asked you to speak on this subject. I am glad I did! Evidently, I’m truly confused. In my thinking, I was somewhat equating high concept with high stakes. So, in your example of a non-high-concept quiet coming-of-age story of a girl in a small-town high school, assuming the author wanted to go for high concept, what should she do? I’m guessing make it a secret school for future girl spies. That would make it high concept, as far as pitching the story with a title and tagline, and then it would remain to be seen how high the stakes get ratcheted up in the book.

    Are high stakes something that rather logically flow from high concept? I may still be confused, haha.



  39. Addison Moore on August 5, 2011 at 1:26 AM

    You look SO good! For your next vlog please detail all of your beauty products right down to face wash.

    Also, if I ever have a novel out in print I’ll pay you in Coach purses to place it face out on your bookshelf.

    Meanwhile, I’ll be working on those tag lines. 😉



    • Catherine Johnson on August 6, 2011 at 8:41 AM

      Great vlog and explanation of high concept. Often wondered what it meant but never curious enough to google it. You do it much nicer than google 🙂



  40. Donna Pyle on August 5, 2011 at 1:01 AM

    Thanks so much for an easy-to-understand rendering of a phrase that I didn’t quite understand as it pertained to the literary world. Woo Hoo!



  41. Nancy S. Thompson on August 5, 2011 at 12:19 AM

    Great vlog, Rachelle! I love that you’re standing in front of a bookcase. Looks great!

    Now I’d like to know, as an author of an adult psychological thriller, should I mention in my query that my book is high concept & include my tagline?

    Since my query starts right off the bat with the core of the story, I wonder how & where I’d fit that in. Have you seen any successful queries that do this?

    Thanks for tackling this subject!



    • Rachelle Gardner on August 5, 2011 at 12:26 AM

      High concept is something you should never have to mention, it should be obvious from your pitch! Should you include your “tagline”? If your book is high concept, then the first line of your pitch should be that one line that encapsulates it – the hook, the unique thing that would make someone read on to sentence two of your query.

      I’m not sure how to make it any clearer. When writing a query – do not hold back! Like they say in journalism, don’t bury the lead! I might or might not want to read sentence #2 of your query so you’d better hook me in sentence #1.

      Your query starts with the “core” of the story? I don’t even know what that means. We need a hook! Hook me or I’ll stop reading!

      And if you have to tell me it’s high concept – then it’s not high concept!

      Okay, I’ll calm down now. 🙂



      • Nancy S. Thompson on August 5, 2011 at 12:37 AM

        Thanks! Since I do start with a strong hook, I’ll leave well enough alone & let it speak for itself.

        I appreciate you answering. Sorry if I upset you. I’m very new at this.



      • Cynthia Townley on August 5, 2011 at 4:24 PM

        Ms. Gardner,
        I really like your blog. I’d like to ask how many bestsellers your firm has sold?



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