Competing for Readers

Wendy Lawton

Blogger: Wendy Lawton

One of the parts of the proposal that often stymies writers is the competitive analysis section. That’s where the writer is asked to tell what books are similar to his, while highlighting why his offers a different approach.

For example if I were writing a multi-generational novel I might choose:

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton. ISBN-13: 978-1416550549, Atria Books, 2010.

Readers of Kate Morton’s The Forgotten Garden would feel comfortable with my non-linear storytelling, focusing on three different generations dealing with the secrets that have kept them from fully understanding their heritage. While Morton’s characters toil against superstition and old resentments, my characters are able to discover a faith thread that eventually helps them unravel the mysteries.

What have I done there? I’ve told those reading my proposal that my storytelling is similar to Morton’s in structure and generational mystery but that mine introduces a spiritual arc as well. I’ve also said that readers of Morton may be interested in my book. This gives the decision makers a possible context for my story. I chose a successful author but not a household name. Trust me, if you compare your book to Harry Potter or John Grisham’s latest, it doesn’t do them any good. There is no context since those are rare phenomenons.dreamstime_xs_18913751

So that’s how it’s done. Simple, yes? You are just trying to help the publisher know where to find your readers. It’s much like the feature on Amazon that tells you if you like author A, you may also like author B. Or, people who bought this book also bought this other book.

The part that causes author angst is knowing what books are similar to the one you are writing. I’ve had writers come back to me and say, “I don’t read any books in my genre for fear of absorbing their ideas.” To which I say, what??? If you are not well-read in your field or in your genre you can’t possibly know how to compete for readers. Here’s the problem:

  • If you are writing nonfiction, you’d better know every important book written on your subject and be able to show that yours is different and adds to the field of knowledge. No one wants a rehash of the same old same old (unless you are a big name, which is a whole ‘nuther issue ).
  • You are judged by how well you know your field or genre. If, say, you are writing a book about grace and you don’t mention Philip Yancey’s What’s So Amazing About Grace, your potential publishing house will have the team scratching heads and wondering how you can tackle this subject if you don’t analyze what this important book is and why it continues to be successful and how you will offer something new and different.
  • You need to know the very shelf in the bookstore that will house your eventual book. You should be haunting that section of the store, noticing each new book that appears on the shelves.
  • I often hear CBA novelists say, “I don’t really read Christian fiction so I’m finding it really hard to come up with comparable books.” When I hear something like this, my hair stands up on end. How can you hope to compete for a reader if you don’t know what that reader reads? How can you write in a genre when you don’t eat, sleep and breathe that kind of book?
  • If you are a novelist who doesn’t know your market, how can you know which plots are overused, which are passé, which have recently been bestsellers? You run the risk of a book looking like a copycat. I have a client, Camy Tang, who reads voraciously– studiously– in Christian fiction. I can call her up and ask about a certain plot and she can tell me how fresh it is and who’s recently done something like it. Camy is a Stanford grad who applies the same kind of scholarship to market analysis that she applied to biology research.

If we want to compete for readers we need to read, read, read and we need to be able to analyze the market. It’s part of our job to know what’s out there and who is reading what. Right?

So your turn. How do you keep abreast of everything in your category or genre? How do you read and yet still insure that your writing is original and fresh? Do you read systematically? How much time do you devote to reading in your field?

 

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69 Comments

  • Wendy, Thank you for the examples and challenges of this post. They form a great checklist! How do I keep abreast of everything in my category? I strive to read children’s classics, those that have won awards, and those that appear to be trending in popularity. For the last group, I look for what I see prominently displayed at bookstores, but I also take note of the child readers around me. Since I am a teacher and work in a variety of classrooms, I can see what the kids have on their desks. I often ask the kids why they like the books they are reading.

  • Wendy, this recent work … I quiz my daughter’s constantly on the works they are reading, and I have three of their “top seller” books by my chair, reading them.

    And thank you for clarifying the reasoning behind the comparables. Using Amazon really helped it to make sense.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      Listening to the interests of your potential readers is oh, so wise. (And those girls will love it when you put them in your acknowledgements.)

  • This makes a lot of sense, Wendy. And your example is a great example for those of us who will be writing proposals this year. :)

    I read in a lot of genres, but especially in the genre I write. I guess I’m a slow enough reader that it’s hard for me to get a pulse on what is, or is on the verge of being overdone. I’m also reading possible comparables now to get a feel for which books are similar to the one I’m writing. I don’t have a specific plan for reading beyond that. Maybe I need to develop one…..

    I’m only able to spend a few hours a week reading in my field. Anytime I have the opportunity to read, I do. :)

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      Some of the work on researching plots can be done on Amazon or just by reading back cover copy. If one sounds scarily close to what you are writing you’ll want to pick that one up to read. But if you follow reviews and advertisements, also checking out publisher’s pages, you’ll be able to skim over these and come up with a pretty good feel.

    • Jenny Leo says:

      I’m a voracious reader, both in my genre and out of it, but time shortage is a problem. Audiobooks have been a great help here. So many excellent novels are available on audio. I listen while driving, doing chores, exercising…times when my mind’s not otherwise engaged but I can’t sit down with my Kindle. It also frees up Kindle-time for those books that aren’t available on audio. Audiobooks are are more expensive than paper (and a lot more expensive than e-books), but my local library carries a big selection.

  • Definitely lots of great points, Wendy. I got into writing Christian fiction because I read so much of it and fell in love with it! I continue to read in lots of genres within Christian fiction — I can’t limit myself to just my genre. I probably don’t read as much as I should (definitely not as much as I want to!), but with working full time, teaching online, writing, and being a wife — plus other responsibilities — it tends to be something that doesn’t get as much of my attention. I should strive to be better about reading for 30 minutes before bed every evening, except if I read a good book, then I find it difficult to put it down and go to sleep! LOL.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      I’m glad to hear you like reading in your genre. You’d be surprised how many writers don’t. They chose a genre they think is “easy” and they read elsewhere. It always shows in their manuscripts.

      I didn’t mean this as a guilt trip! I know exactly what you are saying. When I read non-client work there’s always that guilt that I should be reading client-work or submissions– but we all need to keep our finger on the pulse of publishing.

      So many books. So little time.

  • I’m trying to find a way o say “I don’t read much in my genre” without looking like an idiot.

    And not succeeding.

    So here goes -

    The stories I tell are about relationships, and the plot develops organically from the characters’ backstories and their interaction. The result is that the stories aren’t plotted ahead of time. About halfway through I’ll know where it’s going, and write the ending, but that’s about it.

    I also know what I want to write, and that’s what I want to read. I’m pretty confident that my tastes are not that far away from most of my intended readership – I do tend to prefer the movies that make up their typical A-list.

    And the rest, I leave up to God.

    )I do read a LOT, but generally to develop a feeling for history and a sense of place into which I can write.)

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      It’s so interesting to see each writers way of developing story. Your seat of the pants method would make me crazy but it works for so many. Some of my favorite reads have developed organically.

      • Sometimes my characters surprise me, and take the story where I would never have thought it going.

        In a way, I feel that I’m just a fly on the wall, listening, watching, and ultimately documenting their lives.

        It’s fun.

      • Initial organization of ideas is a fun part of the process for me, but I also enjoy tweaking the plan as I write. One of my most cherished writing experience happened when my characters gave me a surprise ending that I should have seen coming and didn’t. The main character’s brothers bet her a dress, which became her wedding dress at the end of the book. It was a delightful “duh!”

  • I read as much as I can, mostly in my genre, but outside as well. I had a very hard time typing certain author’s names as comps, but when I viewed it as a technical exercise as opposed to a “you tank compared to these people!”, it was much easier.

    So, like, I totally put JK Rowling, Margaret Mitchell, Moses, King David and who ever it was that wrote 50 Shades of Lying Through My Teeth.

    • You bring up an interesting point in regard to comps, Jennifer.

      Personally, I think that if one don’t feel one’s writing can hold its own against Rowling, Mitchell, Salinger and the like, it should be “back to the rewrites”.

      And for the record, Jennifer, you don’t need to go back to the rewrites. Put your words next to, say, “Catcher In The Rye”, and Salinger should be afraid.

      Very afraid.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      Yes. It’s a way of putting you book in context. “It’s like this book you’ve probably read in this way, but different in this way.”

  • Amanda Dykes says:

    Great points, Wendy. I write in my favorite genre, so while I’ve struggled with some of what you list above (like not wanting to absorb another author’s ideas or voice) the reader in me has usually been able to quiet down the worrier in me long enough to read and enjoy the novel at hand. If it’s a book or author that shares something really similar to me, I’ll try to read it before I’m in drafting mode, and then read another (in a different genre, like contemporary) to sort of “cleanse my palate” in between and give a buffer to help make sure I’m not inadvertently emulating another author.

  • Excellent post, Wendy. For me, having kids in my target market helps. They generally, however, read books very different than what I like to write. That said, there are books that capture historical elements they enjoy. Up until this year, we read together each night. This year, they opted to read on their own, so I’m finding books on my own or publishers are sending them to me for review. I attend school book fairs and volunteer in the classroom to help keep me in touch with my target market, too. It probably helps that I will never grow up.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      You definitely have your finger on the pulse of your genre. (Sounds like you could be consultant for children’s writers.)

  • Great advice! I’ve always loved to read, but for several years I stopped because I was just too busy. Thankfully, I am now a stay-at-home mom with a (little) extra time to fit in reading. I love that reading is a requirement for a writer’s occupation. :) It gives me an excuse to read every chance I get.

  • Reading widely in the genre I am writing, in my opinion, is a strategy against sounding just like another author. If all I read is one author’s work, then it is likely I will sound like him or her without meaning to. But if I read widely, one specific author is probably not going to over-influence my work. I also believe reading outside my chosen genre is important, especially authors from whom I can learn. Regardless of the genre, I can learn techniques for writing a scene, or developing plots and characters etc. In fact, while I do read books specifically written to improve the craft of writing, I feel I learn the most when a writer totally captivates me, and I have to reread the passage to understand the craft and techniques involved. Saying that, I want to read more of what Jennifer Major writes, because as yet, I’m just not funny. Not on purpose anyway.

  • One point that may be important for those who write historical fiction is to select books within the genre that are accurate, not only in their technical details, but in accurately portraying the mindset of the people who lived at that time.

    I’ve read far too many books set in the WW2 era in which ‘modern’ characters have been set to play ‘roles’, with their contemporary values quite visible.

    People really were different then; they came from a society that was much more conservative and hierarchical. ‘Rebels’, for instance, were much more rare, and received much less respect than they are accorded today. They were not as readily tolerated, either.

    Using foreign national characters compounds the problem. Portraying 1940s Japanese, for instance, requires a thorough understanding of their culture, and that is awfully hard to achieve. “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” is an excellent starting point, but finding reliable memoirs and oral histories is really vital to determine whether fiction in that genre is indeed useful for gaining insight.

    Part of this delves into basic research, I know – but I do think it’s important to follow writers who have done that research; not to emulate them per se, but to establish a baseline for one’s own work.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      I read widely in historical fiction, Andrew, and I think you’ll be hard pressed to find more than a handful of authors who don’t insert some 21st century thinking in the minds and mouths of their characters. You’ll see it especially with “forward thinking,” “feisty” female characters set in medieval to 19th century settings. Yeah, right. I know they may have existed if they weren’t burned for heresy, but every protagonist? :-)

      But yes, what you said.

      • Yes, they might have been burned for heresy…but I’ve got to say that if they were similar to their fictional counterparts, the were so totally cool that the flames would not have touched them!

        There’s an interesting part of the commentary that accompanies the “Band of Brothers” DVD set. It’s a fictionalized adaptation of Ambrose’s book, made with care to accurately portray the essence of the events, if not their absolute accuracy.

        One of the veterans, in an interview, said that there wasn’t nearly the amount of profanity that the film depicted. I found that interesting, and telling – in an age in which profanity has become commonplace, we ascribe that behavior to people of an earlier time – and it’s not correct.

        Perhaps it adds urgency and ‘earthiness’, but it also says quite a bit about the world we live in.

        (I should say that the veterans of E/2/506 PIR who were involved in the development of the film did praise it highly, and this was one of the few nits to be picked.)

  • Speaking with an agent helped me better define the genre I write. Prior to this, I was reading more prescriptive fiction, and this is not how my stories play out.
    I do read systematically when it comes to the genre I write, moving back and forth between inspirational and secular novels. Being a part of the Goodreads community gives great perspective on what my possible readers love. When they voice their disappointment over a story that failed to meet their high expectations, I need to pay attention.
    I also try to be intentional about reading NF that pertains to the applicable setting, natural world, and fashion of my stories. Research that makes me drool. :-)

    On a side note, I’m listening to Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier. Have you read that title Wendy? The misty moor scenes invariably bring a delightful tingle down my spine.

  • Brandi says:

    Great post on how to write a comparison paragraph Wendy.

    I write in the genre I like to read. I’m always reading, not just for research but for fun as well. I always tell myself in the back of my mind to look for things that stand out to me and why I like it. The first read through I usually read for fun, but if I really like the book then I will read through it a second time to disect it and figure out what I like so much about it.

  • Voni says:

    I live a 12-hour ferry ride + a four-hour car ride — or a one-hour expensive plane trip — away from the nearest Christian bookstore, well, any book store. :( Any ideas? Plus, when we do make it off-island once or twice a year, do you have suggestions for making the best use of my time? Questions to ask owners or managers?

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      Fortunately, we now have online bookshelves like CBD. You can spend time among their “stacks” and still get the feel of where things are “shelved.”

      If you plan to visit bookstores when you head to the mainland why not call in advance and offer to take the buyer to lunch so you can find out what’s happening in the world of brick and mortar stores and what’s selling. She may not be able to spare the time but at least she is going to appreciate the gesture and will recognize your name when your book shows up from the publisher.

      • Voni Harris says:

        Fantastic ideas! Though I thought of Amazon, CBD would certainly narrow the research. I had a ball talking to the owner last time, and setting an appointment would be even more useful. I appreciate it, Wendy.
        Blessings!

  • Love this blog. As always. The challenge for me is finding my voice in the cacophony of all the words and books. Your questions Wendy define the crux of the issue I think: How do you read and yet still insure that your writing is original and fresh?

    I believe the answer is somewhere in listening well to your heart as you immerse yourself in research. Like in my photography, I need to “receive” images instead of “taking” or “capturing” them. But at some point I need to stop the research and speak. Write. Snap the shutter.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      Interesting metaphor. And if your voice is mirrored by what you capture in your photography– it’s a stunning voice. (Everyone should take a look at his photography. I’m a huge fan. Click on his name above.)

  • Judy Gann says:

    I’ve always been a voracious reader. Hmm, could this why I became a librarian? :-) Reviewing and selecting Christian fiction for my library system keeps me current on what’s being published in my own genre as well as gives me a good overview of the latest releases in Christian fiction.

    I’m always reading both Christian and secular titles in my genre. I have a list of titles (both Christian and secular) with similar themes to my WIP. These will provide the basis of the competitive analysis section of my proposal when the time comes. And, yes, it’s coming, Wendy. :-)

    ACFW’s Fiction Finder at http://www.fictionfinder.com is a great tool for finding competitive titles as well as keeping up with new releases.

    Most libraries have access to Novelist or Novelist Plus. Both databases have an excellent “Read Alikes” feature and you can also search by topic, setting, etc. Ask your librarian for help.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      Judy, that reminds me. . . if a writer wants help with his competitive analysis, he should ask a librarian for help. Best resource around.

  • Kiersti says:

    I’ve always (at least since age five or six!) loved reading historical fiction, and it’s what I love to write. So it’s nice to know that one of my greatest pleasures is also what I “should” do! Lately, though, I’ve been trying to more intentionally read books that are especially close to what I’m writing or have written, like historical fiction dealing with Native Americans or novels that intertwine historical and contemporary story threads, both to learn from these authors and to try and get a better grasp on what’s out there. Sometimes I wonder if I should be more “systematic” about it, though, like making sure I read all the Carol Award Finalists or something. How necessary do you think that is, Wendy? Great post–thank you!

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      I don’t know about how systematic you should be. I think word of mouth is probably more valid than award winners. Bestsellers will give you a better feel for what readers love. (Often award winning books are not marketplace successes.)

  • Amazon’s “If you like..” feature is fabulous for comparative analysis. It’s also a great way to find new authors.

  • Such a helpful blog, Wendy And I must say, a tad bit humbling for me. I struggle with the three comparative choices I put into my book proposals.
    I love to read within the genre I write. Actually, I just love to read.
    I read about 50%/50% in both markets.
    My newest discovery was in the YA genre. It was a book club selection I would not have picked, and I loved the book ~ The Blue Umbrella. Our book club liked it so much we read, The Violet Flash, by the same author, Mike Mason, later that year.
    Words, sentences, paragraphs, all draw me in and I hope make me a better writer after each book I read.

  • Anne Love says:

    I have a huge stack of books to be read in my genre. I’m constantly reading my genre and love it. My TBR pile has a wide range of time periods. Last year I set a goal of trying to read a classic I’d never read or something published less recently. I did manage to read Long Knife. I ordered Last of the Mohicans but haven’t tackled that one yet. I also throw in a contemporary once in a while. Reading is vital, and it gets you out of your own head for a change! :)

  • Anna Labno says:

    Wendy,

    Are you looking for unique voices? If you do, how can you compare yourself to another writer? Maybe that’s why so many plots and voices blend it in Christian fiction.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      We are definitely looking for unique voices. but here’s how you do the analysis: You might compare yourself to a book placed in the same setting and time period but say something like, “Although my book deals with the struggles of the Huguenots, my lyrical tone and non-linear storytelling makes it an entirely different. . .”

      In other words it is a compare and contrast exercise. You are giving context to your writing– placing it in the continuum of your genre or category.

  • This has not been much of a struggle because the area I write is where my passion lies whether I was writing or not (but I will!).

    One of the great experiences of my brief writing/pitching experience came at my first writers conference when an Editor from a large publisher when I mentioned 3 authors in the genre that he agreed were leading in the area, and I was able to share that I personally knew all 3 and they were all endorsing the book.

    It still doesn’t make the path to published quick, but knowing that those who are “Winning the Competition” in your genre are fully in your corner and rooting for you is a huge encouragement!

  • Camy Tang says:

    Aw, thanks Wendy! I think you give me too much credit. While I do read a lot, I also can’t read absolutely everything out in the market, so I read a lot of back cover copy and also I read the reviews on Goodreads. (I find that the Goodreads reviews are much more constructive than the Amazon reviews.) It gives me a good understanding of the market without needing to break the bank to buy all the great books being published!

  • Julie says:

    New to the writing scene, this pierces my heart and feels great!

    “I don’t read any books in my genre for fear of absorbing their ideas.”

    So grateful for catching this dose of read, read, read wisdom early on!

    Thank you!

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      We all stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us. We can’t be so afraid of some inadvertent form of copying that we put on blinders. It will only hurt us in the long run. I think we need to trust ourselves to be true to our own vision.

  • Sondra Kraak says:

    Wendy, thank you for this. I’m writing my first proposal and it is tough. I understand the comparable section, but actually doing it is a chore! I was in a Christian book store the other day reading opening lines and paragraphs trying to get a feel for the authors I hadn’t been exposed to. A great exercise and fascinating to pick up on voice and style. Some gripped me, others didn’t.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      You hit the nail on the head. It’s a chore but doing it pays off richly. It helps us know what our book is and isn’t.

  • Sydney Avey says:

    Hi Wendy, Would you have any suggestions for authors in the category of Christian Literary Fiction? The only authors I can come up with are John Updike, Flannery O’Connor and C.S. Lewis. I certainly wouldn’t want to compare my writing to theirs!

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      You definitely want to feature today’s authors, not those of 50+ years ago. Check out Bonnie Grove, Jane Kirkpatrick, Lisa Samson, Sharon Souza, Jennifer Valent, Debbie Fuller Thomas among others. You might want to consider some writing in ABA like Brett Lott, Leif Enger, Marilynne Robinson, Charles Martin. . .

  • I only read a little bit of YA before I started writing it. Now at least half of my reading is YA, because I write it but mostly because I love it! I realized what I’d been missing out on after I made myself research this genre for writing purposes. So much fun.

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