3.01.2016

Scout the Competition

Any nonfiction author who is inspired by the idea of writing a book needs to understand, right from the start, that she isn’t alone. The chances that hundreds of other books on the same subject have already been published are very good. That means the author had better be famous or have a unique angle.

Finding out what other books occupy the same shelf space is as easy as going on Amazon. If you type in your topic area, under Books, you will see a long list of competing titles. Just how many are given in the sidebar to the left. After a recent inquiry, I started off the edit by researching the topic area and learning the book has 35,000 other books in that category. My first question to the author was, to paraphrase: what do you got that all those others don’t got?

I’m not suggesting a subtle distinction. No one cares about the arcane or exotic limits of any topic, except for perhaps occultists. You should be able to encapsulate the difference in your book’s title and subtitle. Think of a browser on Amazon. Usually he is clicking through a list of a dozen on a webpage. If he isn’t captured by the cover type of the book, you’re probably done. He won’t look inside.

Finding a way to set yourself apart may be as simple as a hook. A diet program is one example. You are covering healthy eating, and your focus is: cutting out gluten, dairy, and sugar. Or, you are covering exercise, and you focus on: all the quick ones—while sitting at your desk, while out on your lunch break, etc. Whatever you parse out from the topic, you bundle together into a program with a catchy title and subtitle.

To learn what published titles really are your competition, you can look up a book’s Amazon sales figure. That is found at the bottom of the book’s page, before the reviews. If the sales figure is in the six digits, you don’t have to worry about that title. You’re looking for numbers more like 10,000 and down.

The exception is when you are writing a professional as opposed to popular book. If you are targeting a book on cognitive therapy for other therapists, you need to adopt the jargon and use the disciplines of the profession in order to gain the respect of these highly qualified readers. Just don’t expect the general population to suddenly get smart.

Exercise: You can better position your book by understanding what types of books exist in your field. In that case, you should visit your local bookstore. In psychology, for instance, there are books describing a specific subject, such as cutting; self-help books; and books written for relatives of the sufferers. Browse through all of the books in the bookcase and ask yourself: what type of book do I want to write?

“Books serve to show a man that those original thoughts of his aren’t very new after all.”
–Abraham Lincoln

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine

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