Lesson 5: Competitive Titles
This is part of our free non-fiction book proposal course written by Lydia, Senior Editor at Penguin Random House. To see all posts in this series, please click here.
In this lesson, you will learn why it is important to include information on competing books in your proposal and tips on how to do it well.
Why competitive titles are helpful references for publishers
It is often the case that a book will fall into a clearly defined area of the market.
A very quick way of showing publishers what your project is about and where it will sit in the market is by naming a few books that it’s similar to. You will need to explain what other books there are, and then, why your book is both different and perhaps better from the books you reference.
Ideally, the market has already been proven to be a good one, so you should remind publishers of the previous successes in this area. Publishers will also want to be confident that you have read widely and are very familiar with the area that you’re working in, so make sure you’ve spent ample time in a bookshop or browsing online looking at what is already out there and thinking carefully about how you can write as good a book as some of those already published successfully.
If there is no similar book on the market, you might want to think about why there isn’t. Does it indicate there isn’t an audience for your book or does it reveal a gap in the market that your book will aim to address? If there aren’t many appropriate comparative titles in your area of publishing, be sure to explain why you think this is the case in order to reassure the publisher you have thought this through and that you have good reason to believe there is a need for your book.
Choosing comparable titles
When choosing titles to compare your book to, think about what it is about that specific book that is similar to your book and also how your book will differ from it. Don’t compare your book to another book in the market simply because it was a big bestseller and is in a similarish space as your book. Instead, be really specific about what it is about a particular book that you want to highlight to a publisher as a way of showing them what will be great about your book. A publisher would generally expect an author to compare their book to around three to five comparative titles.
There are many different aspects of a book that you may want to draw attention to and compare with your own. For example, you might want to comment upon some of the following:
- The subject of the book
- The approach you intend to take – like whether you will include primary or secondary research, case studies, statistics, tools, frameworks or exercises
- The writing style
- Your authorial expertise, knowledge and perspective
- The audiences you aim to reach and how you will cater the book to them
- The format of the book – like whether it will include illustrations, photographs, diagrams or graphs
- The impact the book will have in the world
Perhaps the simplest comparison is when the subject matter of the book is the same or very similar to yours. For example, if you are writing a book about making fresh pasta, you might compare it to a book titled Making Artisan Pasta by Aliza Green and Cesare Casella, explaining that you will give readers similar tools on how to make the best pasta from scratch in their own kitchens as Making Artisan Pasta does. But then you might go on to explain that your book will also include recipes for gluten-free and vegan pasta, which Making Artisan Pasta does not.
Another comparison point might be about the approach a particular book takes to a subject. For example, say you were writing a book on self-doubt, confidence, and critical self-narratives. You might say you’ll approach the science of self-doubt in the same way as Sway by Dr Pragya Agarwal addressed the idea of unconscious bias, with statistics and stories. Here you are highlighting something specific about the content of your book to the publisher – that it will be backed by scientific research and studies, and it will also draw upon stories of real people and their experiences.
Another reason you might choose a comparative title is to make a comment on the audience that book reached. For example, say you were writing a book on team-building that looked at how elite athletes worked together, you might say that this book will appeal to sports readers that enjoyed Leading by Alex Ferguson.
You might also choose to compare your book to other books because of the public conversation or activism they might have provoked. For example, say you were writing about human rights injustices, you might say “this book will fire up readers and encourage them to fight social injustices in the same way as On Fire by Naomi Klein compelled readers to rally against climate change”.
When you explain how your book will differ from each of the comparative titles you look at, it can be helpful to refer back to the market need for your book and the target audience. Remember, you have already given the publisher information about who this book is for and why it is needed, so be sure to link your descriptions about how your book differs from a comparative title back to what you said earlier in the proposal.
Providing information about the success of the book
It is helpful to include information about how well the comparative titles have sold. If you’re able to get access to book data systems like Nielsen Bookscan Chart in the UK, it’s worth looking up the sales record of the book in question and listing how many copies it has sold in your local market.
Looking up sales figures might influence which titles you choose to compare your book to as it’s better to compare your book to one that has sold well versus one that hasn’t. If all the comparative titles you are referencing have sold well, this will give the publisher confidence in your project. But equally, if you only include comparisons to internationally bestselling books that have sold 1 million copies, a publisher will be sceptical. They would much rather see realistic comparisons to books that have sold well (from around 8,000 to 80,000 copies) than to huge outliers that have sold millions of copies.
If you don’t have access to Nielsen’s Bookscan, don’t worry. You won’t be expected to include this sales information in the proposal, it’s seen as a bonus. If you don’t have access to sales figures, it might be helpful to look at Amazon reviews as an indication of popularity and success. If a book has thousands of 4 or 5 star Amazon reviews, it’s highly likely the book has sold very well and is a good comparison to make. Similarly, if a book has very few reviews and ones with low ratings, you might want to reconsider if you should include it as a comparison title. If you are seeking representation from an agent, most agents will be able to look up sales figures for comparative titles.
Remember to be specific about why you are comparing your book to another book. Make sure you explain how your book is different from this selected title, as well as explaining how it is similar. It’s best to pick about three to five comparative books and write 150-250 words on each. Choose books that are successful but not necessarily the biggest books in this space, unless you have a very genuine reason why your book is similar to it. Be sure to pick at least three books to compare your book to, and remember that the whole point of this task is to help the publisher understand where in the market it will sit.