by Janet Kobobel Grant
After a client submits his nonfiction proposal to me, I suspect he thinks I’ll have that baby in the hands of an editor within the hour. Not exactly. Before that big event occurs, I’ll take a hard look at the proposal, seeing it through the eyes of both the editor and the publishing committee. I’ll ask myself:
- What parts of the proposal need to be shored up?
- What sections could showcase the project’s hook more eloquently?
- Do we tell the reader over and over again what makes the manuscript unique?
- How can the author best be presented as the right person to write this book?
It can take me several days to comb through the material and make sure our presentation is as strong as possible. After all, we only have one chance to obtain a thumbs up.
The part that requires the most of my time? Often that’s the Competition Section.
What makes this section so challenging? First, it takes a lot of time to do the job well.
I suspect many writers take a quick glance at what they can find on Amazon. Amazon is a great resource since we aren’t left trying to recall every book we know about on the topic of our manuscript. But, as with any tool, it’s only as good as the person using it.
Make Your Search Specific
If, for example, you’re writing a book on prayer, typing the word “prayer” in the search bar will lead to a crazy number of books. So many, you’ll never be able to sift through them all. But if your manuscript is actually a book of prayers, you’ll have a realistic number of titles to check out. Or the book might be about praying through the grieving process or a challenge to pray for your husband. Be specific when you do your search.
Often the Competition Section lacks real thought. If the topic isn’t narrowed down enough, the writer will just list some of the major titles, which often leads the publishing committee to wonder why we need another book on this topic–by a new writer. A more thoughtful, refined search enables the writer to highlight what makes the proposed manuscript unique rather than the same-old same-old.
If you find that Lysa Terkeurst wrote something similar to your concept two years ago, you should either explore your idea on your blog or quietly set it aside, knowing you can’t compete with such a well-established author’s book.
I’ve observed writers struggle to be realistic about the competition. I guess we all want to see our idea as unique. When I ask an author I represent if she’s checked out the competition, it’s not unusual for me to hear, “Yeah, Lysa Terkeurst wrote about a similar topic, but I’m focusing my book differently.”
Potential book buyers don’t take a close enough look at both books to discern the subtly- differentiated focus. They see Lysa wrote about topic A, and now you’ve written about topic A. Book-buying decision made.
List Books That Are Written to Your Audience
Recently I worked on a proposal that was for a devotional pinpointed to appeal to women. Yet the Competition Section listed devotionals on the topic that would appeal to either men or women. I searched around and found two devotionals that focused on women as the readers. Not to list those two books was to ignore that many devotionals are written for that audience. Fortunately for my client, none of them that I located covered the same topic hers did.
Don’t Leave Out an Obvious Book
The same client who wrote the devotional for women listed among her competition Jesus Calling by Sarah Young. My client made a smart decision. To leave out this best-selling title would have raised the question: What other major competition might be missing?
No, Jesus Calling isn’t focused on the same topic as my client’s devotional, but readers will choose between Jesus Calling and this other devotional. Hopefully the specific way my client’s devotional is focused will cause the buyer to select hers.
Search for Similar Titles
A year ago one of my clients created a proposal on a subject she’s written about frequently on her blog. She had coined a fun phrase to brand her way of approaching the subject. She’s been wanting to write a book using the phrase for more than a year, and now her schedule allowed her to begin.
But, as she prepared the Competition Section of her proposal, she found a book had just released that used in the subtitle the great tagline my client thought was original with her. There’s no guessing how those words came to be on that book’s cover, and there was no sense wasting emotional energy on that question. The sad upshot was clear: Since my client still wanted to title her book using that phrase, she had to set aside the idea for at least a year.
Why? Because similarly titled books will compete very directly with each other, and both books are likely to suffer as a result since they’re dividing the potential readers in half.
Case in Point
Many years ago, I became aware of two books with the same title, The Fingerprint of God. One book was about the Creator’s design that we can see throughout the universe. The other was a poetry book about seeing God in the beauty of nature. It was a good title for both books, but often the author of either book heard from readers that they thought they were buying one book but ended up with the other.
Limit the Competition to More Recent Releases
Unless a book is considered a classic on a certain topic, or like, Jesus Calling, remains on best-selling lists despite being first published in 2004, you don’t need to list that title in your competition. Most books have pretty much moved through their active life cycle in about five years and sell few copies in their later life.
If a book did sell well initially and was published ten years ago, it might make sense to list it as competition since it shows that readers bought a title on your book’s topic and might well be ready for a new slant on that same subject.
Think about How to Make the Comparison
Ponder for a minute that another book’s success could suggest your book will be successful. How you make your comparisons with each title are part of your job to help the committee see why they should publish your book. Use the competition to reinforce the thought that it makes sense for them to offer you a contract. Of course, too many recent successful books on your subject show just the opposite–your book doesn’t need to exist.
Above everything else to consider as you create your Competition Section, be honest–with yourself, with the editor, and with the publishing committee. Don’t ignore titles that are strong competition. Don’t rationalize how different the concepts are if they really aren’t.
People in publishing houses have a good idea of what the competition is. And if they don’t, they’ll search around on Amazon. Just like you did. Or they will dig deeper than you did.
Your Competition Section needs to be thorough and forthright. If it isn’t, your credibility just took a big hit. And that won’t help you get your book published.
What’s the biggest challenge you face as you prepare the Competition Section in your proposals?
Pay special attention to the competition section of your book proposal. Read this blog post to find out why. Click to tweet.
Why the competition section of your nonfiction proposal deserves special attention. Click to tweet.