In my previous articles on "Selling Your Nonfiction Book", I mentioned the importance of reviewing the "competition" in your book proposal. A potential publisher will want to know what other books are available on your topic, and what makes your book different from, or better than, those books.
But what if there are a great many books on your topic? How can you possibly review them all, even if you could afford to buy them? This was a question I faced recently when crafting a proposal for a new edition of my book, Coping with Sorrow on the Loss of Your Pet. The previous edition had been published in 1996, and I realized I needed to find out what had been published on the topic since then. A check of a major pet loss Web site revealed no fewer than 82 books on pet loss!
Fortunately, my search led me to another Internet resource that enabled me to review this competition, and discuss it intelligently in my proposal, without buying a single book. That resource was Amazon.com.
In fact, Amazon.com can be the best place to begin your research into the competition. Try searching on keywords related to your topic; chances are such a search will produce a list of titles. Be sure to check the "Listmania" column on the right side of the page; this is where readers compile their lists of "recommended" books on the topic, which can help refine your search.
Once you've developed a list of books on your general topic area, you can then use a variety of Amazon.com features to determine just how those books compare to your own. These features can help you answer just about any question a publisher might ask about the "competition" for your book.
While many books may be written on a subject, you'll quickly find that they aren't all the same. Some will be written from a different perspective, or about a different aspect of the subject. Some may be more general than the book you want to write; others may be more specific.
One of the first questions to ask is whether a book targets the same audience as yours. Of the 82 books on pet loss, I found that more than one third were aimed at children, which ruled them out as "competition." Several others were technical books written for professionals (e.g., psychologists and therapists). This quickly reduced my "competition" list to a more manageable size.
Once you've eliminated books that are targeting a different audience, it's time to look more closely at those that remain. Your question now is "what makes this book different from mine?" Start by checking the title and subtitle of each book. I quickly discovered, just from reviewing titles, that a significant percentage of the available books on pet loss were autobiographical -- i.e., the author's personal account of the loss of a beloved pet. Since my book is a "how-to" book, it was easy to explain how it differed from books in the "personal experience" category.
I was also able to determine that many books on the list focused on a single aspect of pet loss (e.g., whether pets have an afterlife). Since my book was designed to cover "all" aspects of pet loss, again, this made it easy to define another subcategory of "different" books -- in this case, books that were more narrowly focused than mine. Conversely, if you're writing a narrowly focused book, explain how your book offers more "in-depth" information than books that offer more general "overviews" of the topic.
Once you've exhausted the information that can be gleaned from titles, it's time to check for an official summary. In many cases, the publisher or author will provide a capsule description of the book, which may be all you need to determine how the book differs from your own. If a summary is not available, check the reader reviews; readers often summarize the books that they review. If that doesn't help, see if the book includes a "Search Inside" option. If it does, you should be able to review the table of contents, the index, and even a sample chapter.
Once you've eliminated those books that offer substantially different information from your own, you may find that there are still a number of books that, unfortunately, look a great deal like the one you're proposing. If someone else has already covered the same topic, how can you prove that there's a need for your book? The answer is to show that your book is somehow better than the others -- without actually trashing the competition!
One of the easiest ways to build such an argument is to find out what people are saying about the competition. The most obvious way to do this is to check those reader reviews again.
Before you do, keep in mind that actual "ratings" are meaningless. A book that has only one review can have a five-star rating, while another book that has garnered dozens of rave reviews can have a lower rating simply because it also has one or two negative reviews. A more important measure of a book's popularity is the actual number of reviews. If a book has been in print for five years and has only one or two reader comments, chances are that it hasn't been very popular.
Next, focus on what the reviews actually say. Are they positive, negative, or somewhere in between? Do certain criticisms come up again and again? Look for comments that apply not only to individual books, but to entire categories of books within the competition.
For example, I found that the books that seemed most directly competitive with my own were those written by therapists and psychologists -- people with credentials that I lack. However, I found a consistent theme in the reader comments on these books: Readers complained that they were often too cold, too clinical, too psychological. Many complained that such books spent more time explaining the psychological basis of grief, but not enough on discussing actual coping strategies. This gave me the perfect opportunity to explain that my book was "better" because it was written in a warm, compassionate, and accessible tone.
Another item to check is the length of the book, by checking the page count in the book description. Is your book considerably longer (and therefore, presumably, more comprehensive) than the competition? I was startled to find that many of my competitors' books were only 50 to 80 pages long.
You can also check the book description to determine when your competitors' books were published. If most of your competition is five to ten years old, you can easily make the argument that your book will be more current than most of the existing books on the market.
A final item to review is the pricing of the competition, particularly if you have an idea of the price range in which your book is likely to fall. If, for example, you expect your book to cost around $16.95, and you find competing books selling for $25 to $50, you can argue that readers will be more likely to buy your book simply because it is less expensive!
Your publisher does not expect a capsule description or review of every single title on the competition list. Instead, divide the competition into subcategories that you can discuss as a group. Provide four or five representative titles for each subcategory. For example, I devoted one paragraph to a discussion of how my book differed from "personal experience" pet loss books, and another on how it differed from "books written by psychologists."
Don't hesitate to use the information you've found online to support your arguments. Consider quoting selections from reader reviews of the competition -- particularly those that highlight the need for the book you want to write. Keep in mind that even a positive review can support your case. For example, if a reviewer notes that "the one problem with this book was that it seemed far too short," use that comment to demonstrate the need for a longer, more comprehensive book on the subject.
If you wish to provide a more detailed comparison of titles, create a list or table as an appendix to your proposal. List the competition by title and author, and include any other information you consider relevant, such as publication date, publisher, or page count. Add a brief, one-sentence explanation of why the book is different from, or inferior to, your proposed title. Such a table provides evidence that you've researched the competition, without overwhelming the main proposal.
And only you need to know that you did that research in a single day, without spending a penny!
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