The Pall That Spreads

Anyone who has spent more than a few minutes in publishing knows how insanely jealous an author can be of other authors. The art of writing is upheld by self-confidence, and depending on how much recognition a writer has received, that can be a fragile edifice. Nowhere is this fact more true than with a nonfiction author, most of whom have never written a book before.

Since almost all nonfiction books are sold in the form of a proposal, I see the impulse to lash out at other writers in the section of the proposal known as Competition. The reason for the section is that acquisitions editors want to know what the market is for the book you’re writing. You typically provide a list of 5-7 titles that are similar to yours. For each title, I tell an author to write a few sentences about the basic premise of the other book, then a few sentences of how his book is different and better.

An author usually has no problem with the second part. She knows why her book is better than anything currently on the bookshelves. Yet that first part can draw out all sorts of demons. Rather than a neutral summary of the other book’s selling points, the savage critic launches into a long paragraph listing the other book’s faults. And, oh yeah, a sentence about her own book at the very end.

Besides missing the point of the exercise, the author has made a fatal mistake for another reason. Casting negativity on any subject makes the reader feel more negative toward the writing as a whole. If you are making negative comments, you may be perceived as a negative person. If an editor buys your book, that means he has to work with you. And no one likes to work with people that are negative.

You also should consider your audience for another reason. An editor tends to specialize in a field of nonfiction. So it may be that the book you’re so heartily cutting to shreds is one that the editor signed up. She may, in fact, love that book, and she has pleasant memories of working with that author. Now you come along with your dripping sword, so sure you’re right. I’ve got news for you. If you stress what’s positive about your book, we’ll be more inclined to jump on your bandwagon.

Exercise: For a Competition entry, first consider how it relates to your book. You do want to summarize in a few sentences what the book is about, but you can slant that summary in order to set up how your book is different. Say you’ve written a book about developments in solar energy, and you’re comparing it to a title that covers a lot of the same ground. You can be positive about it—and then point out that a number of the book’s findings are out of date by now.

“I can't understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I'm frightened of the old ones.”
—John Cage

Copyright @2020, John Paine

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