What Has Happened Lately?

In trade publishing, nearly all nonfiction books are sold through a marketing document called a proposal. While space limits discussing all of its sections, an essential one is the first section a prospective agent or editor reads: the Overview. In 3-5 pages you need to encapsulate what your book is about, including its selling points. If the Overview doesn’t capture the publishing professional’s interest, she probably won’t bother reading the rest of the proposal.

Because most nonfiction authors write about what they know well—usually developments in their profession—their passion for the subject shines through the prose. Many an author knows he is part of a long continuum, building on the shoulders of giants before him. That thorough knowledge suffuses the material.

Once the first draft of the Overview is written, an author is advised to stop and ask herself one question: what does the agent or editor know about the topic? Most people who work in publishing specialize in a certain area, or a few main areas. So they also know all of the works written by the previous giants. They rightly believe that a reader will choose a book written by an established authority rather than one by a newcomer.

How do you distinguish yourself in a crowded field? Your best advantage is the span of time that separates your book from theirs. Let’s say you want to write about teenage girls gaining self-confidence. A giant in that field is Raising Ophelia, published in 1995. That gives you 20 plus years of new developments in the field since the book was written. Right away you can start listing landmark clinical studies and school programs that have occurred since then. Does your book cover those new developments?

You have to take a further step, though. What other best-selling books in your field have come out since then, even if they build directly on the shoulders of Ophelia? Let’s say a book came out in 2010. Do the selling points you’re including sound a lot like the main points of that book? Then you’re still in danger of sounding like me-too. What has happened in the seven years since then? Can you find 4-5 points—which hopefully include your original contributions—that are fresh?

Exercise: Amazon.com is a good place to go to compare books. Each title has a blurb, and often an Inside Look, that lists its main selling points. If you wish to go deeper, type in the book title and then “review.” Some critic out there will provide what is essentially a synopsis of the selling points. Once you have drawn up a list of them, check that against the list of your points.

“People are in such a hurry to launch their product or business that they seldom look at marketing from a bird's-eye view and they don't create a systematic plan.”
—Dave Ramsey

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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