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.
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.
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 fine retailers