Blogger: Wendy Lawton
Location: Books & Such Central Valley Office, CA
Is there any part of the proposal you dread more than the competitive book analysis? I think I get more client questions about this than any other.
What is a competitive book analysis? It’s the compare and contrast section of your proposal. You are trying to:
- Give a point of reference-– another way to help the agent or editor get a handle on your book.
- Show that you know what is already out there. If, say, you are writing a young adult dystopian novel and you fail to address Hunger Games, an editor would wonder how much you know about YA and how much you know your readers. Or if you were writing a nonfiction book about relationships and communication and did not reference The Five Love Languages, wouldn’t it show a huge hole in your knowledge of what’s key in your supposed field?
- Help the editor or agent get a feel for how well your book may sell. As you list the books that are similar, you’ll give ISBN numbers for each. If your book goes to committee, sales figures will be compiled by the acquiring editor for each one of those books to give a point of reference for the scope of the potential market.
- Find another way to show the merits of your book. Here are a couple superb sample comparisons I lifted from a recent client proposal:
Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home by Richard Foster (HarperCollins Publishers, 1992, ISBN# 0-06-062846-4)
Although this book was published almost 20 years ago, I continue to hear the comment “That book changed my life!” by those gutsy enough to have read it. Foster beautifully wove tradition with instruction as he led readers through a wide array of prayer. Contemplative, authoritative, and sacramental are just a few of the types of prayer that Foster encourages the reader to examine.
I have tried to use this book in group settings and the feedback is always the same- “We love it, but it’s way over our heads!” Many men and women want to understand Foster’s framework, but can’t seem to. [Title of Author’s Book] takes the depth of Foster and makes it readable. As I explain types of prayer such as breath prayer, defining prayer, break through prayer and intercessory prayer (which I call shouldering prayer…or “Holy Piggybacks”) the reader is less intimidated, but still instructed in the richness of this treasured heritage.
Believing God by Beth Moore (Broadman and Holeman Publishers, 2004, ISBN# 0-6330-9667-9)
In the classic tradition of Beth Moore, Believing God lays a foundation for faith that demands belief. She focuses on believing God is who He says He is, and can do what He says He can do—to draw the reader to rally around faith. [Title of Author’s Book] approaches belief more from the grappling we do to get there. I delve into the “holy tension” we experience when we want to believe, but can’t.
Diminishing doubt, fear, embarrassment, and spiritual scar tissue are my landmarks that navigate a path towards belief. Believing God walks readers through a time capsule of memories regarding the growth of their belief system, while [Title of Author’s Book] approaches this growth by sharing the struggles of heroes like Peter—where doubt isn’t the point in belief, getting out of the boat is.
Do you see what this author did so brilliantly? She (1) told a little more about her own book with every comparison, (2) demonstrated that she not only read the important books on her subject but that she was able to distill the very essence of the comparable book in just a couple of sentences and (3) she treated her “competition” with respect, never denigrating the book. She used this section of the proposal to show that she understood what the publisher needed and why they needed it. In other words, she demonstrated that she was a consummate professional.
On the flip side, let me tell you what NOT to do:
Do not name blockbusters. “My book is like a combination of Heaven is for Real because it features a father and a son, Girl with a Dragon Tattoo because it includes a disquieting basement scene and Harry Potter because the characters travel via British trains.” (Can’t you just picture the editorial team rolling eyes?) Remember, your job is to capture the essence of your book and compare and contrast it to something that (1) should appeal to a similar demographic, (2) shares some thematic similarities, (3) will give the agent or editor some context for forecasting sales possibilities. When you pick a phenomenon like Harry Potter, it’s silly to offer it as a comparison. The appeal and trajectory of that series is akin to a hundred-year flood. It’s not going to come around again in our lifetimes. These kind of wild comparisons are not only useless, they indicate faulty reasoning and magical thinking. Not professional. Not helpful.
Do not say, “there’s nothing like this on the market.” To some extent that’s true of every book. You are unique and so no one has ever captured what you will capture in your book, but saying that defeats the purpose of what we are trying to do with a competitive analysis. Besides, if it were true, you’d be hard pressed to convince anyone that there’d be a place for your book on the shelf or even a market for it.
Do not treat this section lightly because it’s so difficult. If you come to this part of the proposal and throw up your hands and say, “I have no idea what’s out there,” think again about whether you should even be writing the book. It’s your job to be well read in your field. You must know what’s out there. As you do this important research, you will be shaping and reshaping your book.
I know I only touched on a small part of this confusing section, so please ask away. Do you see how powerful this section can be? Is there anyone out there who relishes this part of the proposal?
Hi, Wendy. This is such a timely subject for me. So, thank you.
Is it out of the question to compare your books to another series that is in your genre, but is about a very different subject matter? For example, (and I’m totally making this up) what if you’ve written a romantic suspense novel about Amish main characters who are in some sort of danger throughout but the MCs are not cops, FBI agents or anything of the sort. Could you compare your story to the writing of let’s say, DiAnn Mills or Irene Hannon because the writing styles are similar, or would you be better off sticking to Amish books like yours?
Heather, yes, you can, as long as you make it clear what part is similar and how your book is different. The drawback is it won’t help in quantifying the audience. It’s a way of helping the editor get a handle on the book but that’s the only thing it does.
Example: [Title of my book] treats the subject of childrearing with the tongue-in-cheek seriousness of Garrison Keillor combined with the applicable content of Childrearing for Dummies.
It sort of works but it definitely limits what you are trying to do in the competitive market analysis. Just be clear what you are comparing– subject matter, style, genre, audience.
Wendy, I do NOT find this section easy to write at all! I usually have no difficulty finding current books to compare, but it’s hard to fit the comparison into a small amount of words. Thanks for the great example!
I have to say, the more I read this blog the more I love it. Thank you for sharing your wealth of information with us.
I’ve been visiting the library so much the past two weeks for comparable titles that I swear they are going to set me up with a cot. 🙂 My children’s librarian has been more than helpful–even going into storage to find some books I requested. I honestly don’t mind doing this, but after a while I need to take a break and do something other than read.
I like the examples you’ve shown because even though I haven’t read these books, the author makes me feel like I know what they are about.
Thanks for a wonderful week of helpful posts that I truly feel answered my prayers.
Wendy, I would find it easier to zero on the competition with non-fiction than with fiction. For instance, I have a suspense manuscript geared for adults. However, there are tons of published suspense novels out there, and many of them include a romantic thread just as mine does. Is there a scientific method to selecting which ones I should list as my competition? (Perhaps going by locale, time period, profession of the protagonist, etc.?) Also, should this list strive to be exhaustive, or is a certain number of representative competitors sufficient? Thanks!
I find that a good way to prep for writing this part of the proposal is to have conversations with others about the manuscript. If they haven’t read the completed manuscript, just like an agent or editor you need to know what references to give so they can get a good idea of what it is about, and if you can convey it to friends or others without having to give a three hour lecture you’ve done a good job.
I couldn’t help but smile as I read your post Wendy. Whenever I tell someone about the latest manuscript they invariably ask me, “So it’s like the Hunger Games, right?” Which has gone quite a ways to getting my own comparison down from the three-hour mark 🙂
A question I have is if the manuscript has strong crossover appeal between demographics, should an author give equal space to explaining how it appeals to the other demographic(s), or would it appear that the author is confused about who is the primary audience of their manuscript?
Great question Rick. Ask yourself this: whose readers would like your book? Think of voice, pacing, genre, characterization, etc. Then explain it.
It’s much easier once you have a few books under your belt. You can go to Amazon and see the “Readers who like this book also bought. . .” section. It will give you a hint of who your reader is and what else they are buying. (Sometimes it can be a little disconcerting.)
This is something to keep thinking about however. If you become very successful as a writer you’ll have a whole team of people trying to brand you. Some of the questions they’ll explore are these same ones.
Larry, it depends on how well you do it. If, for instance we were doing Hunger Games we might say primary audience is young adults and college age readers but would add that we expect a secondary audience of 25 – 45 year old readers who are fans of dystopian fiction. That way the agent or editor knows you are aiming for the primary target but you’ve identified another interesting trend.
Heavens, Wendy… you just gave me an a-ha! moment. Before I read this post, my idea of the competitive book analysis was a group of harried editors and marketing staff who had just been shoved a list of books on the table before they even got settled down. One gets distracted by spilling a spot of coffee, realizes he’s missed something, and leans over to ask his neighbor, “What was that?” And she says, “You know, a Bridget Jones teams up with Erin Brockovich type deal.”
But seeing these examples have shown me that a competitive book analysis holds the same importance as a tool that any of the other pieces of a proposal do. it is the author’s input into the team (almost like a silent auction) that could actually help editors do a better job for you at that meeting. Simply because it is physically impossible for them to take the time it would require to do this kind of in-depth research for every book they were interested in enough to bring to the table.
I also saw that looking at it from an author’s viewpoint, this little exercise could (if done seriously) reflect enough professionalism to lean the tipping point in your favor. Especially if the decision to get involved in your project is a close one. How many times has a manuscript made it to this point, and then tipped the other direction for the very details that label the author as a too vague, or too boastful participant? Since no one likes to work with those types, in any profession, not doing your very best on the competitive book analysis could very well be docking your own points before the meeting even gets started.
So, thank you for this!
Novelist Plus is an excellent resource for fiction writers looking for “competing” titles. It’s a searchable database of fiction titles/authors, searchable by topic, setting, genre, etc. One of my favorite features is the “Author Read-Alikes.” You enter an author’s name and it brings up a list of authors who write “like” your selected author.
Novelist Plus just started adding “Appeal Terms” to each title entry. These are terms like the ones Wendy mentioned in her reply to Rick–pacing, plot action, characterization, etc.
Most public libraries that provide access to online databases & e-sources include Novelist Plus in their collection of online resources. Check your library’s website or with a librarian.
Cheryl, so glad your children’s librarian was helpful. 🙂
Thank you, Wendy, for the excellent info.! And thank you, Judy, for this valuable tidbit, as well! Yay for librarians!:)
Ruth Logan Herne
Wendy, what a great series! We gave it a shout out on Seekerville today because this information is invaluable to all authors. It can be daunting to nail down that proposal on all fronts, and this is like a step-by-step guide that walks me through it.
Not like that’s a big surprise or anything!
Wonderful stuff. I’ve noticed how little time I have for reading these days, so competitive analysis is hard. And I considered hiring a ‘reader’ to navigate those waters for me, but PSHAW!!! They want money!!! 🙂 Keeping myself abreast of the market is tough, but I see its importance in these posts.
Awesome work. Thank you!