Researching the competition for your next book can be a roller coaster of emotions. First you think your idea is completely new and out of the ordinary. Yay! Then you start to find others like yours. Nooo! Then you see those books are ancient and yours will be fresh and new. Yay! Then you search again and find 5 new releases. Heartbreak!
It can be exhausting going through all of that, and perhaps that is why many writers avoid researching their competition. However, if you plan to market your book to anyone outside of your family and friends, you need to know who you are up against.
Let’s say you are interested in writing a book about US tennis great Serena Williams. A quick Amazon search for Williams brings up 419 items. Sorting by year of publication, we see 12 of those books were slated for publication in 2019 alone. That is a whole lot of competition for a book about Serena Williams!
Looking closer, however, you will also note that very few Serena books were published before 2019. So how do you make your case that your book will have the shelf-life needed to recoup your and your publisher’s investment?
Another search, this time for tennis biographies, illustrates the long life of tennis as a source for biographies: Arthur Ashe, the icon who played in the 1960s, is the subject of a biography set to publish in 2020. Nearly 60 years is a pretty good shelf life.
You need not be discouraged by the competition. All of these books indicate that there is a large population interested in reading about the lives of sports stars.
That said, you might also take this information and decide instead to write about someone else, say, Maria Sharapova, who is ranked number two by ESPN for famous female athletes but has had just a handful of books written about her. Explore a wide-open market like that and you just might land on the bestseller list.
Researching the competition is scary, but it can also lead to inspiration and will almost certainly fuel your success. Keep with it until you know exactly who you are up against.
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.
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:
I bet there is something like it, you just haven’t identified it yet.
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?
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 Solitudeby 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!