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 Amazon.com, B&N.com, 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!