HOW TO RESEARCH COMPETITIVE BOOKS FOR YOUR
NONFICTION BOOK PROPOSAL
Before starting to write your nonfiction book, I strongly encourage you to see what books already are on the market that could potentially compete with yours. Some people are reluctant to do this because they’re concerned their book’s content will be influenced by other books. However, if someone has done a book very similar to the one you’re proposing, it would be difficult to justify a need for your book.
You may discover a book that is very similar to yours and decide that one or two chapters of that book are particularly weak. If the weakness of the competitive book happens to be your area of strength, and you see a need for an entire book devoted to this topic, then your research has been worthwhile. You won’t have spent time writing an entire book only to find out that you can’t sell it because there’s already a book like yours on the market.
Since nearly 275,000 new titles are published by traditional U.S. publishers every year (per Bowker) -- and that’s on top of 2.5 million successful backlist titles -- it’s likely that you will find a book that is somewhat similar to yours. You need to ask yourself: What are you going to bring to this topic that no other author has? Can you present the existing information in a more relevant, fresher, or better-organized way?
My first book, The Home Design Handbook: The Essential Planning Guide for Building, Buying, or Remodeling a Home, is a good example of how a competitive book analysis can help you. While many books had been written on home design, no one had developed a workbook with a logical progression of questions that would ensure that nothing was overlooked in the home design and remodeling process. The Home Design Handbook does this. It was published over a decade ago by Henry Holt and Company and is now in its 12th printing.
The results of your competitive book analysis must be included in your book proposal. Be aware that agents and editors are savvy. While they can’t know every book on the market, if they realize you have overlooked a major competitive book, the rest of your proposal will be suspect. Editors do their own searches on Amazon.com to ensure they are aware of the key competitive books before making an offer to the author’s agent.
Beginning Your Research
I always start my competitive books research on line, using the web sites of major booksellers. I use a global approach that shows me as many potentially competitive books as possible. For example, when researching my book Animal Blessings: Prayers and Poems Celebrating Our Pets, I used multiple title and subject area searches. I entered “animal blessings” (always try the exact title first), “animal prayers,” “animal poems,” and “animal spirituality,” and the same phrases substituting "pet" and "pets" for "animals." For my book Wedding Blessings: Prayers and Poems Celebrating Love, Marriage, and Anniversaries, I entered “wedding blessings,” "wedding poems,” "wedding prayers,” "wedding readings,” "wedding toasts,” “wedding ceremonies,” "marriage poems," and “love poems.” Print out the results of these searches.
Run your searches on both Amazon.com and b&n.com. These two major bookselling sites have organized their search engines and databases somewhat differently. What shows up on one site won’t necessarily appear on the other.
Analyzing Your Research
You probably will have a number of printouts from your online research. When you look up a book on the bookseller sites, make sure you read what customers say about a particular book. Perhaps someone has written a book just like yours, but it wasn’t well done and is not highly rated. This means there could be room in the market for a stronger book on this same topic.
You also should note the “Amazon.com Sales Rank” of the competitive books you find. Anything rated 10,000 or lower on Amazon.com is a hot book. Anything rated 50,000 or lower is selling pretty well. To see how this works, you can do a search for “June Cotner” on Amazon.com. Then click to have my books ranked in bestselling order. You’ll see that my top four books have rankings of 50,000 or less. However, while Amazon’s ranking system is a good indicator, it is not foolproof. For example, the system lists Animal Blessings as my #7-selling book, yet it’s ranked 27,000 on the Amazon site.
My agent believes you ideally should find at least five competitive books. If you don’t, publishers will have a concern that there isn’t a large enough audience to justify publishing a book on your topic.
Eliminate from your printouts any books that are out of print or that appear difficult to obtain (such as books that have to be special ordered). Now you’re ready to take your printouts to the bookstores!
When analyzing competitive books, you only need to include in your book proposal those books that are actually on store shelves. These are the books that are selling. I encourage you to visit at least four bookstores in your area: your local bookseller, the largest independent bookstore, the largest Borders store, and the largest Barnes & Noble store.
You should try to determine how well each competitive book is doing. While it is difficult to obtain exact sales figures for competitive books (publishers keep this a closely guarded secret unless they want you to know, such as “over 50 million Chicken Soup books sold!”), you can tell the relative success of a book by the number of times it has been reprinted. This information is found on the bottom line of the copyright page. The number on the far right in the line is the number of the printing; the number on the far left in the line is the year it was reprinted. Whenever a book goes back to press, the publisher deletes the number to the far right for the last printing, so the number you see on the far right is always the current printing of the book.
For example, my book Graces is in its 31st printing. The line at the bottom of the copyright page reads “02 03 HAD 35 34 33 34 32 31.” When the book goes into its 32nd printing this year, the line then will read “03 04 HAD 35 34 33 32.” Be aware, however, that sometimes you will see earlier printing numbers. It’s hard to tell how long a particular book was in a bookstore or what route it took to get there—perhaps it was returned by one bookseller after a 6-month period, and then shipped from the warehouse to another bookseller who just ordered it.
If you find a competitive book that is in its second printing or higher, you should mention this in your competitive books section of your proposal. Several books in multiple printings concerning your subject area could indicate a hot topic. The publisher might feel the market could handle one more book on this topic.
When I’m in the bookstore, I also ask questions of a staff member that could uncover another competitive book. For example, when researching Animal Blessings I asked, “Do you have any books for animal blessing ceremonies?” Or, “Do you have a book I could give someone who has just lost her dog?” (Animal Blessings has an excellent chapter on “Partings.”) Or, “Do you have any books for adults about animal poems?”
In your book proposal, mention the specific stores you visited. For example, in a recent proposal I wrote, “I did extensive research on Amazon.com, B&N.com, and at several chain bookstores (including Borders stores in downtown Seattle and Tigard, OR; and Barnes & Noble stores in downtown Seattle and Jantzen Beach, OR).”
Description of Competitive Books
In writing your description of the competitive books, you should be objective. It’s important that you don’t bash the competition. Since there are only six major publishers, your agent could show your proposal to the publisher who published the book you were tempted to bash. However, as you’ll see below, if you quote directly from the book in your analysis, you’re letting the book speak for itself. My hope is that if an editor who published this book sees my description, the editor will think, “She’s right. How did I let this get through?”
The following demonstrates a suggested format for analyzing each competitive book. These three descriptions are taken from my Wedding Blessings proposal.
You may also choose to insert concluding comments about the market for your book after your competitive books description. The following are the comments I made about Wedding Blessings:
While some of the books listed above were well done, my conclusion is that WEDDING BLESSINGS will stand out because it will be the only book that utilizes a test-market process, which results in finding selections that resonate well with most readers—before the book is printed. Most authors and publishers regard the first printing of the book as the “test market” to see how well the book goes over with readers. I, however, do this even before I turn in the manuscript to the publisher. Using general readers (people who like my books), subject area specialists (people planning an upcoming wedding or anniversary), poets, clergy, and editors (from my publisher’s staff), the test market manuscript has undergone tremendous scrutiny before the manuscript is delivered to the publisher. This process is extremely important and is the main reason, I believe, why my anthologies are so successful. Besides including only top-rated selections, WEDDING BLESSINGS will be the only book packaged as beautifully as my other anthologies—an elegant hardcover with a gifty trim size and one selection per page.
The competition for WEDDING BLESSINGS reminds me very much of the marketplace that existed when I was researching the competition for GRACES. As with the “wedding readings” books cited above, the books on graces in the early 1990s looked very much like the ones that I saw for wedding ceremonies (paperback, unattractively packaged, and many selections printed per page). Because WEDDING BLESSINGS will be beautifully packaged and contain great selections, it should certainly find the same success as GRACES, which is now in its 27th printing with more than 201,000 copies in print.
There is a huge demand for a book like WEDDING BLESSINGS. There has not been any book similar to it published before. I didn’t include one particularly successful book, Words for Your Wedding: The Wedding Service Book by David Glusker and Peter Misner (© 1986, Harper San Francisco, 25th printing) in the above competitive books section because I couldn’t find even one selection that I would want to include in WEDDING BLESSINGS. This is probably due to the fact that Words for Your Wedding was published nearly 25 years ago, the book uses antiquated religious language—something that one might find in a prayer book published a century ago. In the last thirty years, I can’t recall attending even one religious ceremony that used such old-fashioned language. However, this book proves that there is a need for a book on “words for your wedding” because it is in its 25th printing!
© 2010 June Cotner, publishing consultant and author of the bestselling Graces and Dog Blessings and 24 other books. PO Box 2765, Poulsbo, WA 98370 firstname.lastname@example.org
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