Know Your Competition
In your publication journey, there’s a good chance you’ll be asked, at some point, to provide some “comps” for your book.
Why do we ask this? Why do we care? What are the advantages of writing a comprehensive “Competition” section in your book proposal, or being able to talk intelligently about other books in the same category as yours?
• If you’re writing non-fiction, it shows you whether there is a hole in the market that your book can fill, or whether the topic has already been done to death (in which case, you go back to the drawing board and tweak your idea so that it takes a different approach or says something different than what everyone else is saying; or say it in a totally different way).
• If you’re writing fiction, it gives you the opportunity to make sure you’re not inadvertantly writing a plot that’s too similar to something else that’s well-known.
• It shows the publisher that you know your genre or category well.
• It alerts your publisher to any possible sales issues regarding competition.
• It helps everyone at the publisher (editors, marketing, sales, design) to capture a vision for your book; to understand it a little better; to know which section of the bookstore it goes in.
• It forces you, the writer, to become familiar with what’s already been written along the same lines as your book.
If you’re asked to write a “Competition” section for a book proposal:
Non-fiction: Include books on the same topic as yours. Explain in one sentence what that book is about or its strengths; then one or two sentences about how yours is different, better, or a good complement to it.
Fiction: Instead of calling it a competition section, I recommend you call it “Comparable Books.” Include books that are similar to yours in theme, tone, style and/or genre. If you know of another book with a similar plot, you should address that. Briefly explain why readers of those books will want to read your book, too.
→ Include only books with strong sales (not flops and not huge bestsellers) and only books released in the last few years.
→ Search for possible competitive or comparable books using a variety of means; don’t limit yourself to one particular search term or one method. Go deeper than the titles to make sure you’re not missing anything. Search on various websites besides Amazon. If you’re writing a Christian book, use Christianbook.com.
→ Be sure to include: title, author, publisher, year released, a one-sentence description of the book and its strengths, and a one or two sentence explanation of why someone would buy your book instead of the other one, or in addition to the other one.
→ Don’t criticize the other book or say it’s terrible (even if you think it is). Just highlight the differences.
→ Sometimes it works to open your competition section with an overview of the competition before going into the details on specific books. For example, in a proposal for a book about teaching life-skills to kids, I opened the competition section with the following: “There are many books offering lists of things your kids should learn before they leave home, showing there is a market for user-friendly resources packing a lot of information into an easy-to-read format. However, most of the books focus on attitudes and character-building issues, while my book is centered on practical life skills.”
→ Be thorough with this section, since it tells the publisher whether you have done your homework.
When I’m intrigued by a non-fiction proposal, one of my first thoughts is always, “Hmm, I wonder what other books are out there on this topic.” If the competition section says something like “There are no other books like mine,” I’d immediately go online and do some quick research. In ten minutes I could get a pretty good feel for the competition, and it’s almost always apparent that the writer is either delusional, or trying to fool me, or simply has no clue about the market for their own book. Their stock just went down in my eyes, because now I don’t know if they’ve really researched their topic at all. At that point, I’m likely to move on to the next proposal.
Know your competition!
How are you at assessing other books similar to yours? Are you prepared to provide comps for your book?
For further reading on competition, read this: “Utterly Original“
I always find your advice so helpful and this one did not disappoint.
I wonder what the is difference between writing to a market and writing what’s on your heart. Not so much writing what’s hot now. But should you start a manuscript with that in mind, or is this doing your homework afterwards?
Thank you so much for this, Rachelle. I love your blog and am learning so much from it. The tip about including books with strong sales was particularly helpful.
Thanks, Rachel. Useful info. How long should comp section be?
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Thanks so much for the time you spent with this subject. Very informative.
A most useful article.Thanks,
I haven’t heard about this subject, explained quite the way you describe it. I’ve had agents ask me how my book is different from others, and where it would fit on the shelf (similar to others) and have to admit, I don’t know, other than making vague comments about some general best sellers.
I always felt awkward comparing my book to Janet Evanovich or Sue Grafton because, although I think my work is good, they are at the top of the field. Your suggestions make sense.
So I will do some research after I finish polishing my current novel (almost there!!!) and write a competition section for my novel. It will be good to have it ready if asked, and I’ll know the answers next time I’m asked.
I have published—with a real publisher—two nonfiction books and self published six others. They sell okay for the niche genre. The books published by Arco (now Simon and Schuster) are long out of print. Since writing is my love,
I have jumped into the deep end of the pool with a fiction book. This is a soft science fiction saga that covers centuries of time. Its about solving a galactic problem that will take thousands of years to resolve. It’s about reincarnation and generations of special people from all over the galaxy.
What a newbie I was to think that this would be a breeze just because the characters talk to me in my head. I don’t know if there are books like mine in my genre. It seems that most sci fi today are more techno and less about the people involved. The Dune books come close, but mine is not as long or involved with galactic politics.
I am lucky to be in a really good writer’s group of professionals. So far, they love my story even if I have to kill off my favorite narrative for the sake of readability and interest.
But, there it is. I will be hitting the library and Amazon to find if there are more like mine or even close.
Thanks for you blog. It is amazingly helpful. You are appreciated.
I so appreciate this information, Rachelle. It’s just what I need at the time I need it! Love those practical tips and suggestions. Thanks!
Maybe my distinctions are too narrow, but I cannot find fiction like mine. The saying, “Write what you would like to read,” is what I have done. All I can say is that it falls somewhere between Frederich Buechner’s Son of Laughter and Angela Hunt’s series Legacies of the Ancient River (without the romance sub-plot. But, neither had great sales, nor were they released over the last few years. It is a perplexing quandary and I’m have no idea where to find comparable literature. My only hope is that no one asks me for comparables.
Sounds like more of the same. Publishers are buying this and not that, blah, blah, blah. No disrespect meant. Another reason to go independent. For instance I wrote a senior sleuth that could be compared to Janet Evanovich’s grandma Mazur, but I’m betting publishers aren’t buying that either. Plus, my main character is less confused and lives on her own. Perhaps I’m a bit ahead of the times. I feel there is room for baby boomer sleuths. I’m just not so sure it’s now. I sure have enough agent rejections to attest to that. Getting sick of all those knitting and cooking, playing it safe cozy mysteries.
Good luck everyone on finding your nitch.
You would not believe how helpful this was to me. I’ve been struggling to figure what kind of story my novel is. “Know your competition”. This forced me to say what it is.
When I write a query letter I’m all; It’s women’s contemporary fiction, no, it’s chic lit, it’s modern fiction, it’s bla bla bla.
Even though they don’t come out an ask for what it really is, I have to come out of the romantic comedy closet. Ha! My story is romantic comedy!
Actual conversation I had recently:
Me: If I were to write a book, I would have trouble coming up with comps for a proposal. Who do you know that writes like me?
Friend: I don’t know anyone who writes like you.
Me: Which is one of a host of reasons I will most likely never have a book published. Least of which is the fact that I haven’t written one.
This is such important advice. Thank you for sharing the importance of market research. I recently pitched a Christmas program to an editor I’ve worked with previously. Because I knew him well enough, I pitched the idea in an e-mail to check if he was even interested before preparing the full proposal. He liked what I wrote, but when I did the market research, I realized someone else had published a very similar theme within the last year. He really appreciated my thorough search and honesty in letting him know about the issue right away. I may not get to publish that particular piece of work in the near future, but he said that since the program I’d e-mailed was so good, maybe I’d like to write another one with a different theme and submit that. It’s important for authors to keep a big-picture view of their careers and not get so focused on one pet project that they forget to build positive relationships with editors who could help with many future projects.
Thanks for this advice. Despite reading widely, coming up with comp titles is a challenge for me. I’m too critical, and think the differences between similar books will prevent others from seeing the similarities I note and make me look dumb. (e.g. “Well, my book is kinda like book X in that they both have mutants, but the themes are more like book Y even though mine is SF and book Y is a gothic romance.” A made-up example, for sure, but not that far off the mark.)
What’s your advice if you think your book is most similar story-wise to something that’s not a book? i.e. a movie or TV show, a graphic novel or manga series, etc.
Include some book comps, but also mention the movie/TV show/whatever, if it helps convey the feel of what you’re writing.
And what do you do if there truly is no other comparable book? After researching this for a year, I truly believe there is NO other fiction book about homeschooling. So, when trying to sell it to bookstores, do I look dumb if I say that? Should I find the closest book in tone and voice about another topic? Thanks for all the great thoughts, Rachelle.
Your book is about more than homeschooling, I’m sure. What KIND of book is it? Who is its audience? What’s its overall theme? (And it’s not a theme about homeschooling.) Find other books that appeal to your same audience, and be able to say why “people who like this book will also like mine.”
Also please note: If there are truly NO books like yours, it could be one of two things: either you really do have a fabulous new idea; or you have a book that there is no market for (and that’s why you can’t find any).
Thank you for both replies. Those are both very helpful!
Today’s post over at the ACFW blog is from Romana Richards, Senior Acquisitions Editor at Abingdon. She says she is looking for a ‘unique voice’ in fiction, yet agents and publishers also want a list of comparable books in the genre.
So… unique yet like other books that sell.
How do you suggest an author work through this apparent contradiction in terms?
There is no contradiction. There is always something that is comparable to yours, whether in voice, in topic, in theme, in target audience… or even in the freshness of the voice.
Think of it as your way of saying, “People who like Published Book by Ima Author will also like my book.”
I just have to say thanks again for this. I had to do a proposal for a bookstore today and don’t know if I would have even known to include comps or how to think about it. I did NOT call it mom lit and I was able to come up with some “If they liked __ they might like this book.”
And, that made me think of what I’d love to see on this blog (your question from last week).
I’d love to see more topics for writers who are using small publishers or self-publishing. Things I’ve had to figure out this year, but would be very helpful for others include: how to build a team including cover artist, freelance editor, and finding the right small publisher. How to self edit, how to use Chicago Manual of style, how to have a freelance editor consult to learn your weaknesses, CASE STUDIES of marketing plans, linking Facebook author/book pages to blogs, how to promote to bookstores, how to reach buyers (I haven’t figured this out but am working on it), is there such a thing as a freelance buyer who will sell books to stores, etc.
Basically, if you WANT to learn these aspects to do things yourself, concrete ideas, books and CASE STUDIES of others who have done it successfully would be awesome.
I think it would also position you as an agent who works in somewhat of a consulting role, helping writers build a team and take responsibility for their own projects and marketing, but you’d have the inside knowledge to guide them and point them in the right directions. Not sure what the profit model would look like on that! But, anyway, those are my thoughts.
Thanks again for your honest feedback. It seriously helped me out today.
Okay, so when I search on Christianbook.com for books that are ‘momlit’ or ‘fiction stay-at-home mom’ or ‘homeschool fiction’ I get none or 2 older books that I’ve read and don’t deal with moms of young kids. Am I being too specific? Should I be looking for something more general like “women’s fiction humorous” or something? If there are only two (sort-of) comparable books, does that mean this is a new idea, or that I am just not finding the books, or that my criteria are too narrow. I’m doing this to propose to bookstores/buyers, not an agent or a publisher. Any thoughts by anyone are very much appreciated. Thanks!
By the way, nobody’s buying “mom lit” nowadays, especially if you call it that. And “fiction stay at home mom” is also too specific. See my other comment to you. Sounds like you’re writing Humorous Women’s Fiction or something like that.
Very helpful tips, Rachelle.
Is it considered acceptable for instance, if you are pitching to the CBA market to list a “comparable” in the ABA market which is similiar in topic, but not spiritual content?
Yes, Julia, but you also want some CBA comps to balance it out.
Thank you so much for your answer. Its something I’ve been wondering about for a while as I’ve read a number of books on my topic in both markets.
This was a challenging (and time consuming) section of the proposal to write, but one that was really interesting. Two questions:
1) How do you feel when you see a book that was published a decade or more ago, but that’s still selling really well?
2) Are you horrified to learn an author hasn’t read each of the comps front to back? Or are you fine with basing the entry on reviews, descriptions and maybe a quick skim?
1) Books should be within the last 3-4 years UNLESS they’re very successful and are still selling strongly even though they’re older.
2) It’s not necessary (or feasible, for most of us) to read all of your competition. You want to have a familiarity with it, and understand where your book fits, how it’s different, and how it complements what’s already out there.
What timely and informative post! I have spent quite a bit of time combing through Amazon and Christianbook.com and have done my due diligence to see what my competion is. It’s not hard to see what is out there, but remember that none of those works have been written in your voice.
Critique groups and trustworthy friends will come in handy in this situation, especially the ones who enjoy a wide variety of genres.
Since I am writing for the Christian market, I have purposely asked some of my non-Christian friends to review my MS. If they can get through it, learn something and (not hurl) enjoy it, then I will be encouraged.
Thanks for the tips- very helpful. I’m in the process of locating comparable books, so far it’s a bit difficult because not much has been written about my topic. Which can be both positive and negative.
I’m just reviving much of my writing and had given this topic some thought, but wasn’t quite sure of the steps, depth, etc., needed to make sure I’m informed about what else is out there. This post is extremely helpful and relevant! Thanks so much for your insight, Rachelle!
One of the most helpful things I did in my non-fiction proposal was to assess the market to see if other similar books had been written about my topic, and if so, how recently they had been published and the slant they took. Great post and great reminder!
Wow, hadn’t thought of this for fiction writers. Thanks for the information and sharing Rachel and posters.
@Jonathan, @Angelica, @April:
When you use any book search engine such as Amazon, B&N, Christianbook.com, it always gives you the option of how you want your results sorted. You can play with different ways of sorting, but choose the option of “bestselling” to see which books appear at the top of the list, as opposed to books that are on page 10 of the results. That way, you’ll have a rough idea of the popularity of the books relative to each other. (Although it will represent a snapshot of TODAY, not overall throughout time.)
You also have other ways of sussing out a book’s relative popularity or quality, such as reading the reviews. If there are high-profile reviews available (PW, NYT, Wash Post, etc.) then it was probably a higher profile book.
You can also find out how the book did on bestseller lists.
There’s no way to get sales figures on another author’s book. But by using your creative thinking and research skills, you can get a good idea of which books are reputable enough to include in your comps.
In addition to this, if you’re writing a book in a certain genre or category, we’d hope you have a level of familiarity with that genre before you even start writing. That would mean you’re probably aware of the bestsellers and heavy hitters in your area, and hopefully you’re familiar with a lot of mid-list titles in your genre as well.
Thanks, Rachelle. I am fairly plugged into what’s going on in my general genre (YA) but I still find it difficult to know the “true” comparables for my YA fantasy (should I even strictly limit the comps to YA fantasy?). Do I look for similarities in pacing, writing style, plot content, character cast, theme? I am guessing the answer is all of the above and more, so I’ll just keep plugging along and do the best I can! (unless you have any input) Thanks again!
Thanks for explaining this. I’ve seen a lot of people do this but hesitated to do it myself, feeling it might seem arrogant.
When I went to ACFW last year and pitched, I had a list of clients the agent had, that I had read and thought our styles were similar, in such a way that the agent would know where I was coming from in my own writing. I didn’t end up mentioning any of them, but it was really good for me to know where I fit in, and also which agents might be the most interested in seeing something I’ve written.
In ten minutes I could get a pretty good feel for the competition, and it’s almost always apparent that the writer is either delusional, or trying to fool me, or simply has no clue about the market for their own book. Their stock just went down in my eyes, because now I don’t know if they’ve really researched their topic at all. At that point, I’m likely to move on to the next proposal.
I created a website just to keep track of what was comparable to me after writing one of those proposals. (I write Christian Historicals)
so in the future I could look up books by decade, wars, marriage of conveniences, character occupations, etc.
It’s actually been interesting inputting the data, seeing what seems popular and trendy and of course has emptied my pocketbook a bit more than usual when I find something good I didn’t know about. 🙂
Thanks for this info, Melissa–I write Christian historical fiction, too. I already had some comparable books (mostly non-Christian) in mind for my current novel, but I’ll check this site out!
Just followed your blogspots, Melissa! Thanks for coming up w/a site like this! Incredibly helpful.
I may be a bit odd (there’s no doubt about it if you ask my college daughter =), but I actually enjoy the process of coming up with comparables. I write what I like to read, so I have fun doing the research for this section of a proposal. I have a reason to read the kind of books I like guilt-free. I find locating comparables encouraging as well because I see that other writers are selling stories like mine.
If you read a lot in your genre, you should be aware of competition and comparables. In the case of nonfiction, some of these may be books you used in the course of your research. In fiction, they may have been the books that inspired you to take on the same subject from a different angle and your unique perspective. Knowing other books in your area gets to another important piece of advice for the aspiring writer–you need to be a reader first.
One of my published novels and several in-progress/not-yet-published feature protagonists or major secondary characters with disabilities. London, a good place to start, if you’re writing books for children and teens and have a protagonist with a disability is the Schneider Family Book Award list. If you’re looking for a place to begin for an adult novel, Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability, edited by Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black, and Michael Northern (Cinco Puntos Press, 2011) offers not only references to other books and booklists, but also insight into the hearts and minds of individuals with a variety of disabilities.
Thanks, Lyn. I’ll look into those. It would be nice to find a book that is at least somewhat comparable to mine.
Thank you for the great tips! I read a lot of inspirational women’s fiction (which I also write), but have never thought to compile a list of comparable books. Perhaps I should start doing this now as I read so if I am ever asked to create a list, I already have the beginnings of one.
This is something that’s been a struggle for me. While I wouldn’t be presumptuous enough to assume my book is unique, finding similar books has been very difficult. My librarian friends suggest things that aren’t really there; my friends who shred through novels like breakfast cereal haven’t come up with anything. The closest I have is a combination of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time and The Golden Compass, but both are older books. I guess its time to spend a lot of google time on handicapped heroines. Blah.
This is a great point. Too many authors are busy trying to show that they have a great idea that’s never been done before when that’s generally impossible. The best thing you can do is show a new angle – and show why this new angle makes the story fresh.
I advise writers to examine the competition BEFORE they get far into either their draft or even writing their book. It’s so disappointing to get a proposal, check the online competition as Rachelle indicated, and discover an over-saturated market.
Think it through carefully, prayerfully and by discussing it with close friends who will keep their mouths shut, and then do your homework.
It may be discouraging to learn you’re planning another version of “Gone With the Wind” or “What To Do While You’re Expecting”–but better to find out sooner rather than after you’ve spent a lot of time, energy and money on a project unlikely to go anywhere.
Thanks for this.
If the best competition for your title is one that is older, should you go ahead and include it? I’m looking at books about interfaith marriage, and the standard is almost 10 years old now, but honestly, it’s the closest to what I’m doing. Certainly there are other more recent books, but if there’s one that seems like the most direct competition, should it be included as well?
Yes, this wasn’t an easy section to write in my proposal. It even scared me away from the whole mess for about a week because I thought I’d found my book — the one I was trying to write. I thought it has just been published last year. When I found my way back to it, I realized that mine was different and I could spell out those things, but searching for similar titles is a scary endeavor for any writer.
Thanks for the tips as always, Rachelle.
Rachelle, writing a “comparables” section ranks right up there with preparation of a synopsis on my “rather have a root canal” list. But, as you point out, it’s necessary. Thanks for the tips and the encouragement.
This is a question I have had for several months. As a fiction writer I’ve been scratching my head wondering where to look.
But what about information like sales of the book, where can you find that so you don’t pick a flop or a bestseller?
The exact questions I have (I write YA fantasy) – hope you answer, Rachelle! I can imagine myself spending thousands of hours searching for comps and still only coming up with irrelevant flops!
I have no idea where to start! There are so many books coming out all the time, how can I conduct a search narrow enough to find the right ones, yet broad enough that I’m finding good sellers?
As an editor, I second Rachelle’s last paragraph. Claiming there is no other book like yours is one of the fastest ways to raise a red flag. Ask someone else to search for your comparables, if you’re too close to your baby to do so.
I was a little prepared but having to create a fiction proposal definitely took work. Thanks for the post! I think this was one of the hardest parts of a proposal.
I have to admit, this is an aspect of writing that I resisted for a long time, but… I have come to see that all that reading time is part of honing my skills as a writer (phew, what a good excuse). It was uncomfortable at first – I was reluctant to compare, to really look at another writers baby against mine. Now, not only am I able to say which books are comparative, but it may widen my view regarding my own characters. No, I’m not talking plagiarism here, merely that I may see the point of view of my characters in another novel and learn something – before it goes to press. Great!
So am I ready to provide comps? Soon.
Piece of advise to the writer limited for time? Employ the help of a friend who writes, edits, blogs, reviews – or all of the above. More readers to find the books that may shine next to your own.
Just make sure you pay them in chocolate 😉