10 Years of Big Ideas at Whatever

On January 22, 2008, the first “Big Idea” post went up here on Whatever, for Marcus Sakey’s At the City’s Edge. The latest one, for Sue Burke’s Semiosis, went up just this morning. All told, including the first and the most recent posts, 828 books have been featured in the Big Idea in a decade, and hundreds of authors (and some editors) have stopped by to talk about their latest books, and what motivated them to tell that book’s particular story, at that particular time. Most but not all have been speculative fiction authors — a few writers from other fiction genres have popped in, as well as a few non-fiction writers as well. We’ve even had at least one video game maker come along and talk about the ideas behind their work. Across ten years, it’s been a pretty cool ride.

(And I realize that last line reads like the next line is gonna be “And so it pains me to say the Big Idea is no more,” but don’t worry about that. It’s going to continue.)

I’m occasionally asked why I do the Big Idea feature here, and there are a few answers to that:

1. It was originally on an AOL-owned literary site called “Ficlets,” where I wrote and helped develop content, and doing a feature where writers talked about their new books seemed like a no-brainer for a site like that. When Ficlets closed up shop, I ported it over to Whatever, because it seemed like the thing to do at the time.

2. Here at Whatever, I basically consider it part of my “pay it forward” dues — I’ve done well and have been successful, in no small part because other writers were kind and helped me along the way. This is a thing I can do, that people seem to like doing, so I’m happy to do it and be useful to other writers.

3. Also, it’s easier to do than, say, doing interviews (which takes a reasonable amount of prep if you don’t want it to be canned and boring, and then takes a reasonable amount of post to make it ready for consumption), since the author does most of the work, and I just format, add links and put in an intro paragraph. It’s also better than doing reviews, because there’s no way I could review as many books as I do Big Idea, that is, if I still want to do my own writing.

4. Because they can be interesting as hell and I like reading about other authors’ processes and ideas, and this is my sneaky way of getting to do that on a regular basis.

5. Also because it serves as a way for me to find books I would want to read too, in my copious free time.

At one point I and a couple of friends intended to take the Big Idea concept further and spin it off into its own site. This happened just around the time I started getting really busy, and they also got really busy, and so it ended up that the Big Idea essays stayed here at Whatever (although I still own the proposed URL, BigIdeaAuthors.com; click on it and you’ll be taken to a scroll of Big Idea posts). Every once in a while I still think of spinning them off to their own site. Then I remember that my life is basically scheduled out through 2027 and I think they will stay here for a while longer.

And again, I plan on continuing to have them here for the foreseeable future, so long as authors still want to participate (I was once asked what happens if I give a writer a slot and they don’t turn in a piece. The answer is: Nothing happens to them. This is all voluntary. It’s not like I track them down and scream at them or anything. I just don’t run their piece).

I think it’s wild that it’s been ten years that the Big Idea has been here, doing its thing. It doesn’t seem that long ago, and yet, here we are, more than 800 books later. That’s pretty cool. Thank you to all the authors who have written about their big ideas, and to everyone here to keeps reading them.

On to the next decade.

41 Comments on “10 Years of Big Ideas at Whatever”

  1. Well, I like having them here. I’m sure I could build one more click to another site into my routine, but it’s nice knowing they’ll show up here along with great photography, cute cats pics and other thought provoking content.

  2. Hey, congratulations! That’s a big deal– to have been consistently putting this together for ten years is amazing.

    I love them, too: it’s a great way to see into the craft of writing from a variety of authors’ perspectives, and that’s fascinating for me.

    So thanks for running the Big Idea and here’s to many more years of exploring new books!

  3. FWIW John, I still get emails from people telling me they found The Punch Escrow via my The Big Idea post. This site has a wonderfully engaged group of voracious readers, and I am grateful for the opportunity to be discovered by them here. You’re a good boy bubby, a good boy!

  4. The entire experience of my Big Idea piece was painless and even rewarding. I hope to be able to do it again, and soon.

  5. I’d say about a third of the books I’ve read in the last 10 years (including The Punch Escrow) were brought to my attention by Big Idea posts. I enjoy them and appreciate them, and I look forward to more.

  6. Huh. TBH I always assumed that publishers paid you to put “Big Idea” pieces for their books on your site.

  7. I’ve found multiple great books & authors through Big Ideas. Thanks for doing (and continuing) them, John!

  8. I love the big idea posts- I’ve found several very interesting books that way that I’d never have otherwise heard of. I also think it’s really great that you use your blog to give other less known authors a chance to reach a larger audience.

  9. Rick:


    They do usually send the book along, which is standard for book publicity. But it’s not a quid pro quo, as I make clear with my publicity guidelines.

    To be clear, I receive no monetary compensation for the hosting the Big Idea pieces here, nor ever have. No money changes hands. Just… the occasional book (well, okay, not so occasional, I get a ton of them).

  10. Echoing Jabe above. About one third to one half of the books I’ve bought in the last few years have been because of the Big Idea posts. I love love love them. Thanks so much.

  11. I subscribe to your blog and having them on another site would make it easier to keep Big Idea Posts separate from Scalzi centered posts. But I’m only your doppelganger, not your web master.

  12. I have purchased several books that have been featured over the years. And found some awesome authors along that way that i might not have discovered on my own. It’s probably my favorite thing on Whatever. Well, except for the Scamperbeasts, of course!

  13. I seem to recall you once giving a Big Idea slot to a little known conservative pundit and aspiring fantasy author. I think his name was Ted… something. >.>

    Anyway, I too have purchased probably a dozen titles that have been featured here, with many more in my to be purchased list. It is well appreciated and I hope it continues for some time to come.

  14. Some Big Ideas were the sole prompt to explore an author’s work. Brick & Mortar/on-line blurbs weren’t compelling, but a sense of the writer’s personality, here, intrigued. Now, there’s someone I’d like to talk to. Thanks, Mr. Scalzi.

  15. docrocketscience:

    Indeed, if you look through the archives, you can see Big Idea posts from a number of people who have since decided I am Everything Wrong With Science Fiction. Which is fine. I manage to scrape along anyway.

  16. Since you brought up the topic, may I ask why the advertising for The Big Idea over on the right sidebar has featured a graphic for the cover of Amberlough for ages and ages–? (Or is my browser just not refreshing the image properly?) I guess I was expecting it to change with each new post.

    I have also bought a book or three after reading about them here, so good work you!

  17. Happy Birthday Big Idea!

    Whenever I’m stumped for gift ideas or need something new to read, I start going through recent posts, and I come away with a nice list of things to buy and/or reserve at the library.

    Special shoutouts to “Jade City” by Fonda Lee and “The Daedalus Incident” by Michael J. Martinez as two of my favorite Big Idea discoveries.

  18. Add me to the list of fans who love the Big Idea, and have found books and authors to enjoy therein. This is despite the fact that I have a dedicated Google Calendar set up just for release dates of books I don’t want to miss (I read a lot :-)). Punch Escrow was one of the ones I discovered (loved it, Mr. Klein!), but I also discovered Mur Lafferty, Peter Clines, Curtis Chen, Jim Hines, and many others. Not every entry grabs my attention, and not every book I pick up is one that I 100% enjoy, but I’d say at least 5 out of 6 of the books I do get are definite winners, which is a pretty good result – and more importantly, once I know I enjoy an author’s work, I can look for more of their books.

  19. “I subscribe to your blog and having them on another site would make it easier to keep Big Idea Posts separate from Scalzi centered posts. But I’m only your doppelganger, not your web master.”

    @Icarus – this is actually possible. John doesn’t categorize his regular posts but does categorize the Big Idea posts. You can subscribe to https://whatever.scalzi.com/category/uncategorized/feed/ to get everything but BI. Or, if you just want BI, https://whatever.scalzi.com/category/big-idea/feed/

  20. Most recently, I discovered Martha Wells and the Raksura books here, and absolutely love them. Also love the audio versions, as it happens, and it is KILLING me that Audible hasn’t done the last of the five books–though I hope that is only that they haven’t done it YET. Anyway, thank you for the Big Ideas!

  21. The reader in me enjoys the Big Ideas because I discovered (and enjoyed) a number of books that I wouldn’t have found otherwise. The writer in me enjoys them because I am fascinated by how other writers discover their own stories (and because I want to write a Big Idea one day).

  22. The Big Idea is a wonderful source for books I’d probably never read if not for the author’s sharing their motivation, back-story, etc. I’m reading a lovely Big Idea book now about radium and elephants that I’d NEVER have discovered on my own.

  23. Thank you for hosting this series. It sells more books to me than awards lists, as Big Ideas are one of my favorite things to explore in fiction.

  24. I have also wondered why the Big Idea sidebar widget doesn’t update, and whether it’s some kind of bug specific to my browser or what. For a long time (before the last Whatever site tweak) it was one of Martha Wells’ Raksura books (one of the story collections), and before that something else I don’t recall.

    On the upside. I eventually was so overcome by curiosity that I dove into the Raksura books and promptly devoured them all (like an Aeriat falling upon a fresh, plump grasseater!). Just one of several satisfying reading experiences I’ve had courtesy of Big Idea posts. I’ll be honest, there have been some misses along with the hits, but that’s life with books. It’s a great, reader-friendly feature and I wish it many more years of adding to our TBR piles.

    Finally, a Big Idea-related question I’ve been mulling for a while: after reading a lot of Big Idea pieces, I find myself sometimes wanting to discuss what makes a good one (guess I’m a critic at heart!). Some of them are just great, and in other cases I feel like the author didn’t quite know how to use the format to best advantage. It seems, I don’t know, impolite to have that discussion in the comments for the piece, but if not there, where else? Is this just something that will have to wait for the day when Big Idea spawns its own fan blog?

  25. I like the Big Ideas and yes, some writers use it better than others, julia. It would be interesting to see if that correlated with whether readers liked their books, but that would be a lot of work!

  26. Ficlets was where I first encountered your work. A wonderful idea, I think I’ve still got my stories from it downloaded somewhere.

  27. Thank you!

    I only discovered your work last spring, with The Collapsing Empire. Of course I then started going through your back catalogue as well, but scrolling through the back pages of your web site has also given me such huge stacks of books that I haven’t had a ‘dry’ period since!

  28. @susan5660:

    You’re speaking my language! That *would* be awfully interesting, if only it were tractable. Anecdotally, I suspect it’s gone multiple ways for me. There have definitely been cases where the Big Idea was deftly and stylishly written, leaving me rushing off to my ebookseller thinking, “now THAT’s a book I want to read!” and then… yeah. Anybody remember the gulf between video game box art from the 1980s and the 8-bit game graphics? Kind of like that.

    Equally, I’m fairly sure there are some books I’ve overlooked because the approach taken in the Big Idea left me cold (actually, that Raksura story collection piece bounced off me, and if it hadn’t been for the persistent sidebar presence — and the gorgeous cover — I might never have gone further).

    But like I said, anecdotes. I’d be curious if there’s a trend in successful strategies. And what’s success? Getting a click, making a sale, or making a happy sale? Writing a good Big Idea piece seems potentially quite a bit different from writing the book itself!

  29. I still have bonus wife points because I discovered Andy Weir’s The Martian through your Big Idea post. Sent the link to my husband, who immediately bought it and loved it. (The CEO of my company loved it too, which is why we got to close the office early one day and attend a private screening at a local movie theater!)

  30. One of my favorite parts of this site. A great way to discover authors and books I would never find on my own. Thank you for this.

  31. I’ve bought a few books because of this that I otherwise would have missed. Giving authors a slightly longer space to promote their work is good.

  32. Dear John,

    As a benfiiciary of TBI, I am very glad you kept it as part of Whatever. A posting gets a lot more traffic that way.

    pax / Ctein

  33. I’m a longtime Lurker on Whatever. I just wanted to chime in to note I’ve lost count of how many great books AND great writers might have passed me by if not for The Big Idea. I’m glad to hear they’ll keep coming for the foreseeable. Thanks for making the time and space to help promote your fellow creators!

  34. I’ve also enjoyed The Big Idea posts over the years. It’s a good thing for authors and readers alike, so thanks for hosting it.

    Sometimes TBI posts lead me to a book, like Ninefox Gambit (a wild ride indeed). Or The Art of Language Invention. Who knew that conlangs were a thing now?

    Sometimes they provide insight into something I had already read, e.g. Cold Fire by Kate Elliott, in which she explains with a great deal of charm how her children influenced the world-building.

    Sometimes the posts are informative, as with Punch Escrow and the pointer to value chain mapping. Maybe the marketeers don’t just pull it all out of you-know-where?

    And sometimes they are just good reads in themselves. Kate Elliott’s TBI for Spirit Gate has one of the best ending lines ever.

    Is there a way to leave comments open longer on TBI posts? Sometimes when I read a book because of TBI I’d like to leave a comment, and somehow I never seem to finish a book within the commenting window.

    An unrelated question too, if I may: when you hang out with someone who uses a pen name exclusively, do you address that person by the pen name or by the real name? Or is this an individual preference?

  35. Love the Big Ideas posts – I’ve discovered quite a few authors and books through it that I wouldn’t otherwise have come across.

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