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What this Amazon Book of the Year winner can teach us about finding broad appeal…

Last Updated:

March 22, 2024

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Did You Know? with Gorick is the weekly newsletter by Gorick Ng, Harvard career adviser and Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author of The Unspoken Rules, where we deconstruct the untold paths to success — of people (or things) you know!

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Did You Know? Your idea has potential!

(1) A story from the past

Did you know? Fiction author Celeste Ng was worried her first book was too niche and therefore would flop. Five months later, it became Amazon’s best book of the year—all because it was “MAYA.”

The year is 2014. Celeste Ng, eight years out of the University of Michigan’s Master of Fine Arts in Writing program, just sold her first novel. 

Everything I Never Told You is bought by Penguin Random House, one of the world’s largest publishers. But, despite receiving a “magic dream-come-true” six-figure book deal, Ng finds herself anxiously pacing around her home office.

Why? Ng questioned whether her mystery crime fiction storyline featuring a mixed Chinese-American family would appeal to a broad audience. To have a successful writing career, Ng knew that her debut book’s reception mattered.

She couldn’t help but wonder: “Is anyone who’s not Asian going to want to read this book?”

Fast forward five months: Ng’s novel was named Amazon’s Best Book of the Year and listed on the New York Times bestseller list for 47 weeks. And, it sold nearly 2 million copies—to both Asian and non-Asian readers. Ng’s second novel, Little Fires Everywhere, also became a hit (and even turned into an HBO mini-series starring Reese Witherspoon).

So, the next time you find yourself wondering whether your idea is “too niche,” remember Ng—who proved that seemingly niche ideas can still have broad appeal… if you do it right.

Celeste Ng and Everything I Never Told You (2014). Via Celeste Ng.

(2) A strategy for your future

Did you know? Your ideas need to be “MAYA.”

What Celeste Ng didn’t realize at the time was that her story wasn’t too Asian—it was just the right amount of Asian… and everything else.

There’s actually an acronym for this: MAYA, which stands for “Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable.”

“Most Advanced” = An idea pushes the frontiers of what’s been done before.In Ng’s case, her book unpacked the Asian American experience in a way that hadn’t quite been done before—as a twist of a fictional mystery drama.

“Yet Acceptable” = An idea is still familiar, understandable, and relatable.In Ng’s case, her book spoke to broader topics like “the burden of familial expectations and the basic human thirst for belonging” that even non-Asian readers could relate to.

In the words of author Derek Thomas in his TEDx talk, “To sell something familiar, you must make it surprising. To sell something surprising, you must make it familiar.” Ng did just that.

Whether you’re writing your own novel, working on a side hustle, or trying to get others’ buy-in at work (or life), MAYA can help your ideas gain acceptance in the same way it helped Ng.

Trying to sell an idea? Try this:

(1) Fill in this blank: “I’m trying to solve the problem of _______ by _______.”

E.g., “I’m trying to solve the problem of employees from underrepresented backgrounds not feeling a sense of belonging at work by changing the culture of my organization.”

(2) Ask yourself: “If I were an outsider, would I consider this idea too advanced (so is too risky or doesn’t make sense) or too acceptable (so doesn’t seem fresh)?”

E.g., “I think my idea is too risky and doesn’t make sense because what does culture change even mean, especially since senior leadership may not even realize that there’s a problem?”

(3) Fill in this blank: “I can make my idea more advanced and/or more acceptable by _______.”

E.g., “I can make my idea more acceptable by first compiling data on how employees in our organization are feeling and performing, which has never even been done before.”

I used an example of an idea that needed to be more acceptable (rather than more advanced) for a reason: From what I’ve seen, most ideas flop not because they’re too “acceptable” but because they’re too “advanced.”

After all, how many times have you heard someone pitch you an idea enthusiastically… only for you to have no idea what they are talking about?

Chances are, they were “too advanced” (too creative, too technical, too jargon-filled). It’s why I tell students in my UC Berkeley class: “Don’t be too smart”—just because something makes sense to you doesn’t mean it makes sense to other people.

I know it because I’ve experienced it: I was looking at my old list of startup ideas from business school the other day. I couldn’t help but laugh… and be embarrassed. One of those ideas—an AI-powered career coach—was literally more advanced than today’s version of ChatGPT. No one understood any of my ideas… until I pitched a much more “acceptable” idea: a book. Finally, everyone knew what I was talking about.



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