As a full-time professional ghostwriter, I spend an awful lot of time reading and signing non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). Sometimes I find them sincerely useful to the client—protection of confidences shared but not revealed in the finished manuscript, agreement to hide my participation in the project in some cases; I get it. But most times they simply demonstrate naiveté and overloaded self-importance. The client feels he or she has a billion-dollar idea, and if it is shared prior to the signing of a NDA, I or someone like me will steal it and buy my own private island. If only.
Let me get right to the point: ideas are worthless. There, I said it. Let’s consider one of the more recent billion-dollar literary enterprises: Harry Potter. Idea: the adventures of a boy wizard. Value of idea: zero. But why?
All books begin with an idea, but most never go beyond the idea stage and thus never become books. Furthermore few, if any, ideas are truly original. To expand—there is likely someone, or many someones, who harbor the “highly original” idea of writing a book about this year’s Super Bowl Champion New York Giants. Value, again, of idea: zero, and yet I have signed many a NDA over an idea of similar unoriginality.
What follows the Idea are three components of far greater value, without which the Idea itself is worthless. They are: Angle. In this case, perhaps the angle is to tell the story of the Giants Super Bowl win through the prism of the illustrious Manning family. Young Eli, the winning quarterback. Older brother Payton, the aging superstar, perhaps about to be eclipsed. Father Archie, the great talent never lucky enough to be surrounded by an equally great team. Nice …
Billion-dollar value yet? Not even close. Next component: Structure. We all know this one, yet we also know how fragile it is. First or third person POV? A little of both? Story order—pure chronology or a little back and forth? How about duel narrative? Parallel story structure anyone? Ah, the choices. Pick the wrong one and it all falls to pieces.
Yet nothing tops the fourth and final component: Execution. Combine great idea with interesting angle and appropriately entertaining structure and you still have nothing of value without damn good writing. And since subject matter experts come armed only with ideas and rarely even angle or structure, I sign and sign promises to protect and not profit off of ideas of positively zero value. They, in turn, sign contracts with me to provide the only thing of actual value: the writing. We sign, I smile, they smile, and we both dream of private islands.