If there are no other books on the market in your particular topic of choice, kudos!- you may be sitting on an idea that’s ground-breaking. However, if your idea for a non-fiction title already has a competitive share of market space, it will be to your advantage to get to get an inside look at some similar titles.
There are many ways to seek out books that may be considered competitive titles, but four of the most popular are:
1) Visiting several bookstores, finding the section where your book will most likely be placed, and thumbing through similar titles to see what’s currently available
2) Visiting the local library, finding the section where your book will most likely be shelved, and thumbing through similar titles to see what’s housed there (being mindful of publication dates- older titles may not be in print any longer and thereby will not be considered “true” competition to your proposed new release.”
3) Visiting the local library, consulting the Books In Print guide, identifying your topic source and finding publications published in the same category
4) Searching online bookstores such as Barnes and Noble or Amazon to find similar titles or books in your category.
No matter which way you approach it, once you’ve identified competitive or similar titles, take a few minutes to get to know your competition a little better, you may be surprised by the information you glean.
Start by answering the following questions, then dive deeper if you have the time to take additional notes.
1) Who is the publisher?
Gathering the publisher information is a necessary component you’ll use when listing your competitive analysis in your proposal, but it will also give you something more– a great foundation list of publishers to submit your query to. By finding out who publishes the type of work you are proposing, you are building a catalogue of receptive publishing houses. You’ll want to explore other options and add additional publishers to your list, of course, but what an excellent base you’ll have by simply noting this information.
On that note, be sure to flip to the inside of the book and see if there’s any agent information listed. Many authors acknowledge their agents in the dedication, acknowledgements, and foreword of the book. This is will offer you insight into what agencies are familiar with and interested in ideas such as yours.
2) How much does the book retail for? (list price retail not special sale prices)
This is important information for the publisher to have in your proposal as the editor will want to gauge how the competition ranks with the publisher’s preferred format and pricing structure. If the publisher you are targeting only prints hardcover with a $24 tag, they may not be the best house to compete with paperback titles in the $5-$8 range. Or they may decide that it’s time a more comprehensive, hardback title be produced on the topic. Either way, it’s key information.
For you the author, it will instantly give you a price point when you research publishers to submit to. You may want to refrain from sending to smaller publisher with higher cover prices if your competition all has moderate price covers. Tackling the larger publishers with capacity for larger print runs/ reduced cover price could then be a better starting point for you. Or looking at it another way, you may want to go the opposite route and tag your book in the higher range as to establish perhaps, elitism in title.
3) What is the page count?
This information will provide you with an excellent idea of what lies ahead for your project. Try to get at least ten page counts for competitive titles and then take an average of to gauge your estimated page count for your project. You’ll need this information for the proposal, but also to estimate your time to complete the project. As most non-fiction is sold on spec, you’ll need to have a comfort level that you can complete the book within a specified time frame.
For example: Your estimated page count comes in at 200. At an industry average of 250 words per page, your total estimated word count will be 50,000 words (50K) If you typically produce anywhere from 1000 – 2000 words per day (if you have a full-time job, this number might be lower/ if you have no obligations other than writing, this could be higher.) Using the low end of 1000, you would need at least 50 days to complete the book, or about two months.
However, you will then need to factor in research, emergencies, life events, editing, and so forth. So, if your book is picked up on proposal and you are given a contract which states you are to produce the completed manuscript to the editor in a six month time frame, you should be able to meet the deadline, or (and especially if it is your first book) you may want to consider negotiating an extra month or two into the contract.
4) What angle does the book take on the topic?
Is your angle the same? Is it so different, that it might be way out there? Has your angle already been done too many times? These are questions the publisher will be asking, but by asking yourself upfront you will save a lot of heartache.
If your topic has been taken and the angle you wanted to approach is well covered, then it may not be in your best interest to continue with your chosen idea. You may want to re-explore your options and come up with a new or fresh approach to the topic. Or you may want to revert back to the next book idea on your list of books you’d like to write.
Note that there are a few times where the idea angle may be okay to run with. For example: If all the competitive titles are out of print and a modern version of the topic is needed.
5) How is the table of contents laid out?
You’ll need to create a table of contents (TOC) for your non-fiction proposal. Detailing how the competition has done so will offer you a starting guide in producing your own unique TOC. It will also give you a feel for how various publishers prefer to divide subject matter within their books.
Each publishing house has a style. If you are targeting a specific publisher, you may want to have your TOC tailored to their guidelines prior to submitting a proposal. It’s a small gesture, but will speak volumes to the publisher about how well you researched them and how well you fit within their preferred format.
Don’t stress too much about this area, though. First and foremost, your TOC needs to meet/match the idea of your book’s particular style. TOC is always negotiable and often times, if the publisher is interested in the book, but doesn’t like the structure you chose; you will have the opportunity to revise it to meet their needs.
6) What is the book’s sales ranking? Is it a best seller?
This may or may not reveal a lot, especially depending upon the source you are using for your research. Barnes and Noble rankings differ greatly from Amazon, as well does Borders best seller rankings differ from the New York Times listings. Most importantly, pay attention and make note of where the competition is ranked in the overall scheme of things.
This is important for at least two very important reasons:
First, you don’t want to list low ranking books as your competition in your proposal. If a book has a ranking of 2,902,011 in sales on Amazon, it’s probably not a steady seller and may be past its prime. Hence, no longer your competition.
The publisher/agent wants to see the best-sellers, the hot topic books that are still going strong as your competition because if those book sales are viable, chances are yours will be too.
Occasionally you may stumble upon competition that ranks low across the board. This won’t automatically disqualify your book from being produced as perhaps it’s simply time for a fresh perspective, or perhaps there is no competition. This is rare but it can happen. Generally, there may not be direct competition for your idea, but there will be at least a few indirect competitive titles you may use for reference in the proposal. For example: You wish to write a pocket guide for Windows NT users. The pocket guide may not exist, but you’ll be able to find out whether other books, such as instruction manuals or user guides for Windows NT are our there and how they are selling.
Second, knowing whether your competition is in the best selling ranks, mid-list, or bottom will help give you some grounding as to where your book may fall. This is not to say that you can’t take a typical mid-list idea and make it a best-selling one, but you will at least get a base to work from and a better understanding of what sales category your idea falls in and how large your audience may be.
7) Who is the author?
Are you up against all celebrity writers? Do the authors of your competition all have a PHD? Do you recognize any of the names?
The publisher will be asking these same questions and determining how you fit into the mix. If your entire competition base is comprised of Psychologists and you hold a degree in Architecture, this may be considered questionable. Unless of course, you are writing a book about how to best design and layout a mental health facility. In this case, though your background may be conducive to the design aspect, you may still want to consult professionals in the mental health industry for their feedback, and give them credit in your proposal and your book.
You don’t always have to be an expert or hold a degree in the topic you are writing in, but if you competition is, you’ll want to truly highlight what you bring to the table in contrast or consider involving some experts in your project.
You may want to take it a step further and consider enlisting a co-author or contributor for your project. Yes, you will be sharing a split of the royalties, but you’ll also share the workload, promotion, and sometimes, the combination of credentials will be a big win!
Take all these factors into consideration and dig in deeper if the spirit moves you to. You will utilize the information gained in your proposal, later down the road when writing your book, and in your promotional efforts.
Bottom line, the better you understand about the competition, the more knowledgeable your proposal and your book will be.