The Point of Competing Books

In a nonfiction proposal, one subject you need to address for acquisitions editors is where your manuscript fits in the book marketplace. For that reason the section is usually titled “Marketing.” After providing various audiences for the book, along with rough numbers of each, the section features a list of already published books that establish a market for your book.

I ask authors to provide 5-7 titles, along with the author(s), publishing house, and year of publication for each. Each title becomes an entry, taking up a paragraph. I suggest that they write two sentences about the competing book’s main appeal. That tells the editor what its position in the marketplace is. Then you want to write two sentences about your own book, mainly why it is different and better.

For some reason this exercise causes authors no end of difficulty. I’ll address several main problem areas here. The first is the tendency of authors to write a book report about the competing book. Instead of two sentences, I’ll get back a long paragraph, sometimes with quotes from the text. That sort of length is wasting the editor’s time. You should be able to encapsulate the book’s selling points in many fewer words. Remember, you’re trying to sell your book.

Second, authors often criticize the competing title, taking the idea of competition literally. That also is misguided. I’ll leave aside the issue of negativity reflecting badly on you. The main point is, if the book sold well in the marketplace, you sound childish to be criticizing it. After all, your book isn’t even published yet.

Third, authors can fail to balance the length devoted to the other book with the length devoted to their own. If I read three sentences about a best-seller and only one sentence about yours, my impression is that you are awed by that book. If that’s the case, why should I bother buying yours? Instead I’ll buy the book that you admire so much.

All of these points speak to the dual-headed nature of the competition section. You need other books to frame the marketplace, but your main job is showing why your book will do well in that marketplace. You’re trying to be positive about your book, so the best tone is: their book is great, but mine is superlative.

Exercise: You can use type to make a favorable impression. List the other books’ titles in italics, the way you would normally. Then list your title in all capitals (not the subtitle too; that would be too hard to read). Make sure your title is used in each of the 5-7 entries. That stamps it in the editor’s mind.

“Not all marketing people are writers, but all writers must learn to be marketers.”
—Joanne Kraft

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