Know Your Competition
It's a common missing element in many book proposals. The writer contends they have created something unique which "has no competition." When someone writes this statement, they are not considering the larger sense of the book market. Every book has competition in the marketplace. It's the responsibility of the writer to understand and describe that competition in their book proposal. It is not the responsibility of your editor or literary agent to create this competition but the author's responsibility who should intimately know their topic and area of expertise.
Publishers need this information throughout the internal process within publishing houses. For one publisher, when they complete their internal paperwork to secure a book contract for an author, they are required to list the ISBNs of competitive titles.
Some of you reading these entries are familiar with Book Proposals That Sell. In the final pages of this book, I include a sample of one of my book proposals which sold for a six-figure advance. This proposal is exactly what was submitted to the various publishers. The missing ingredient in my proposal (despite its success) is the lack of specific competitive titles. I wrote this proposal over ten years ago and in today's market it would need to have those competitive titles before it would go out into the marketplace. Hopefully I've learned (and continue to learn) a few things about book proposal creation over the last few years.
When I started as an acquisitions editor, the president of the company (no longer there) sat down and went through the various topic areas where I would be acquiring books. One of these areas was parenting books. I raised a question about this area since within several miles of our offices was a major marketing force in this area of parenting called Focus on the Family. "Oh yes, Terry, we will continue to publish parenting books," he said with passion. "Marriages continue to fall apart in record numbers and children are leaving the church in droves." With my marching orders, I continued to acquire parenting books but silently I wondered whether a book can solve those two explicit issues about the family.
Each week Publishers Weekly tackles a different area of the market. In the February 11th issue, they cover parenting books which is highly competitive with loads of successful titles in print. The article, "Spare the Rod and..." gives a rundown of several forthcoming parenting books. Here's what is interesting to me (and hopefully for you): Notice the sub-categories for each title in the article: publisher, first printing, target audience, author's credentials, why the book is needed, and what distinguishes it from the competition. The final four categories are what every author needs to include in their book proposal when it is submitted to a literary agent or an editor.
The actual language for the competition section is tricky. The author needs to point out the competition and how their book takes a different slant on the subject or deeper or some improvement--without slamming the competitive title. Why? Because the publisher of that competitive title may be the perfect location for your book. You don't want to offend that publisher with how you've written about their title. Like many aspects of the publishing world, when you write your competition section, it calls for education, understanding and some sense of diplomacy because the relationship will often be the distinction.