Knowing what’s already on bookshelves may just be the single most effective (and most overlooked) way to convince an agent where your idea fits in. Here’s how your Competitive Analysis can be your secret weapon.
It’s a rare book that is “the only one” of its kind. If you want to create a successful nonfiction book proposal, you need to go to the trouble of producing a Competitive Analysis.
A client of my book coaching business once had a book idea resulting from a talk she’d been asked to give for an organization. The more she prepared her presentation, the more excited she became about the topic: women and leadership. In researching her talk, she’d already gone through a process similar to outlining a Table of Contents, and she’d even come up with a catchy acronym for her approach. Here’s the problem she faced: This writer had no idea how many other books already existed on the topic of women and leadership—my quick search on Amazon yielded more than 20,000 results. Not only that, she had not considered:
- How her book would be different from the others
- If the category required another book on the topic
- How to make her book stand out.
The more I explained how a successful nonfiction book had to be both unique and necessary—how it had to “fill a hole on the shelf in the bookstore”—the more she felt that her great idea no longer sounded so good. In fact, it still might have been a great idea. But she needed to be strategic in shaping it. She needed to evaluate her book concept against the competition, and show how it would rise above it.
Conduct a Solid Competitive Analysis
In the “Competing Books” or “Competitive Analysis” section of your proposal, you provide agents and acquisitions editors with a detailed look at other books on your topic and how yours compares. The savviest authors also use this information to improve the book idea they’re proposing—until it’s one an agent or publisher can’t say no to.
You may think stiff competition bodes poorly for your book. In truth, if there are many bestsellers in your category, that proves a market exists for books like yours. If you can show that your idea offers new benefits to readers, you can make a case that it will sell just as well—if not better.
Conversely, a category with few books and little competition could represent an opportunity to dominate the niche, if you can load your proposal with facts that show how your book is unique and necessary and that a market exists for it.
- Taking into consideration your book’s category and topic, compile a list of competing titles (books that cover similar information or tell a similar story) by searching physical bookstore and library shelves as well as sites such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, LibraryThing, Goodreads, Book Depository, Red Room, and general search engines.
- Consider the following factors, looking carefully at each of the competing books you’ve identified: How does it differ from the book you want to write? Is the scope of the book different? How so? Does it have different benefits? What are they? How is it similar to the book you want to write? What are its pros and cons? How would you improve upon it? What promises does the author make to readers? What promises does the author fail to make that he could or should have (or that you can)?
- Study reviews of the competing books you have identified. You can learn a lot from what readers think is good, bad or missing. Plan to include in your book the things that are weak or absent in the competition.
- Visit competing authors’ websites. See what else you can learn about their books’ sales, market, readership, etc.
- Look at the competing authors’ bios. Consider: What are the authors’ credentials (or lack thereof)? How do yours compare? Will it help or hurt you to have different qualifications or similar ones?
Use the Analysis to Improve Your Idea
- Ask yourself: Is there a hole on the shelf in your category? What sort of book is missing? Describe the “perfect” book to fill that hole. Now, how does your book idea compare to the book you just described? Are you offering something other authors have not delivered? Make a list of things you need to do to stand out in your niche.
- Based on your evaluation, decide if you need to make changes to your concept. Drawing on the factors you identified in all the steps leading up to this point, strengthen your idea so that it: Tells a fresh story; offers a different perspective or new angle; presents a compelling argument that other authors have not made; provides different data or more current information; and/or takes readers on a singular journey.
- Compare your credentials to that of the competing authors you have identified. Are you equipped to join the ranks of these authors? What do you need to do or be to compete with them? Do you need a larger platform? What steps can you take to broaden your expertise or reach? What else can you do to show that you are the best person to write this book at this time?
- Once you've made your book’s concept as original and necessary as it can possibly be, add your Competitive Analysis to your book proposal. Narrow the competition t o five you feel are the closest (and strongest, favoring books that seem to have sold well) in comparison to your own project. For each one, list the title, subtitle, author, publisher, copyright year, number of pages, format (paperback or hardcover) and price. Then summarize how it’s similar to your idea (or how it helps readers) as well as how it’s different.
Finish this section with a brief paragraph about how your book stands out from the competition as a whole.
If you love to write and have a story you want to tell, the only thing that can stand between you and the success you’re seeking isn’t craft, or a good agent, or enough Facebook friends and Twitter followers, but fear. Fear that you aren’t good enough, or fear the market is too crowded, or fear no one wants to hear from you. Fortunately, you can’t write while being in the flow and be afraid simultaneously. The question is whether you will write fearlessly.