10 Key Questions for Evaluating Your Book’s Competition

So much invaluable information about what is and is not already available, what the industry conventions are, and how you can make your book better than anything else on the market, can be gleaned from the competing titles in your area of writing. This is part of the planning that goes into creating a high-quality book.

Photo courtesy of douceurs d'etre, http://www.flickr.com/photos/midstofliving/.
Photo courtesy of douceurs d’etre, http://www.flickr.com/photos/midstofliving/.

Nevertheless, researching the competition can be overwhelming. As you sort through Amazon listings, print editions, and ebooks, you may begin to ask yourself, “What is it I’m  looking for again?” The following 10 key questions will help you remain focused while you evaluate your competition.

1. How does the author’s writing style compare to yours?

This doesn’t have to be a question of whose writing style is better — although that can be a factor. The point here is that you can set yourself apart by showcasing your own writing style. A different writing style may appeal to a different audience, one that is still looking for what you are providing. Thorough editing can help.

2. Is the book an appropriate length for the target readers?

When thinking about length, you must consider the attention span and sophistication of your readers.  Are all of your competing titles around the same length? By matching the competition, you can be sure you are meeting your readers’ expectations. By departing from the norm, you can perhaps provide a more comprehensive, or conversely, a more accessible, volume.

3. Is the plot or argument fully explored and explained? Is it compelling?

The answers to several of the questions in this list can be gleaned without actually reading the competition. Not so for this question. You need to know what is in the book. Read critically to see what’s missing that you can provide. In nonfiction, the table of contents will speed this process. With fiction, you have to read, read, read.

4. In nonfiction works and children’s books, are there enough special elements such as boxes, charts, and illustrations to keep the reader interested?

Flip through the pages. Are there special elements that make the book more accessible and easier to get into? Are there so many special features that the reader is overwhelmed or the book feels cluttered? The right balance here depends on the topic and genre in which you are writing. Based on what you know about your audience, does your competition strike that balance? What can you emulate? What can you do better?

5. What is the quality of the artwork? Is there too much or too little?

Not all books have artwork — the industry term for illustrations, photographs, and line drawings. Should yours? Can you use artwork to set your book apart? If the competition doesn’t include any, that might be a place for you to excel. If the competition does have artwork, you might be able to make yours better (e.g., higher quality, easier to understand). If the competition includes illustrations and you weren’t planning  on having any, you may want to reconsider your plan so that you can stay even with your competitors.

6. Are any appendixes, references, endnotes, or a glossary included?

Some books benefit from extensive supplementary material. Is yours one? Again, if the competition is providing these types of value-added features, you should consider doing the same. If they aren’t, that may be a way for you to enhance your offering. Although these more obviously apply to nonfiction books, some fiction — especially sci-fi and fantasy — can employ these features to great effect.

7. Is there an index?

Indexes are specific to nonfiction, but they come in many shapes and sizes. You can have a subject index or a name index, or both. You can have an exhaustive 25-page index or a simple 8-page index. Or you can have none at all. Depending on the topic of your book, your readers might expect a certain type of index. You can learn this by looking at the competition. You should plan to give your readers what they expect.

8. What kind of front matter — such as a preface, introduction, time line, list of illustrations, list of characters, or map — is provided?

Similar to question 6, the more features you offer in your book, the more value you can add for your reader. You have to be selective about what is appropriate for your genre and topic, but that is just the kind of information you can learn from reviewing the competition. Note that both fiction and nonfiction can benefit from well-prepared, creative front matter.

9. What angle does the competition take? Who is the audience?

This question gets to the heart of finding a niche. What angles do your competitors cover in regards to your topic, and more important, what is being ignored? From whose perspective is the story or argument told? Is there an audience segment that is not being reached? By delving into the uncharted territory, you can make your book a great resource of entertainment and/or knowledge for a new group of readers.

10. Does the book educate or entertain? Is it enjoyable?

Virtually every book has some competition; most books today have quite a bit of it. But how many of those books are enjoyable to read? No matter the topic, reading a book can and should be rewarding. What are you going to do to make sure your book is enjoyable? Solid writing and editing go a long way in creating a pleasant experience for your readers.

Bonus Question: Is the competition selling?

Although the first 10 questions here are excellent for keeping your head on straight while reading and reviewing your competing titles, there is one more question to consider. As you look at the competition for your book, can you determine how much of a market there is for your book idea? Where do your competitors rank on the Amazon bestseller lists? Is the market burgeoning or glutted? Publishing the best possible book you can is of utmost importance. Making sure there are people willing to purchase that book is a close second.

Perfect BoundLike this blog? Find more advice and insights in Perfect Bound: How to Navigate the Book Publishing Process Like a Pro, available through Hop On Publishing, Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, Left Bank Books, and other fine retailers

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Lightning Source vs. CreateSpace: What I Would Do Differently

Updated February 28, 2015

Lightning Source Inc. (part of Ingram Content Group) and Create Space (part of Amazon) are the two most prominent options for print-on-demand in the United States. They are each enormous and come with their own pros and cons, making it difficult for self-publishers to choose between them.*

lightningsource vs.

CreateSpace-Logo

For my book, I went through Lightning Source because the print and binding quality are said to be better, you can set your discount rates, you are automatically listed with Ingram’s distribution (good if you want to be in bookstores), and further, I am not a fan of Amazon’s business practices.

But I was asked recently, if I were to choose a print-on-demand option for my book today, would I do anything different from just a year ago when Perfect Bound went to the printer. I had to answer yes, yes, I would.

Things did not go as smoothly at Lightning Source as I had expected given its reputation. It took three proofs before we were satisfied with the interior print quality. Perfect Bound includes some screens (i.e., shaded boxes), and the screens were uneven or blotchy. Apparently our proof was the last book off the press before they changed the ink (seriously). I was not impressed.

The cover printing, the binding, and the paper were all very good, however. Once the interior print quality issues were resolved, we were happy to continue with Lightning Source.

Over Christmas 2014, new information caused us to reconsider our choices. That’s when we learned that Amazon was taking longer and longer to get our books to customers. One customer reported having to wait three weeks! I had heard this might happen; because CreateSpace and Lightning Source are direct competitors, Amazon has incentive to make Lightning Source books difficult to get. To make matters worse, Amazon started saying our book was out of stock. We feared that might cost us sales. Who wants to take a chance on a book that’s out of stock?

After much discussion, we finally decided it was in our best interest to work with CreateSpace. I wasn’t thrilled with that because, if Lightning Source has print quality issues, what is CreateSpace going to do? Most people order from Amazon and therefore the books would be coming from CreateSpace. I didn’t want my readers getting crummy-looking books. But, I felt I was over a barrel, so I signed up with CreateSpace.

An example of the blotchy printing in our first proof from Lightning Source
An example of the blotchy printing in our first proof from Lightning Source

Turns out the print quality at CreateSpace was better than at Lightning Source, and we had nothing to worry about there. It is clear to someone who is really looking closely that the binding is not as good, and the color match on the cover isn’t exact, but only we would notice that. The paper is a little creamier than I would have wanted, but I prefer it to the stark white that is the other option from CreateSpace. Lightning Source’s paper is a very pleasant light cream; CreateSpace’s is a little darker but still OK. Also, CreateSpace charges less per book, by about 50 cents in our case. When you’re selling a high volume of books, that makes a difference.

Right now I plan to keep both accounts — one with Lightning Source and the other with CreateSpace — but I do wish I hadn’t waited so long to sign up with CreateSpace. I despise that Amazon controls so much and that the company leveraged its size and reach to coerce me into working with it. That is a huge drawback. But with the quality of printing I saw and the cheaper per unit price, I came to terms with it.

Depending on the type of book you are publishing, I would definitely consider using CreateSpace. Lightning Source still offers better binding, better paper, and ways to get into bookstores.  But with CreateSpace you can sign up for free and get a proof for about $4 (plus shipping). If you hate it, you can move on to Lightning Source or Ingram Spark. Or do as we did and sign up with both. (As an aside, if you do go with CreateSpace, consider getting a matte finish on your cover. I find the glossy from CreateSpace to be too shiny.)

So there you  have it. I never thought I would endorse CreateSpace, but it turns out there are benefits to this behemoth.

UPDATE: Wednesday, February 25, the Independent Book Publishers Association held a webinar with representatives from Lightning Source. One attendee asked about the “out of stock” message and how to correct it. The official response from LSI was to get an account with CreateSpace without signing up for expanded distribution. Why the reciprocation? It seems LSI does some printing for CreateSpace. See this article from Aaron Shepard for more.

* IngramSpark is another print-on-demand company from Ingram Content Group that caters to micro-publishers. Given its close relationship with Lightning Source, the drawbacks I mention here would likely be the same for IngramSpark.

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

Take Your Picture with This Guy and Win a Free Book!

IMG_1303
John G. at the SCWC #SCWriters

 

Attendees of the Southern California Writer’s Conference have the chance to win a free copy of Perfect Bound: How to Navigate the Book Publishing Process Like a Pro!

What  to do: Take a picture of yourself with this guy ^^ and tweet it at @KPickett_Editor.

What you’ll get: The first 5 people to tweet their picture will receive a free copy of Perfect Bound shipped to their house! Everyone else gets 20% off when purchased from Hop On Publishing!

“All the resources and professional insights needed to take your book from ‘written’ to ‘published.’” —Midwest Book Review

Learn more about Perfect Bound, including reviews, a sample chapter, and author resources, at HopOnPublishing.com.

Happy Hunting!

30-Review Challenge

Help us reach 30 Amazon reviews by March 1 MARCH 6!

So, you’ve read Perfect Bound: How to Navigate the Book Publishing Process Like a Pro. Now you have the chance to tell the world what you really think about it. And if you do it by March 1, you can save 10% on any future editing service from me.

Follow this link to review Perfect Bound on Amazon:

http://www.amazon.com/Perfect-Bound-Navigate-Publishing-Process/dp/0991499115/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1410108724&sr=8-1&keywords=perfect+bound

Here’s the deal. I want to help authors all across the country who need to better understand what it takes to publish a quality and highly marketable book. The problem is, to reach the most people, we need lots of great reviews on Amazon.

Why? Because many book marketing sites and local book festivals and national and international writing conferences decide whom to feature based in part on the number and quality of book reviews on Amazon. That means, to take advantage of these opportunities, we need your reviews!

 Final coverAs of February 4, Perfect Bound has 10 reviews on Amazon. But I think we can do better. I think we can make it to 30, and I think we can do it before March 1.Will you help us?Remember, all you have to do is write and publish your honest review on Amazon.com before March 1. You will automatically receive 10% off your next editing service from me.

If you don’t have Perfect Bound yet, you can get the e-book for just $2.99 anywhere you buy books.  Buy your copy now!

Thank you for all of your support!

Katherine

P.S. Have feedback you don’t want to post in public? Send your comments directly to me. I want to hear from you!

Copyright Tips and Tidbits: How and When to Register, How to Format Your Notice, and What Not to Do

Self-publishers, take note: While it’s true that you hold an inherent copyright to your work just for the fact that you wrote it, should anyone try to infringe on your copyright you will be best served by registering with the US Copyright Office (www.copyright.gov). That may sound intimidating, but it is actually a fairly straightforward process.

How to Register

Start by going to the US Copyright Office website. The Copyright Office accepts both online and paper applications, and the applications come with easy-to-understand instructions. The filing fee (as of 2015) is $35 for online registration and $85 for hard copy.

In addition to the application and the filing fee, you will be asked to provide a copy of the “deposit” — what the Copyright Office calls the work to be registered. If you file electronically you can send an electronic file or a hard copy of your work; file with paper and you  have to send a hard copy. (The Copyright Office prefers online applications, but you are not bound by that.)

When to Register

You can register your book either before or after publication. Although simple, it can be a lengthy process, as getting the certificate can take nearly three months for the electronic application and nearly six months for paper applications. During particularly busy times, those lags can be even longer.

The good news is, unless you have reason to believe you will not be granted copyright, you don’t have to wait until you receive your certificate before publishing the work. The date of registration is the date the office receives the completed application, not the date you receive your certificate. Still, copyright registration is not something you want to let slip through the cracks. I would recommend beginning earlier rather than later.

Upon publication, if you have a print book, submit a hard copy to be held in the Library of Congress.

What Not to Include

When you apply for copyright, you are making a public record. That means anyone can view the information you supply. The Copyright Office website offers this pointed advice:

Personally identifying information, such as your address, telephone number, and email address, that is submitted on the registration application becomes part of the public record. Some information will be viewable in the Copyright Office’s on‑line databases that are available on the Internet. For this reason, you should provide only the information requested. Please do NOT provide any additional personal information that is not requested, such as your social security number or your driver’s license number.

As identity theft is a real problem in this country, heeding this advice only makes sense.

How and Where Your Copyright Notice Should Appear

Your copyright notice belongs on the reverse of the title page in your book. A valid copyright notice includes the word “Copyright” or the symbol “©”; the year of registration; and the copyright holder’s name, in that order:  © 2015 Katherine Pickett

Some publishers choose to use both the word and the symbol for copyright as well as the word “by” — Copyright © 2015 by Katherine Pickett — but that is not required.

Pitfall: Preregistration vs. Registration

The Copyright Office provides the option of “preregistration” for works that have not yet been completed. (Important: This is separate from registration of unpublished works.) The fee for preregistration is a whopping $140. I suspect this fee is intended to be a deterrent, as even the Copyright Office notes that preregistration is not helpful for most people. Rather, preregistration is recommended only for those who meet these two criteria:

  1. You think it is likely someone will infringe on your copyright before the work is made public, and
  2. The work isn’t finished.

Note also that even if you preregister, you will still need to go through the registration process. Except in extreme circumstances, you will most likely want to register your work rather than preregister it.

 

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

Defining Success: My Interview on Today’s Leading Women

In October I was interviewed by Marie Grace Berg of Today’s Leading Women. The interview went live last week, and you can listen to it here: http://todaysleadingwomen.com/katherine-pickett/

In preparing for the interview, I was thankful I received advance notice of what we would discuss, as it gave me a chance to consider (1) what my top three tips are for those looking to start a business, (2) what new resources I would recommend, and (3) how I balance work, family, friends, and health,* among other questions.

One of the hardest questions for me to answer was, Who is your hero? I don’t follow superheros nor am I enamored with Oprah or other television personalities, so I had to turn elsewhere for a role model. I finally settled on one of the leaders in the publishing industry, someone who has helped me personally and who models the mentor spirit that I strive for. (Listen to the podcast to find out which one.)

Today's Leading Women

One of my favorite questions was, How do you define success? That one really got me thinking. I consider myself successful, but by what standards?

Success in business generally implies financial success, and that is definitely part of it. It took six months for POP to become solvent back in 2007, meaning I lived off the proceeds of my company exclusively at that time. That was a huge achievement, and I reached it faster than many new companies. It’s definitely a point of pride.

But that’s just one hurdle. The next level of success meant being able to work on projects of my choosing. I built a client base over the first several years of the company, and now I have enough job offers that I do not have to accept every project that comes along.

But again, that is not the pinnacle of success for me. As of 2015, I have consistent work that enables me to take much more control of my schedule, and that, to me, is the true sign of a success.

What does control of my schedule mean? It means more time for family, friends, and health. It means being able to even consider training for a century ride (100 miles on a bike in one day). It means being able to read more books for pleasure, promote my own book, and spend time with my husband and daughter on weekends. It means so much more than just paying bills and meeting financial goals.

Now, I suppose the day I am able to say I have complete control of my schedule will be the day I really know I have made it, but I do suspect that will only come when I retire. There will always be a deadline to meet and a client to please. But being able to choose those clients, and being able to work within standard business hours, has meant a significant increase in my happiness quotient.

* For the record, I can’t rightly claim to balance work, family, friends, and health. I work a disproportionate amount, and my health suffers because of it. But I try. Boundaries, I have learned, are the key. With a toddler under foot, that lesson becomes more obvious every day.

 

Like this blog? Find more advice and insights in  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.

 

Beta Readers Aren’t Editors; Editors Aren’t Beta Readers

If you have spent any time in the writing community over the past five to ten years, you’ve probably heard about beta readers. These are unpaid people who read your manuscript and give you feedback. The type, quality, and extent of feedback you receive depends on the readers you have enlisted to help you. Editors, of course, are professionally trained and educated to correct a wide range of problems in a manuscript to get it ready for publication. Although beta readers can greatly enhance the revision process, they do not replace editors. Similarly, an editor should not be thought of as a paid beta reader.

Beta Readers Are Not Beta BitsEditors

The feedback you get from your beta readers can be hugely helpful for identifying and resolving problems with plot, characterization, pacing, or a weak argument. These readers give you the opportunity to share your work and find out how it strikes the average reader. They do not usually make the corrections the way an editor will, but rather offer suggestions for you to implement. When you choose your readers, I recommend finding a range of people with differing skills and backgrounds so that you get a well-rounded view of your manuscript.

There are a number of sources for finding beta readers — critique groups, colleagues, writing partners, people you connect with via Goodreads or a Facebook group, among other places. Each will have something different to offer, and you will need to assess and evaluate their critiques individually to determine what feedback to accept and what to reject. These people are not professionals; they are simply giving you their opinions as to how you can improve your writing.

Some authors think that if they get enough beta readers, they can skip editing. This is generally not true. In the case of really good readers and a talented writer, the beta-reading stage can lessen or eliminate the need for a developmental editor. As mentioned, beta readers may uncover big-picture issues such as an inconsistent timeline, poor pacing, poor organization, or unrelateable characters, and the author may be able to address and resolve these problems on their own.

However, unless one of your readers is a professional editor who has done a complete line edit on your manuscript, you will still need a copyeditor at some point. If you find a publisher, the publisher may take care of the copyediting; if you self-publish, you will need to arrange the editing yourself. (For guidance on how to do this without getting taken, see my series of posts How to Hire a Freelance Editor in 5 Easy Steps.)

Employing beta readers in your writing journey is an excellent idea that can save you time and money. It is essential, however, that you know the limits of what such readers can do for your manuscript.

red penEditors Are Not Beta Readers

One major benefit beta readers do offer is a fresh set of eyes when a  writer feels she has taken the manuscript as far as she can on her own. Perhaps this is why some authors seem to think of their editor as a paid beta reader. Again, that is incorrect and may lead to problems.

In most cases, an editor should not be the first person you share your work with. You can go that route, but you can likely save yourself some money — potentially, a lot of money — if you get the outside, free opinion of beta readers first. Find out what average readers think and get the manuscript nailed down as much as possible on your own before investing in editing. Editing is expensive, and the more refinement you do on your own, the less you will have to pay someone else to do. (Read this article for more thoughts on this topic.)

Beyond that, working with an editor is different from working with beta readers. For instance, editors need a certain level of understanding about what it is you are trying to achieve with your book so that they can help you achieve it. Whereas you may want your beta readers to approach the manuscript with no preconceived notions, editing is more efficient — and better — when there aren’t a lot of surprises. So if your book has a twist at the end and you aren’t sure it’s working, you will get to the solution faster if you tell your editor what you suspect. It means revealing the twist, but that’s OK. If you aren’t sure it’s working, your editor can keep that in mind while she reads. If she agrees, she can then let you know why it isn’t working and how to improve it.

In addition, the corrections and suggested changes you receive from your editor deserve more weight than those of a traditional beta reader.  With both editors and beta readers, you as the author have to decide whether the changes further your vision for the book. However, professional editors have years of experience and training in their field, and if they see a problem, it’s likely other readers will too. If they have changed your grammar, punctuation, and syntax, it likely was incorrect. If they have suggested ways to strengthen your argument, you likely need to address that problem.

That does not mean you need to take every suggested change from your editor, but you should make an educated decision. If you don’t know why a change was made, ask for an explanation before overriding your editor. Assuming you have vetted your editor (see step 2 of How to Hire a Freelance Editor in 5 Easy Steps), you know you have chosen someone with the credentials to help you make your book the best it can be. Avoid negating that expertise by ignoring your editor’s feedback.

Beta readers aren’t editors. They don’t have the training, the experience, or the expertise. And editors aren’t beta readers. They want to get to the solution as fast as possible, and that means revealing aspects of the manuscript you may be hesitant to reveal to a general reader. Beta readers offer opinions; editors offer a professional’s perspective. Each of these roles has something to offer writers on their journey. For best results, do not confuse the two.

 

Like this blog? Find more advice and insights in 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.

Notes from POP Editorial Services

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