Staring your competition in the face might not be your favorite part of the writing process, but a competitive title analysis can help sharpen your focus and help you articulate your book’s strengths.

This post originally appeared on Page Two Strategies‘ blog. Reprinted with permission.

When you set out to draft a book proposal, you might find the “market competition” section to be the most confounding. To start with, who enjoys staring their competition in the face? It can be daunting to sort through all the books that exist in the same subject area as yours, and the authors who have found the success you aspire to. At Page Two Strategies, we’ve worked with numerous published and independent authors who have wanted to turn the competitive title analysis process entirely over to us, suggesting that agents and publishers are the market experts and writers should just concentrate on writing great books.

The fact is, it’s important for an author to know his or her market competition intimately: a market-savvy author is in a position of strength. When an author positions himself as an expert on a particular subject, publishers expect him to know what else is on the shelf, what content has already been covered, and where his new book fits in.

The process of identifying competitive titles doesn’t need to be limiting or intimidating. On the contrary, it can often be a clarifying exercise, which will ultimately sharpen your book’s focus. It can illuminate and remind you what is unique about your proposal, which will help you articulate that unique value proposition with greater confidence.

What to include in your competitive title analysis

A well-conceived market competition section of a book proposal should list several titles, include brief descriptions, and list authors’ names. Your list shouldn’t be long – you don’t want to overwhelm the publisher – but it shouldn’t be so short as to seem unrealistic. Describe each book, then explain how your book differs from it or improves on it. Don’t hesitate to acknowledge when a book is done well. The point isn’t to criticize the other books in the field – which could seem disingenuous – but rather to express how your book will do what these others haven’t.

We also encourage our clients to list complementary titles when considering the market competition. By complementary titles, we mean books in the same subject area that don’t directly compete, but which overlap yours in some way, and which could generate additional interest in your book. Consider, for example, the books Wheat Belly and Grain Brain. Both are successful books in the category of nutrition and health. Both aim to reveal important key impediments to health. Both are critical of wheat and gluten. Wheat Belly focuses on physical health, while Grain Brain emphasizes mental health. When Grain Brain was published, Wheat Belly was already a best-selling book, but rather than eclipsing the newer book, it set the stage for Grain Brain’s success. A market that had shown keen interest in the first book was primed for the second.

Don’t fear the dreaded market competition section of your proposal. Consider how it can sharpen your book’s focus and market position.

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Jesse Finkelstein

About Jesse Finkelstein

Jesse Finkelstein has written 2 posts in this blog.

Jesse Finkelstein is co-founder and principal of the publishing agency Page Two, which helps authors produce their non-fiction work to the highest possible standards. She is also an associate agent at Transatlantic Agency. She is the former chief operating office of D&M Publishers, and before that was associate publisher at Raincoast Books. She is adjunct faculty at the Simon Fraser University publishing program.

5 thoughts on “The dreaded competitive title analysis

  1. Chris G says:

    I can see the relevance of this to ‘factual’ books – I include in this the the many books that are far from factual or are merely facile ghost written books about ‘celebrities’ who are usually nothing of the sort. – but publishers and agents frequently ask for similar lists for novels. Why?

    Surely if a book is truly ‘novel’ then it’s directly comparable to nothing else….. or indeed everything else.

    Fiction is like art. It’s often loved by some while at the same time hated by others. How else do you explain the success of ‘Fifty Shades’ when almost everyone I’ve spoken to who’s read it says that it’s crap. My own publisher wishes that he’d published it, of course, but he acknowledges that almost all of his authors produce much better books – and certainly better written books at that.

    1. Chris,
      I understand your comment…I deal exclusively with non-fiction author clients, typically writing their first book, and finding and knowing their audience and what else is already in the marketplace is critical for them to write a book that anyone else might care about, buy, read and refer to their friends.
      It may not be so obvious with fiction, but there are very real reasons for publishers wanting a competitive analysis. It’s no less expensive to make and market a novel than it is a book on auto mechanics, and publishers are in business to make money. In fact, there’s likely data suggesting exactly the opposite is true–that’s it’s much more difficult to make a novel (especially from a first-time author) stand out among its competition than it is non-fiction that can be readily identified with specific communities of interest. The margins in book sales these days are miniscule; it’s VERY hard to make money, and therefore publishers are (understandably) operating at as close to zero risk tolerance as they can.

      Second, it isn’t a given that because a book is a novel that it IS novel. Look at all the detective and romance fiction that follows a very specific formula on purpose – because the authors have found it to resonate with their readers who buy title after title, even though only the title and basic plot line differs from its predecessor. Imagine if James Patterson did something entirely “novel” after his first huge success. It may have been equally successful, but it would’ve been a much bigger risk for his publisher, and he would’ve had to prove that a market existed for his content – fictional or otherwise.

      And ultimately, an author who doesn’t care at all about his market is likely to find there isn’t one. Active connection with an audience is a primary source of success for today’s authors. We aren’t living in Victorian England, when an author could hide away from the public in an attic and write books that were published and make money. Today’s audiences want to know their author–what interests and motivates her, and how she can relate to her readers.

      Jesse’s description of the why and how of competitive title analysis stands for any book that is published and expects to be successful in the modern book marketplace.

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