“There’s Nothing Else Like It”: Why Researching Your Competition Is Essential to Publishing Success

When I ask potential clients about their projects, I often hear, “This is a completely new idea. There is nothing else like it.” This statement brings two thoughts to my mind:

  1. I bet there is something like it, you just haven’t identified it yet.
  2. If there really is nothing like it, why would that be?

Answering both of these points requires thorough knowledge of what your competitors are doing.

To Identify the Competition, You Have to Look for It

Before you determine that there are no other books on the market like yours, be sure you have done an extensive search for competing titles. There are many resources for this: Amazon.com, other online and physical bookstores, Books in Print (from R.R. Bowker), city and university libraries, and more.

Most people begin online. To help make your search as thorough as possible, generate a long list of keywords that relate to your book. You can start with the words in your working title (or titles) and move out from there. You may wish to use one of the many keyword generators now available online, such as Google’s Keyword Planner  or WordStream, to help you. Plug these keywords into Amazon.com, BN.com, Books in Print, and any other searchable book database and note the titles that come up. These are your potential competitors.

Although it may seem passé, actually going to the bookstore can also be a big help in your research. Many less popular books don’t show up in online searches, and what you do find online is dictated by the keywords you select. If you miss the right keyword, you could be missing important competitors. So go to the nearest bookstore, find the section of the store most likely to carry your book, and note those books that target your audience.

As you search, keep in mind that you want to find both direct competition and comparable books — those books that are similar in setup but covering a different topic. If you are writing a children’s nonfiction science book on tuberculosis, for example, your competition would be other books on tuberculosis aimed at kids. Your comparables would include children’s nonfiction science books on other illnesses.

Researching the competition can be tricky. Ideally you will find at least a few books like your idea (to show there is a market for it), but not so many that it becomes clear the market is glutted.*

Comparables in particular are great for determining the size and makeup of the market you are trying to reach. When someone says there is nothing else like their book, often it is because they have not reviewed the comparables.

Still Think There Is Nothing Else Like It?

If you have carried out a thorough search of all the books that might be competing with yours and you still can’t find anything that matches your vision, you may have a problem. Now you have to ask yourself, why hasn’t anyone else written a book like yours? Is there no market for it, or have you identified a niche to be filled?

Niche is great for self-publishing because you can reach a small segment of the population that traditional publishers don’t want to bother with. If you are hoping to be traditionally published, however, you may need to expand your idea or conform to the competition. To do that, you have to know what the competition has done.

Now why would a writer want to conform, you ask?

(c) Kara Harms
(c) Kara Harms

Although there is benefit in being one of a kind, it is also true that readers don’t like to be too surprised. Fresh ideas, a new approach, a revolutionary solution to an old problem — these are all well accepted by readers. But if you look carefully you will see that most often, these new approaches and fresh ideas are couched in the comfortable and the familiar. Readers need to be put at ease before they are willing to accept change.

This is as true for fiction as it is for nonfiction. Even if you take one of the most revolutionary novels around — One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, beloved writer of magical realism — you will discover the book is really just a family saga, told over several generations and including major and minor life events. It is the way it is told that is so extraordinary. If Garcia Marquez had challenged every convention, the book would have been so difficult to read he would have alienated his readers. Instead, he balanced the predictable with the unpredictable to create an astounding work of fiction.

Successful publication of a book requires you to know your competition. Before you go touting your book as something the likes of which no one has ever seen, be sure you have searched high and low for competitors as well as comparables. There is a lot to be learned from competing books — including how you can make your book conform to reader expectations while excelling far beyond what the competition is offering.

*Glutted. I just realized the root of glutted is the same as gluttony. I love etymology!

Like this blog? Check out Perfect Bound: How to Navigate the Book Publishing Process Like a Pro, available through Hop On Publishing, Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Left Bank Books, and other retailers.

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