How to: Your book and its competition

One of the most difficult parts of writing a non-fiction book proposal is putting together the competitive analysis (this goes by various names but is basically the section where you compare your book to others like it).   People often make several common mistakes. 

1.  They write the competitive analysis after they’ve written the rest of the proposal — the chapter outline and summaries, the marketing/promotion section, the about the author material — which means that if, during their research, they discover that someone else has already published a book almost exactly like the one they’re proposing, they have to rewrite the whole proposal.   Or they pretend the competing book doesn’t exist.  Or they shelve their proposal and go on to something else. 

I’ve always found the best way to tackle the competitive analysis  is to write a draft of my overview (the overview covers what my book is about, who the audience is, and why I’m the right person to write it), then, with that information in mind, start my research on competing books.  Very often what I learn helps me shape my book to be better and more helpful to readers than what is already on the market.

2.  Another common mistake is to claim there is no other book like yours.  This is not the impressive feat you may think it is.  When you say something like that, editors/agents think either you haven’t done your homework, or else there is a good reason there’s no other book like yours, and that’s because there’s no market for it.

3.  They badmouth the competition.  It’s true that you want your proposed book to come out looking like a winner, but you don’t accomplish this by denigrating the other books out there.  Keep in mind that someone thought those books were worth publishing (possibly the very same editor who is about to read your proposal).  There’s nothing wrong with using objective information:  “This book doesn’t include the results of recent studies.”  “That book is intended for scholars, not a general audience.”  “This other book doesn’t include exercises and resources for readers.”  But saying things like “This book sucks” is a no-no.  That’s not just because you don’t want come across like a jerk; it’s also because “this book sucks” doesn’t tell the reader anything about why the book doesn’t accomplish what it’s supposed to accomplish.

4.  They forget to clearly explain how their book will be different and/or better.  You have to connect the dots for your reader.  If Competing Title doesn’t include the results of the most recent research, it isn’t enough just to point that out.  You have to also specify that My Planned Book  will include that information.  Don’t forget to explain the benefit to the reader.  In sales, they talk about the difference between features (an index) and benefits (the ability to quickly turn to the page that has the information sought).  Keep that distinction in mind as you write about your competition.

5.  They dig up and include every obscure title ever printed on the topic.  In the interest of thoroughness, some people include everything every done on the subject, which can be overwhelming and doesn’t give an agent/editor a clear picture of what the market for your book may be.  If the only books on your topic were published twenty years ago, agents/editors are going to wonder what audience you think your book will have now.  If the only books on your topic have been published by tiny presses or self publishers, agents/editors are going to wonder if you have a large enough audience to warrant their investing in your book.  If you include everything but the kitchen sink, you’re forcing your readers to wade through a lot of information to find the useful bits.  Instead, choose more recently published books put out by major publishers which have sold well.  (It can be difficult to figure out how well a book has sold, but Amazon rankings can help, as can extended best seller lists.  Google is your friend; if the book in question turns up three hits, it’s probably not a great success.)

For more on writing the competitive analysis, see agent Rachelle Gardner’s excellent blog.