Do You Have the Competitive Advantage?

I hope you all have read the posts and comments from the last several days over at Michael Hyatt’s blog, From Where I Sit. I can’t possibly summarize it all, but there are a couple of really important thoughts I want to share with you.

It seems the biggest worry of the unpublished author is (understandably), “Will there be room for the new voices? The non-famous? The good-but-as-yet-unpublished-writer? In other words, me?”

As you can imagine, that question affects all of us, agents especially. I have currently under consideration around 200 queries, partials, proposals and manuscripts. Most of those are from unpublished authors. So the question for me is the same as for you. Not just “Do I believe in them?” which is my first question, but, “Can I sell them?” which is the deciding question.

So please pay attention to what I think is the most important factor of Mike’s latest post. Here is his hierarchy of A-Level through D-Level projects:

A-Level Projects—The Cash Cows: Projects where there is strong brand equity and a strong competitive advantage.

B-Level Projects—The Potential Stars: Projects where there is weaker brand equity but a strong competitive advantage.

C-Level Projects—The Question Marks: Projects where there is stronger brand equity but weaker competitive advantage.

D-Level Projects—The Real Dogs: Projects where you have neither a strong brand equity or a strong competitive advantage.

(You have to read his whole post to understand the difference between brand equity and competitive advantage.)

Okay, here’s the GREAT NEWS:

When it comes to the B-Level and below projects (where most unpublished authors are), competitive advantage trumps brand equity.

Do you get the significance of this? This means that even though you’re not famous, even though you’re not Beth Moore or Max Lucado and you don’t have a television show or a 30,000-member church, YOU STILL HAVE A CHANCE.

Your chance lies in your ability to create a book that has a competitive advantage strong enough to overcome your lack of brand equity… or as we often call it, platform.

You can gain a competitive advantage by having:

a An incredibly compelling idea AND execution. Subjective? Of course. But there are certain books that large numbers of people find incredibly compelling. It can be done.

a A unique perspective that’s not yet represented in the market, but many people are interested in it.

a An untapped niche market.

a A killer media hook.

a A unique ability to get your book in front of its target audience.

a In the case of fiction, a well-written book that captures people’s imagination and begs the reader to turn the page.

Now, not all publishers are Thomas Nelson. BUT, they are all operating within the same competitive marketplace. To a certain extent, they will all need a degree of assurance that every book they decide to publish has some type of competitive advantage, just like Mike explained.

Look carefully at the book you’re writing/pitching/planning. What’s its competitive advantage? If you’re getting pass letters from agents and editors… can you make an objective analysis of your own work, based on the brand-equity/competitive-advantage matrix, and figure out what the problem might be?

Let’s not use all this upheaval at Thomas Nelson and the resulting emotional discussion as a reason to panic. Books are not going away. The publishing business isn’t going away. But it is changing. The question for each of us will be whether we want to change with it. And whether we want to be a part of it at all.

There is something to be said for simply sitting back and reading books, isn’t there?

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


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  6. Mike Dellosso on May 3, 2008 at 7:33 AM

    >This has been some great discussion on a topic that can be very frustrating . . . as we’ve heard from several of the comments. This will sound really cliche and like a huge platitude but the bottom line is: write a darn good story. That’s the competitive advantage. Can your story hold up against the competition? If it can, then you have a leg up and it’s only a matter of time. Never give up. 100% of published authors didn’t give up. Corny, but true.

  7. Lea Ann on May 1, 2008 at 11:03 AM

    >In the end, it doesn’t matter.

  8. Anonymous on April 30, 2008 at 8:41 PM

    >I finally learned that the reward for writing may be to nudge one person in your critique group, or a friend or a relative just a skosh closer in their relationship with Him.

    Of course, this had to be banged into my head the hard way since I was busy cursing the publishing obstacles that kept my name off the spines of books and my words from enlightening the masses.

    An objective analysis of my writing might rate it as D Level projects (I hate to call them “Dogs”), but the irony is…He used it to change a critique member, a relative, and some God-skitterish person I convinced to read my manuscript and edit it to shreds.

    For me, I’ve had to readjust my brain. When I write to honor Him, the reward may not be a fat contract and adoring fans—although I’m still trying. It may be one small soul that takes a chance on a prayer. I have to ask myself: Is it enough? (I’m a greedy little bugger.)

    Maybe the publishing struggle has helped me climb to a D+ Level (Dog with a fancy collar) by now. Thanks, Rachelle for giving us ideas to aim for.

    I just wanted to remind us (myself included), even when we miss our names on a book spine, He still uses our work.

  9. Nicole on April 30, 2008 at 6:29 PM

    >I’ll email you, Rachelle.

  10. Rachelle on April 30, 2008 at 5:21 PM

    >Nicole, I would love for you to expound on, and/or clarify what you wrote. I honestly don’t know what you’re trying to say. I’m not sure what you mean by the platitudes of “greatness” and the assertions of absolutes from the pros to the wannabes.

    This may not be what you meant… but there are no platitudes here. Frankly I wouldn’t waste my time. I always try not to speak in absolutes, either, even though it makes me seem wishy-washy sometimes. I write my blog, I teach workshops, I interact with writers pretty much all day everyday because I love books, I love the business of publishing and I want to do what I can to help writers succeed in whatever way they define success. So I’m not being snarky when I say I don’t know what you’re trying to express here. I’d welcome your response.

    As for your last paragraph about being Christians in the industry, one of the things that impresses me most about the authors I come in contact with is their true hearts for God and the ways that they write to honor Him. I don’t see any conflict between that, and the ways that we discuss the business aspects of publishing here.

  11. Anonymous on April 30, 2008 at 4:52 PM

    >Here’s my two cents…

    If you just want to write, write. If in doing so you create a brilliant work of fiction, wonderful! If your “best” is a novel with one-dimensional characters and a predictable storyline, enjoy that, too.

    There’s nothing wrong with writing just because you are compelled to write. In fact, that’s a great reason to write – maybe the greatest reason.

    But…if your goal is to be a published author (and isn’t that why you’re here?), complaining about how the system works will do little to move you toward that end.

    You don’t have to believe that the pros (or wannabes, for that matter) are keepers of absolute truth on what’s “excellent” or “brilliant” or even “salable” – but to ignore their words or argue that “great writing will suffer because of the system” is simply foolish.

    Write what you’re called to write. And if you want to see your book in a bookstore someday, read everything on Rachelle’s blog and Mike Hyatt’s blog and soak up whatever else you can to learn how publishing works.

    Then…if the words you write and the publishing realities line up, you’ll be able to call yourself a published author someday. I’ll be among those who cheer your success, even if your book isn’t as brilliant as Catcher in the Rye.

  12. Nicole on April 30, 2008 at 3:40 PM

    >This is what I object to in these discussions:

    “I simply want to remind people that if you want to write stuff that others will read, you sort of have to understand and accept the world in which we live.”

    “. . .it’s that most people 30 years old and younger want the story delivered straight up and in our face. We don’t want waste our time reading gushing, flowery prose, run-on sentences or deciphering inane metaphors. Just give us a good story.”

    “After all, the “concept” is the only thing that sold the DaVinci Code and Lovely Bones…both were poorly-written and poorly-executed.”

    The publishing professionals are certainly entitled to set any parameters they choose because they are the ones producing the investment dollars. It’s the platitudes of “greatness” and the assertions of absolutes from the pros to the wannabes that give it an unsavory taste.

    Making a profit is commendable, but it is done in all kinds of ways and not all of them can be construed as “artful”.

    As Christians in the industry, let’s just recognize God’s part in the placement of people and their gifts/talents where He decides might be most beneficial for His intended purposes. This isn’t to suggest we get sloppy or that we adhere to someone else’s example of “excellence”. If we write to honor Him, He will use it. Who can say how until He points them or places them there?

  13. Pam Halter on April 30, 2008 at 2:52 PM

    >What I keep “hearing” is, write a good story. I totally agree. We all want a good story that’s fresh and engaging and holds our interest. Unless you only read one genre, many books can do that for you.

    How do we write a good story? We write and write and write. We attend workshops and conferences. We join or start a critque group. We send out queries and see what kind of response we get. It all takes time and during that time, things can change. So … we also must study the market.

    Lots of work besides just writing, huh? I used to balk at that, but now I see it as part of the creative process.

  14. Kathryn Harris on April 30, 2008 at 12:19 PM

    >Thanks for the great post Rachelle. There certainly is something to be said for simply sitting back and reading.

    I have to take issue with Anonymous 9:44’s post as well. You just insulted an entire generation in one sentence. It doesn’t matter whether Salinger or Faulkner or Steinbeck considered competitive advantage when they were writing their novels. What matters is whether any of these “classic” authors would be picked up by a publishing house today.

    Some of the stories written by the writers you mentioned move like molasses but aren’t nearly as sweet.

    “The Lovely Bones” was an awesome book that managed to suck readers in right from the beginning and keep them interested throughout. How is that poorly written or poorly executed? It seems to me that’s what the pros are looking for. That’s what Rachelle was trying to teach us through her contest she just hosted. Whether we like it or not, the most widely targeted demographic for sales are those people between 18 and 34 years old. That’s the way it is for the publisher for whom I work.

    Yes, I’m on the cusp of the younger generation. It’s not that we have the attention span of a flea, it’s that most people 30 years old and younger want the story delivered straight up and in our face. We don’t want waste our time reading gushing, flowery prose, run-on sentences or deciphering inane metaphors. Just give us a good story.

  15. Rachelle on April 30, 2008 at 11:03 AM

    >Warning: Snark ahead!

    Dear Anon 9:44,

    How exactly does it escape your attention that “great stories with a lasting message and impact” are the very essence of competitive advantage?

    Sometimes I think all writers are just so anxious to reject the marketplace realities in favor of creative integrity that they miss the obvious. Your art has immeasurable value to you, yes, but value outside of YOU will be determined by the marketplace, the culture, the society, etc.

    Please forgive my abruptness, I simply want to remind people that if you want to write stuff that others will read, you sort of have to understand and accept the world in which we live.

    As for literature? It’s still being published. Lots of it, in fact. And the “DaVinci Codes” and “Lovely Bones” of the world are paying for them, because they’re certainly not paying for themselves.

  16. Anonymous on April 30, 2008 at 10:44 AM

    >I’ve followed Mike’s blog with interest and dismay. Having spent years as a corporate mushroom (kept in the dark and covered with ****) I’ve come to the conclusion that a CEO is a CEO is a CEO.

    As to your advice to examine the competitive advantage of your idea probably has merit. After all, the “concept” is the only thing that sold the DaVinci Code and Lovely Bones…both were poorly-written and poorly-executed.

    Thriller writers clearly structure the story to grab a reader, but I doubt any of those authors will be remembered beyond their last book.

    Perhaps I’m asking the wrong question here, but did JD Salinger consider competitive advantage when he wrote “Catcher in the Rye?” What about Austen,Hemingway, Faulkner,Joyce,Steinbeck,Twain, et al. They simply told great stories with a lasting message and impact.

    Unfortunately the new generation, weaned on TV,video games,and Rap Music has the attention span of a flea. They don’t want literature, they aren’t capable of digesting it.

  17. david fry on April 30, 2008 at 10:37 AM

    >Undeniably relevant. Given that we are sole proprietors of our art we are then by extension entrepreneurs. And one of the tenets of being an ‘ongoing concern’ is the competitive advantage. I had that drilled in me from day one of business school.

    I like this discussion. It reorients us. We can now plug our wips into the project matrix and choose to rise to the raised bar or not.

    I appreciate the outlining of options for gaining that competitive advantage. In short, we must knock everybody’s socks off!

  18. Jim on April 30, 2008 at 9:56 AM


    Once again, a wealth of great information. As I continue my own quest for God’s direction with my writing, I’m grateful for all I’m learning from your blog and the links to many other references full of ideas. Thanks!

  19. Tiffany Stuart on April 30, 2008 at 8:29 AM

    >Thanks for bringing more perspective on this changing industry. This brings me both comfort and a challenge.

  20. Rachelle on April 30, 2008 at 7:39 AM


    Vampires and werewolves, not so much. Time travel romance, maybe.

    Those niches are untapped for reasons having to do with acceptability in Christian circles, not because somebody has been asleep at the wheel.

  21. Christy on April 30, 2008 at 7:35 AM

    >Thank you for the insightful post.

    < < An untapped niche market. >>

    I have a question based on this. The secular market is saturated with paranormal romances, but the genre is noticeably missing from the Christian market. Is there a place for vampires and werewolves in the CBA? What about time-travel romances?

  22. Anonymous on April 30, 2008 at 12:39 AM

    >Excellent, timeless advice. (Not just the bit about simply sitting back and reading books.)

  23. Walt Mussell on April 29, 2008 at 11:29 PM

    >Fantastic post! I’ve also been over to the Michael Hyatt blog to read the the recent pieces that address in-depth what you discuss here. Thanks for the suggestion!