The Competitive Advantage

Last April, Michael Hyatt ran a series of blog posts about the importance of the Competitive Advantage. 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It seems the biggest worry of the unpublished author is (understandably), “Will there be room for the new voices?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 The good-but-as-yet-unpublished-writer?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 Most of those are from unpublished authors.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 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When it comes to the B-Level and below projects (where most unpublished authors are), competitive advantage trumps brand equity.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 in the publishing industry 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?

(This is a repeat of a previously posted column.)

Rachelle Gardner, Christian literary agent, WordServe Literary Group, Colorado.

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!


  1. Rachelle on April 1, 2009 at 11:50 AM

  2. Christine H on April 1, 2009 at 11:22 AM

    >As a newbie who just stumbled across this post… I am lost. What is brand equity? What are platform and competitive advantage? I feel like I stumbled into a business seminar while I was looking for the campus library.


    Your post said to look at the original post by Michael Hyatt but I couldn’t locate that particular one on his site. Could you please provide the link?

    Thank you very much!

  3. Janny on March 30, 2009 at 12:46 PM


    You don’t have to put flap copy in a query letter…fortunately.
    Nor do you have to put a bio in it.
    If a publisher asks for this information, put it on a separate sheet, with its very own header, and you’re covered. No one expects you to try to cram all that stuff into the actual query letter…

    …or if they do, they’re idiots who deserve the 4-point type that would result. 🙂

    My (somewhat feisty) take,

  4. heather on March 28, 2009 at 1:21 PM

    >Congrats on being honored as a top five agent blog!

  5. Kim Kasch on March 27, 2009 at 8:44 PM

    >Just thought you might like to see that you made the list: ”The Best of the Best for Blogging Agents”

  6. JohnO on March 27, 2009 at 3:02 PM

    >Good post (really interesting to think about, actually), but then that becomes another question for you: as we’re querying fiction, do we attempt to position/sell our stories in terms of how it might fit in the market?

    Along with the flap copy, author bio, title and word count (I’m thinking fiction here), that’s making for a crowded letter!

  7. Dawn on March 27, 2009 at 1:06 PM


    Thanks for the encouraging words, along with the hard truth. Both are needed. 🙂

    I think it’s important for those of us who are pursuing publication to understand and accept how difficult it is to break in. But on the other hand, it’s also important to believe that it’s not impossible.

  8. T. Anne on March 27, 2009 at 12:03 PM

    >James, thank you for the great advice.

  9. Dara on March 27, 2009 at 9:39 AM

    >Thanks for the info! It’s making me take a closer look at my story’s competitive advantage.

  10. lynnrush on March 27, 2009 at 9:21 AM

    >Great post.

    @James Scott Bell–I like the term “Open a Vein” in every scene. That’s a great way to look at it.

    I’m glad it’s not easy to get published…I know, I sound like a freak, but really, if you think about it, I don’t want just any Tom, Dick, and Harry getting published because the books wouldn’t be as good.

    Thanks for the post, Rachelle.

  11. James Scott Bell on March 27, 2009 at 9:04 AM

    >Another way to put this is from entrepreneurialism: USP, “Unique Selling Proposition.”

    What you agents and publishers all want is something unique yet with a potential market reach. Not something so far out people will scratch their heads. But not the same old stuff, either.

    It’s actually an exciting thing to sit down with a premise and freshen it up. It’s may favorite part of the writing process. The “falling in love” part.

    Then, when I write, I try to “open a vein” in every scene. That’s the only way I can get any uniqueness on the page.

    @Sharon: Hey, if it was easy, everybody (including your Aunt Mildred) would be a published novelist. Be glad it’s not easy. You can outlast those who give up…and most will.

  12. Sharon A. Lavy on March 27, 2009 at 7:52 AM

    >Thank you. This does not make writing easier, you know. = )

  13. Maggie May on March 27, 2009 at 1:09 AM

    >As usual, thank you for your thoughts on the publishing business.