August 25, 2023

How to answer the question “What’s your book about?”


Photo by Christina @ on Unsplash

What’s your book about?

It’s the first question you’ll be asked after you shyly confess that you’re a writer. We all know it’s coming, like a script from a bad movie. 

The problem is… what’s your line? 

They’re looking at you with polite interest or maybe genuine curiosity and excitement. You start sweating. You know this is when you’re supposed to have your elevator pitch ready—that thing you were supposed to perfect and polish and spend hours practicing in front of a mirror to be ready for exactly this moment.

But how many of us really do that?

Elevator pitches (aka XYZ statements, positioning statements, etc.) are great for your proposal. They’re great for back cover copy and Amazon descriptions and pre-order pages. 

What they’re not great for is casual conversation while networking with your spouse’s boss and coworkers. In our embarrassment, most of us end up down-playing the genius of our ideas, brushing off the question like it’s not a big deal, when in fact, it’s a BIG deal! We take the easiest escape route: a one-word/one-phrase topic that fits neatly at the end of the same sentence:

“My book is about classroom management.”

“My book is about the trauma of bullying.”

“My book is about personal finance.”

“My book is about my experience starting a nonprofit in Haiti.”

If you’re lucky, they’ll raise their eyebrows and ask another polite question. If you’re not, though, they’ll say, “Oh cool,” and signal the waiter to bring more hors d’oeuvres. Either way, when you answer with “My book is about X,” the ball is in their court and you’ve given up your power. You’ve stopped advocating for your book.

Friend, your book deserves better than a 50/50 shot at people’s attention. Frankly, with all of the time and energy (and often money) that you’re putting into your book, you can’t afford those odds. You can’t get your book all the way to the one-yard line only to fumble the touchdown. (There’s my one attempt at a football analogy, in honor of the season starting.) You need to make sure that they pay attention—and you can do that by changing the way you answer the question, “What is your book about?”

The best way to answer this question is to avoid the “My book is about X” construction altogether, and instead make an interesting argument. 

An interesting argument is, essentially, your big idea for your book anyway.

My friend Jeff Goins coaches authors to frame their big idea (your argument) this way: 

“Everybody thinks X [about my topic], but the truth is Y.”

So when someone asks you what your book is about, you might instead answer something like,

“You know how lots of teachers enforce really strict rules in their classrooms to try to control children’s behavior?”

“Sure…” they’ll nod, likely remembering the tough teachers in their own past.

“Well, I believe bad behavior happens when kids are bored. So I developed my own method of classroom management that keeps kids engaged in learning and out of trouble.”

“Oh wow!” is the most likely response now—followed by a host of possible questions and comments: “How did you come up with that?” “What’s the method?” “My sister needs that book!” “I used to be a kid who got in trouble all the time, and it was because I was bored, too!”

By changing the way you answer the initial question, you’ve done a few things:

  1. You’ve engaged them in your thinking, and gotten them already to agree with you, at least partway.
  2. You’ve opened the door to further conversation and made them more curious about the content.
  3. You’ve communicated all of the essential pieces of information about the book: Who it’s for, what problem it solves, and what solution you’re offering.
  4. You’ve helped them see themselves (or someone they know) in the book.

For yourself, you’ve also answered in a way that probably feels more natural and helps you feel more confident about your book. With this kind of an answer, there’s no place for shyness—only the contagion of enthusiasm. 

Here are a few more examples:

“You know how most authors think it’s impossible to get published unless they have a gajillion followers on social media?” Yeah… “I’ve seen lots of authors with small (or no) platforms traditionally publish successful books, and I want to teach them how to do it.” *Immediately thinks of friend/mom/brother-in-law/self with small platform who wants to publish a book one day.*

“A lot of people brush off bullying like it’s not a big deal. You know, everyone gets bullied when they’re a kid.” Nods in agreement. “But a lot of people don’t realize the long-term effects that can have on a kid’s life. Did you know that people who were bullied have a 75% likelihood of ending up with mental illness?” What?? No way! So how do you stop that from happening? How do you help people recover if they’ve been bullied? “I’m so glad you asked…”

A one-word/phrase topic is not compelling. It shuts down conversation instead of opening it up. Knowing what your topic is not enough on its own to convince someone to read your book. Engaging potential readers in a conversation about your argument instead will help them see the potential relevance of your book in their own life, or in someone else's life.