Thursday, November 12, 2009

Nothing out there like it?

In working on prescriptive non-fiction, I’ve noted a phenomenon among authors that I’ll call the “there’s nothing out there like it” fallacy. Interestingly, it seems to affect a disproportionately expert population—physicians, nutritionists, psychologists, trainers, counselors, and attorneys—writers with professional credentials whose proposed book emerges from a considerable knowledge of their target market. Indeed, the fact that these people come in daily contact with their would-be book buyers should mean that they have a better sense than anyone of the information their patients/clients lack. In theory, these experts are ideally positioned to perceive a book-shaped hole in the market. But interestingly enough, this is not always the case.

There are a few reasons; because the general public may be demonstrably in need of information (or perhaps just reluctant to implement it) it does not always follow that there’s a dearth of books on the topic. In my experience, experts may know their audience inside and out, but they don’t necessarily have a clear sense of the competition. Acquiring editors, meanwhile, have an overdeveloped sense of the books in the field; usually they’ve published them. (Agents do too, which, apropos of the recent discussion, is another reason why we’re handy). Busy professionals, even those who assiduously keep up with the relevant journals, rarely have the time to read books aimed at a general audience. They do, however, hear their clients/patients complain that there is a shortage of reliable information “out there.” They field the same questions again and again. They rightly perceive their clients’ points of confusion, and may be especially gifted at untangling complex information, or perhaps they’ve created a program that gets amazing results. It is not so very difficult to therefore imagine that all this would merit, even demand, a new book.

Maybe so. But in order to test this premise, writers need to do significant research, not only on, B&, Booklist, Publishers Weekly, or Publishers Marketplace, but also in multiple bookstores and libraries. No single source is especially reliable: on-line searches may be too broad or too narrow; looking at the bookstore shelf may not give an accurate sense of all that’s actually on offer; libraries don’t necessarily reflect all the newest entrees. Ideally, aspiring authors should read, or at least skim, the likely competition, with a dispassionate eye (does the world really need another book on this subject) and in hopes of spotting an opening. If “nothing out there” really means “there’s nothing out there written by me,” bear in mind that publishing houses find this a persuasive argument only insofar as the “me” in question has one or more of the following: a national platform; a media profile; conducted groundbreaking research; a fresh approach to the subject at hand. It is this last aspect that is most tractable. It is true that most nonfiction is platform driven, but it is also concept-driven, and teasing out a hook—which is not so much a gimmick as a clever, easily-grasped, organizing principle—is essential. Finding a way into your subject that has not been done and done again is difficult, but not, I think, so difficult as acquiring the MD, MBA or PhD to begin with!



  1. I really enjoyed this post, Jessica. Coming across another book that was the same thing that I wanted to write was a secret fear of mine. I was mostly assured that the books didn't already exist, because I had once shopped for just such books and couldn't find any. But as I wrote my proposals, I dreaded my repetitive online searches, just knowing that someone was going to beat me to the punch.

    Even now, as I search out books on topics that I think (or hope) might be fresh, I am stunned at how poor my search results can be, to the point where I wonder if I haven't subconsciously sabotaged by own search criteria. I will often come back to a topic a few times, spread out over a few weeks, and see how radically the search results change, based simply on the keywords that I choose (or not).

    Thanks for the tips and for highlighting an area of research that often goes unmentioned!

  2. That's great advice, Terisa. Also, I don't mean to imply that if the market is a crowded one that a writer should abandon all ambition of writing a book that engages it, but rather he or she needs to be more strategic about seeking out that unusual angle.

  3. Hmm, in light of this post I hereby request to edit and re-submit my query to Miriam. Just kidding, folks. Good advice, and an easy trap to fall into, it seems.
    You know we all think we are the most intersting and original writers out there. We don't always admit it, but, come on, we do.