There were several things that nearly all of the book proposals I read at Penguin had in common:
- They were represented by agents.
- They included competitive analyses of similar books in the marketplace.
- They were rejected.
Yes, it’s usually necessary to have an agent when getting a traditional book deal at a major publishing house. And yes, the various books on writing book proposals tell you that you need to talk about competing works as well as the potential market for your project. A competitive analysis could favorably compare your project to existing projects and therefore demonstrate the unique opportunity to be had by publishing this book.
But here’s the thing…
If you are looking to publish a book that solves a fairly general problem, like achieving wellness or greater health, improving your business, improving your relationships, finding a job, or finding greater peace and happiness in your life, then you don’t need to put together a competitive analysis or include the potential market size for your book.
How many people want to achieve greater wellness or health? A lot. How many books are out there that promise that you will achieve greater wellness or health? A LOT.
The same is true for those who want to improve their business or find greater happiness. There are too many people—and too many existing books—to even attempt to count them all.
But why would various books, articles, and other apparently authoritative texts on book publishing tell you to put a competitive analysis into your proposal?
Let’s say that you don’t solve a general problem with your work. Let’s say that you have written a book on the best way to catch largemouth bass in Western Oregon. This is a very specific problem. And it might even seem comical to a publisher to take on a book with such a specific focus. But what if it turned out that there were 200,000 dedicated largemouth bass fishermen—both native Oregonians and seasonal travelers alike? And what if there were multiple organizations dedicated to largemouth bass fishing in Western Oregon that had tens of thousands of members each?
And, what if there was no existing book that solved this particular problem?
For a publisher that publishes outdoorsy, activity-based books, this book could be a dream come true and they will only see the opportunity for it if the author provides this research.
But instead, let’s say that you have a book that helps small businesses get on their feet. You tout the nearly 30 million small businesses in the United States as your potential market. Except, there are also probably about 1,000 other business books published each year, so while it might be a nice idea that you have a unique take on the process, and you go through exhaustive lengths to demonstrate this in a competitive analysis, book browsers won’t know of this uniqueness until after they’ve read the book. For them to go from browser to buyer, other factors will come into play like the packaging (title, cover, testimonials, jacket copy) or a sample (reading the introduction, etc.).
In other words, the fact that you think your general non-fiction book is unique is utterly, totally irrelevant. What a publisher will care about is the number of assets you bring to the table (email list, media connections, etc.). Your viability to a publisher will be defined by your ability to get your book in front of people who absolutely have to have it. And dealing in broad abstractions like being a book “unlike any other in the marketplace” is a waste of your time and theirs.
Books that have competitive analyses get rejected as much as those that don’t. If you are solving a general problem with your book, save yourself the 3 hours of research you’ll have to do reading each of a half dozen different competing books. Just skip the competitive analysis and put your time into building your list.
Curious about whether to pursue a traditional deal or self-publish? Check out my cheat sheet here.