Blogger: Rachel Zurakowski
Location: Books & Such Main Office, Santa Rosa, Calif.
Because we receive so many proposals at our office, I see a number of projects that look pretty much the same–and I don’t mean style-wise. As I read the chapters, I’m often surprised at how similar the books can be. They’re not plagiarized, but the authors haven’t considered what strengths they bring to a topic that could help to create a unique project.
Certain topics are especially susceptible to this duplication: parenting, marriage, diet & fitness, dating, and prayer come to mind. A huge market exists for books on these topics, but a manuscript, no matter what the topic, has to be unique to have a chance at publication. Before you make the mistake of writing what’s already been written, do some research and create your project to showcase the unique qualifications you bring to the topic.
To show how your book is unique in the market, you’re going to need to include a market research and comparison section in your proposal. In this section, you should find projects that are similar to your book, give a short description of the competing project, and then show how your book is different. You want the difference to be as strong as it can be.
I’ve heard from writers that they’ve tried to find books to compare their project to at the local bookstore, and they’re always surprised by how few they find. I’ve found the best way to track down comparisons is through amazon.com. There’s no need to buy and read every book you compare yours to (though it is a good idea to read one or two of the most similar), but you can find out just about all the information you need on amazon. They have a brief summary of the book, and you can use that to create your own description and then formulate the differences between your project and the one you are comparing your book to. And you often can look inside a book to read the table of contents, which will clue you into how the book is developed and its emphasis.
Be sure to look for the books that are the most similar so your comparisons are the strongest. Because so many books exist in broad categories like parenting, you’ll want to hone in on only the ones that really will compete with your book for shelf space.
Google book ideas too. You can often find a list of books on a topic this way. Try it for “Marriage Books.” In the first ten results at least two lists recommend books on marriage. That’s a place to look for your competition.
As agents, we’re very good at checking comparisons, so be sure to put some time into this part of your proposal. If you find a lot of books with a similar approach to yours, consider revising your project. Ask yourself what experiences you have that bring something unique to your writing. Your personal experiences help to create an interesting angle for a book. Or, if you’re a journalist, interviewing and incorporating others’ experiences in your book can help to set it apart from other books.
If you are writing a book on one of the BIG topics, like parenting, you want to show how YOU are the author who is qualified to write a new, unique book on the popular topic. What do you bring to the table? How are you an expert on the topic? Do you frequently speak to parents? Do you have 27 children? Have you taken in foster children? Do you have a degree in child development? Think about how you are especially qualified to write what is on your heart. Approach the topic from that unique angle.
Fiction proposals are different. The comparisons aren’t as important because your story is uniquely yours. Although publishers do like to know what known authors your voice is similar to. (That’s always a tough one.)
It is still important to consider the strengths that you personally bring to your writing. Each of us brings something different, so when you write your fiction project, work your strengths into the story. If you work as a forest ranger or a conservationist, you know a lot about animals and plants. You can work beautiful and informative descriptions of plants or animals into your story. If you have a hobby, like studying the Civil War or interviewing veterans, your deeper knowledge can create a more layered story for your readers.
Take a moment to jot down some of your unique gifts and qualities on a Post-it and put it by your computer. Next time you’re writing, your Post-it will be there to remind you to take your one-of-a-kind approach.
The comparisons aren’t as important because your story is uniquely yours. Although publishers do like to know what known authors your voice is similar to.
I find this kind of a catch-22 because it’s the kiss of death for a newbie author to compare herself to authors who have found their way onto the best-seller list, but at the same time, it doesn’t do any good to compare yourself to an author who is virtually unheard of.
What’s a writer to do?
Teri D. Smith
Great advice about the post-it note. Thanks!
Can you suggest ways to indicate whose style our writing resembles without sounding vain or presumptuous? I mean, when I grow up I’d like to write like Francine Rivers or Bodie Thoene, but who wouldn’t?
Excellent post, Rachel…
Another possibility for researching comparable books: Google Books — http://books.google.com/
Searching only books that Google has scanned, you can often read multiple chapters, and develop a sense of the voice and material covered in competitive books.
Again, humble thanks…
Thanks for the food for thought and the reminder to focus on what I can bring to the story. Those unique qualities may some day be my “brand.”
I heard an explanation about fiction comparables that had a slightly different twist.
It’s not that I compare my writing to that of Debbie Macomber or Robin Jones Gunn (or some other well known writer) because that would be ludicrous at this point in my career. However, I can say that my writing would appeal to readers who like so-and-so’s books. It’s a fine line but it puts the emphasis on the potential audience.
Great post!! I’ve always struggled with the comparison-thing too.
Yes, like Janet said, ““If you like John Grisham, you’ll like _________.” That’s WAY better. Now, I write paranormal and I could just NEVER imagine myself saying, or even thinking, “I’m the next PC Cast, or Stephanie Meyer, or…” Well, you get the idea. But that’s the genre I write…So, I like how Janet words it.
Rachel–The post-it idea…that’s great. Never heard of that one before. Digging out the little yellow things now…
I agree with what you’re saying. My best friend just gave me a pep talk last week about how well I incorporated my interior design background into my writing. (I’m anxiously awaiting responses from agents regarding my first manuscript- she had to talk me down)She said the detailed scenic descriptions in my manscript, Immortal, were helpful to create a visual atmosphere for the reader.
Good to know she wasn’t just trying to pacify me 🙂
Your post-it note suggestion is great. It keeps me writing in MY voice and from my strengths and uniqueness. It’s so easy to stray, just like when I’m singing with others and get caught up and carried away by the sound of the sopranos next to me. THAT is not where my voice belongs. Next thing I know, I’m straining to hit the notes.
I hate the who-does-this-debut-novelist-write-like question too. But many publishers push for that kind of comparison because it helps the sales and marketing team to get a sense of what the writing is like. Without that comparison, they’re left with trying to convince bookstore buyers to take a chance on a new author with only the idea of the story to catch the buyer’s attention, as opposed to adding the clincher: “This author’s style is similar to Francine Rivers.”
I think we need to distinguish for ourselves, as we put these identifiers on a new writer, that we aren’t claiming the book will sell like Francine’s books do (I hear that in proposals all the time–“I’m the next Francine Rivers” or “I’m the next John Grisham!”) Not at all, instead, we’re saying, “If you like John Grisham, you’ll like _________. There’s a big difference between those two statements.
Great stuff, Rachel.
As more and more people get their info on the internet, I think it’s also a challenge for nonfiction authors to think in terms of how their book will fill a need that’s not filled (for free) on the internet. We can’t just offer information any more.
I think the key may be in that post-it note.
When I first pitched Parents of Missionaries to our publisher, he said, “It’s not every day I get a chance to publish a book on a subject that’s never been written about before.” That’s when I knew he was really interested!
We weren’t actually the first to write on the subject–there were two previous books but both much smaller in scope. (And yes, they were in our proposal!) But my co-author is a licensed clinical counselor and I wrote as a POM, so together we brought a unique voice to a previously underserved topic and audience.
Hi, Rachel! We met at the FCWC…
Great idea about the post-it. I’ll be using your suggestion for more than writing my books, though. It will influence my blogs, “tweets,” magazine articles, in fact, everything I write. I haven’t started blogging yet, but I have been thinking about the unique focus my blog should have and the types of posts I’d like to incorporate. Otherwise the blog will be lost in the blogosphere.
Your suggestion also reminds me about branding. The subject of branding can be confusing or off-putting for many of us, but really, isn’t branding about sticking to, and then communicating, the unique gifts and qualities we have as writers? Thanks for the timely reminder!
Excellent post, Rachel. Thank you! Off to find my Post-it notes.
Thanks for clarifying that, Janet.
In sales and marketing, that explanation really makes sense.
Thanks again, and thanks for the great post Rachel.
Thanks for this great reminder. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately and I agree with Ava. I want all my writing to come from this perspective. I want to constantly be asking myself what I can bring to the table that’s unique and that’s a value to readers. Thanks!