Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Sizing up the competition

by Jessica

“Know your market” is surely one of the Publishing world’s commandments—the “Though shalt” omitted but implied. When I go to conferences, when I read query letters, when I speak to writers about their books, I am always keen to get to the comparison titles, and understand from the author where she sees her book fitting in to the present marketplace. (FYI: Comparison titles, “comp titles” for short, are the books you come up with in answer to the question: “Readers of what books/writers might enjoy your work?”) I encounter such a wide variety of responses to what I believe is a softball of a question that I thought I’d pass on a few thoughts.

  • When looking for comp titles, choose successful books. Pointing out books similar to yours that had low or disappointing sales is the best argument against your project. Most houses will interpret the cluster of bad sales as a commentary on the weakness of the category/subject matter.
  • But not so monumentally successful that their track record is sui generis. For example, EAT PRAY LOVE is so often used as a comp that it has become meaningless.
  • Be cognizant of the delayed publishing timeline. I run into many writers who, after studying the competition, tell me that their own writing is at least as good as (insert name of published author here) and if that (name of book sold) surely their own can too. Unfortunately, such reasoning seldom works. Bear in mind that what is being published today was likely acquired the better part of two years ago, and the lackluster reception/performance of the titles in question may be the very reason that your book (or query letter) is rejected. For example, memoir is now an exceedingly difficult category, thanks in part to the sheer quantity of memoirs that have been published. Booksellers are being very, very, choosy about what they buy. So a cursory survey of recently published personal narratives is not necessarily going to tell you what publishers are buying now, and in fact, may reveal why your book faces an uphill battle. For this, you need a subscription to Publishers Marketplace. Remember, most books do not earn back their advances, or sell in any significant numbers, so the odds are stacked against you from the get-go.
  • I thought that name sounded familiar.  Pay particular attention to who the author is. Even in narrative (as opposed to prescriptive non-fiction, where the emphasis is on the writing as much as the information) platform is all. All things being equal, a publishing house is far more likely to take on a book from someone with an established public profile than an unknown author. In some cases, understanding the author’s marketing abilities helps explain why a particular book was bought.
  • Think twice when there’s no competition at all. Every so often, I hear a pitch in which an author is absolutely correct when she tells me that there is no book like hers out there. This may be a terrific opportunity, the oft-looked for “hole” in the market. But it also may be because publishers are convinced that a particular subject won’t work. An editor I know recently bought a book on dealing with bedbugs, a widespread and awful scourge about which no book had been published. It may be that the book will go on to sell thousands upon thousands of copies to the itchy and unhappy victims of bedbug infestations, or it might be that this is info that people can get from the internet, or via their exterminator—I suppose we’ll wait and see.
  • Too close for comfort? In surveying the competition, be mindful that a book need not be exactly like yours to constitute competition. Despite the fact that you have your own distinct take on doing business in China or parenting oppositional children, baking vegan cupcakes or greening the work-place, houses with similar books under contract or on their backlists see little reason to cannibalize their own lists. If you are wading into a crowded marketplace, then it is incumbent on you to: actually read the competition; make certain that your book is both different and better; communicate that difference; and bear in mind that most consumers rarely but multiple titles on a single subject. (Note, this applies almost exclusively to nonfiction).


  1. Jessica, thank you for this. I'm in the process of querying a manuscript with a theme which hopefully fills a "hole" in the market and this post covered everything I needed to be aware of.

  2. A very useful post.

    I think people are often skeptical about comparing their own book to others already out there, because it's their own precious baby and they're not going to turn it into something about high school vampires just to make it commercial.

    But there are so many books out there that the book you're writing is already bound to be 'like' or 'appeal to the same people' as another book.

  3. Very helpful post. (Even if it's not totally what I want to hear!) Thanks so much.

  4. Thanks -- this is something I've been curious about.

  5. I always love my title and think everyone else's in my writer's group is corny. What I get from that is, I have no barometer for good titles. Thanks for your hints. I think it'll help me when I get this *** book done.


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