Super-Powered Book Proposals Secret #3: Always Evaluate Online Competitors

post is part of a series I’m writing on how to super-power your
nonfiction book proposal. For the majority of nonfiction book ideas
(except possibly memoir), you should prepare a book proposal first,
rather than write the manuscript. To find out if you should write a book proposal, click here.

Secret #3: Always Evaluate Your Online Competitors

If you were writing a nonfiction book 20 years ago, your greatest competition was probably other books on the same topic.

If you’re writing a nonfiction book today, your greatest competition is probably a website, online community, or well-known blogger.

This is why your proposal shouldn’t evaluate just competing book titles, but also websites or experts serving the same audience.

How do you identify these sources?

  1. Well, perhaps obvious, but where do you go? What online sources do you rely on and visit for up-to-date information and insight?
  2. Google your topic, or the problem it solves. What terms would people search for if they wanted information or a solution? What turns up? Is it easy to get needed and authoritative information? Is it free or behind a pay wall?
  3. Where do online experts and authorities send people for more information? Do they frequently reference books?
  4. What would a librarian look at? Ask your local librarian where they would look for information on the topic you’re writing about.

For technically sophisticated online readers: You must check out these instructions from ReadWriteWeb that help you identify and aggregate the most popular bloggers and social media sources of information on any topic.

In many nonfiction topics and categories, the availability of online information can immediately kill the potential for a print book unless:

  1. You have a very compelling platform and means of reaching your target audience, and they prefer books.
  2. You already reach an online market and they are clamoring for a book.
  3. You are writing something that isn’t best served through online reading or search. (E.g., think about long-form journalism or narratives, in-depth analysis, some types of heavily illustrated works, and so on.)

It’s a given that every book proposal should have a competing titles section—to talk about how your book will be different from what’s already on the shelf.

But somewhere in your proposal, you MUST address the competitive nature of online, multimedia, social media, and/or mobile resources, and why your idea merits—even demands—book treatment.

For some authors, this may be the most critical argument you make in your proposal.

You may realize, in the process of researching the competition online, that what you should really do is not publish a book, but get started with e-media instead.

Many book ideas I see pitched should really start out as a site or community—even if only to test-market the idea, to learn more about the target audience, and to ultimately produce a print product that has significant value and appeal in its offline presentation.

Previous blog posts on this topic:

Looking for the best guide ever to book proposals? Check out Michael Larsen’s How to Write a Book Proposal, the most definitive guide on the topic since the 1980s.

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3 thoughts on “Super-Powered Book Proposals Secret #3: Always Evaluate Online Competitors

  1. Jane Friedman

    @Jeannie – Thanks for leaving a comment, Jeannie.

    We may be thinking of bloggers in different ways. E.g., Seth Godin, ReadWriteWeb, Clay Shirky, or Cory Doctorow are well-known as bloggers, but their credentials are certainly verifiable.

    Also, the publishing world is changing so much that what was "citation worthy" 10 years ago, in print form, may not be as impressive (or as far reaching) as a guest post on a top-ranked blog.

    Speaking of Clay Shirky: Highly recommend either of his two books, HERE COMES EVERYBODY or COGNITIVE SURPLUS. It tackles the change we’re now seeing in media/publishing, namely "professional" media vs. "amateur" media.

  2. Jeannie

    Great advice, especially the part about checking with librarians. I can tell you, we rarely tell patrons to reference blogs because the credentials of the blogger are usually not verifiable. For people to build credentials, they need to be writing articles for well-known, citation-worthy publications.

  3. Kendra Bonnett

    Jane, this is an excellent post on such an important topic. I’ve been writing book proposals since the 1980s and I confess that the competitive analysis AND marketing sections were pretty perfunctory. Back then, I wasn’t alone. Competitive analysis was just something you had to include.

    In recent years, however, I’ve come to recognize the value a writer can gain from a well-conceived proposal…value that goes far beyond just securing a publisher.

    The book proposal is a blueprint of what the writer will do to promote the book, and when. Working this out in the book proposal makes this a bit like a business plan and will get the writer early on thinking about what it will take to make the book a success. Today the marketing is the author’s second job.

    Writers would do well to follow your guidance and treat their competitive analysis as the beginning of their marketing efforts, which always begins with knowing what the competition is up to.

    This is important stuff.


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