How to Write a Book Proposal, Part IV: The Comparative Market Analysis

All right, class, is everybody ready? If you’re chewing gum, I hope you brought enough for everyone currently surfing the net.

The next section of the book proposal is the comparative market analysis, wherein you talk about who has written on your topic before and, ideally, convince your dream agent and prospective editors that your book can hold its own amongst the already-existing competition. The idea here is to show three things: that you are aware of the competition, that your book is different from and better than what is already on the market, and that the market could stand to have another book on your subject without sending readers running screaming out of bookstores everywhere.

After the marketing plan, the competitive titles section is the one where the most rookie mistakes are made. This is usually not the rookie’s fault: most guides are quite vague on what this section should entail. As a result, almost all first-time proposers give too little information, producing either a mere list (often with only a couple of titles) or a rapid overview that does not include any discussion of how the proposed work differs from those listed. In a rookie proposal, this section, like the marketing section, usually reads as though the writer resented having to do it at all.

Why is the Comparative Titles section necessary? Basically, its function is to give the acquiring editor an easy way to fill out the Title Information Sheet that is the first step toward buying your book. It is the Title Information Sheet, not your entire book proposal, that gets circulated to the non-editorial departments before an offer can be tendered, so the marketing department can figure out how the book could be positioned to optimize sales, the number-crunchers can figure out how much paper and ink it will take to print it, etc. The more legwork you put in here (within reason), the easier it is for the editor to do his or her job of proving to the rest of the publishing house that your book deserves to be acquired.

You’d be surprised by how few proposing authors do not check out the competition! If you are not already familiar with the market, try entering the search words you think readers will use to find your book into the Amazon or Barnes and Noble search engines, and take a gander at the top half-dozen titles that appear. Better yet, walk into a well-stocked bookstore and see what is sitting on the shelves. Wait for a lull in the business day, and ask an idling clerk to tell you what the three best-selling books in your section of the bookstore are.

You may already have a shelf bowed with the weight of tomes on your topic, but avoid the temptation of packing your comparative market analysis with books more than five years old — or ones that did not sell well. The publishing world is very oriented in the NOW, so try to list books that are still in the major bookstores. If a perfect parallel was published a decade ago, you may include it, of course, but if you list too many elderly titles, your topic runs the risk of looking dated.

Why is looking dated the kiss of death? Well, the fact is, most book proposals do feature dated competitive title lists, which means a truly well-selected, market-conscious list stands out from the crowd. If a significant book on your topic has come out within the last few months and it is NOT included in your comparative market analysis, it is an automatic red flag: editors tend not to be too crazy about authors who do not know their own markets. An up-to-date list brands you as a professional who is aware of the competition – and is willing to make sure the proposed book avoids the pitfalls into which the competition fell.

To appear even more professional, include at least one title with a very different philosophical, political, or regional perspective than your own. This shows the editor that you are not only reading books with which you personally agree, but that you have given some serious thought to how your book is going to differentiate itself from the rest of the market.

Six to eight currently-available titles is standard. List the title, author’s name, publisher, date of publication, and a one- or two-sentence description of each book.

It is vitally important that you include for each title a couple of ways in which your book will be different and/or better. Why will yours appeal to a broader audience than the current market leader? What fatal flaw did the comparative title have, and how will you avoid it? (This last is most effective when the comparative title in question was a major bestseller, of course.)

Be critical, but be concise: this is not a comparative literature final exam, where you will be judged on your attention to minor differences. Broad strokes are fine, as long as your writing is clear and you treat your potential competitors with respect. Try to mention at least one positive thing about every title.

Let’s say you are writing a book on pet training, entitled THE PERFECT BOOK ON CATS. You think everything else on the market is absolute drivel, but as a professional, you do not want to show that. Instead, you concentrate on your competitors’ strengths. Your Comparative Market Analysis might look something like this:

In recent years, there has been a resurgence in interest in cat training. In August, 2005, an Internet search on Google brought up 1,234 hits. In the same month, listed 56 titles on the subject, as well as 78 titles on the related subject of ferret and rabbit training. Current titles include:

CAT TRAINING AND YOU, by Steve Smith (Ballentine, 2005)

The current bestseller, Smith’s book provides a broad overview of cat training techniques and advice, but little discussion of philosophy. THE PERFECT BOOK ON CATS will provide specific advice, broken down by breed, and a fuller discussion of the history of cat training.

WHAT, ME TRAIN MY CAT? by Tom Jones (Random House, 2002).

Jones provides a very basic guide to cat training, illustrated sparsely by line drawings. THE PERFECT BOOK ON CATS, by contrast, will feature many full-color pictures, as well as three times the number of tricks.

ONLY MANIACS TRAIN CATS TO SWIM, by Clarissa Lovelace (Putnam Penguin, 2001)

Lovelace’s work is the best of the recent spate of books arguing against cat training on moral grounds. THE PERFECT BOOK ON CATS answers these concerns by presenting a wide variety of humane training techniques, as well as discussion of the current swimming controversy.

ME AND MY FLUFFY, by Paul McCartney (Coffee Table Books, 2003)

While this is primarily a celebrity photo book, it does include a chapter on the former Beatle teaching his cat to play rhythm guitar. THE PERFECT BOOK ON CATS approaches the topic more seriously than McCartney’s book, and limits itself to training cats to performing tasks of more interest to the general cat owner.

THE HIPPIE’S GUIDE TO CAT TRAINING by Peace Loveshine (Harmony Press, 1972)

The enduring classic on cat tutelage, this book’s frequent references to former President Richard Nixon render it unappealing to the current generation of readers. By providing a solid, apolitical treatment of the topic, THE PERFECT BOOK ON CATS will not render itself obsolete in five years’ time.

Now that wasn’t so hard, was it? You needn’t spend three months reading to put such a list together, or spend a mountain of money buying up every book that exists: instead, spend a weekend seated in front of the appropriate shelf at a megastore, seeing what is cutting-edge in your topic, take good notes, then come home and write. If you are really at a loss for something critical to say, check out the formal and readers’ reviews on Amazon for ideas.

While you’re in the bookstore, you might want to take notes on what publishers tend to publish in your area – and how good those publishers are at getting shelf space for their authors. I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but those little tables at the front of big bookstores that hold fat piles of bestsellers-to-be are almost never purely the result of avid bookstore employees pushing their favorite new releases: some clever marketer has generally exchanged hard cash or favors for that placement. Ditto with which books are placed face-out on the shelves, as opposed to spine-out; face-out books sell far better. Ideally, you would like a publishing house that can place your work well.

One final piece of advice: do be measured in your critique. Don’t praise any competitive title beyond its deserts; no matter how bad the competition is, try to avoid being too scathing. Since editors move around so much, it is not beyond belief that someone who worked on the book you chose to excoriate might end up reading your proposal – and offended editors seldom acquire books.

I speak from personal experience. The quality of research in the many biographies of Philip K. Dick currently on the market ranges from excellent to laughable, so necessarily, I had to point out in my book proposal that one of the recent offerings was stuffed to bursting with flat-out fabrications. This bio had made me very angry when I read it — the author had made gratuitous and untrue attacks upon my mother, a playground fighting situation if there ever was one – but I reined in my feelings and wrote a politely critical review. And in truth, my brief critique in the comparative titles section was far less harsh than, say, the NY Times review of the noisome volume had been.

I did, however, mention in passing that the latitude the author had allowed himself had made most of us who had actually known Philip pretty furious. When my proposal fell under the eyes of the editor who had handled the U.S. version of the book, he naturally felt that my criticism cast a negative reflection upon the two years he had spent working on the book’s translation from its original French. He felt, again naturally, that he would prefer not to work with an author who questioned the research methodology of his authors, even with good grounds. Ultimately, my agent got an earful about it.

Yes, this was an unfortunate coincidence, but note what happened here: since I had been respectful in how I presented my critique of this genuinely loathsome book, the editor did not simply throw my proposal into the trash. Instead, he took the time to call my agent and discuss the matter. I ended up with useful feedback, rather than an unexplained no.

Your book proposal is bread cast upon the waters, my friends, a message in a bottle that you hope will wash up on kindly shores. You cannot necessarily anticipate the tastes and pet peeves of the beachcombers who might pick it up – but by being respectful, professional, and clear, you can minimize its chances of being roasted over a fire by angry cannibals.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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