“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.

Review: One Hundred Years of Solitude

I just finished reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, and holy smokes, is that a good book! It has been a number of years since I read something so revolutionary in both writing style and content.

This book was my selection for book group a couple of months ago, but due to a crazy work schedule, I was only able to get about two-thirds of the way through it before the meeting. I often don’t finish books that I couldn’t complete before the discussion, since the ending is revealed and I tend to lose interest, but I knew this one I would finish. I was already falling in love with it by that point, and the comments from the rest of the group piqued my interest even more. Now that I have made it to the end, I want to meet again to dissect all of the connections from the end of the book to the beginning. There’s so much to talk about.

One of the endorsements on the back cover says “this is the first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race.” That’s quite a statement and I wondered how the book could live up to such praise. Now I know. It’s not simply a story about five generations of a family living in a small village in Latin America; it is the story of the rise and fall of civilization.

The writing style is also biblical in its development of myth and symbolism. So you can get a feel for the kind of writing Garcia Marquez employs in this book, here is one of my favorite passages:

Colonel Aureliano Buendia organized thirty-two armed uprisings and lost them all. He had seventeen male children by seventeen different women and they were exterminated one after the other on a single night before the oldest one had reached the age of thirty-five. He survived fourteen attempts on his life, seventy-three ambushes, and a firing squad. He lived through a dose of strychnine in his coffee that was enough to kill a horse. . . . Although he always fought at the head of his men, the only wound he received was the one he gave himself after signing the Treaty of Neerlandia, which put an end to twenty years of civil war. He shot himself in the chest with a pistol and the bullet came out through his back without damaging any vital organ. The only thing left of all that was a street that bore his name in Macondo. (p. 103)

The genre is magical realism, and you can see why. The exaggeration is ridiculous on first reading, but the ideas aren’t so far from reality. This man accomplished unheard-of feats of survival, was integral to the start and end of a civil war, yet in the end, the only evidence of his existence was a street someone named after him.

Seemingly crazy or impossible or illogical things happen throughout the book, but the reader accepts them, and after some evaluation, the occurrences don’t seem that far-fetched after all. In fact, you can probably think of some events in your life or in history that happened just like that. (To put this into a pop culture context, think of Wes Anderson’s movies, particularly The Royal Tenenbaums. Anderson uses this technique of exaggeration and unreality to great effect.) The story questions linear time, truth vs. lies, reality vs. unreality vs. matters of perception. It forces you to put aside preconceived notions (Western notions, at least) of what is and what should be so that what you distill from it is a new understanding of human nature.

That sounds pretty highfalutin, and you can definitely enjoy the book without getting into all that theory nonsense. My thought is, if you just read it for the story, this other stuff will come out and you’ll be as surprised and astounded as I was at the result.

This book is not for everyone. It takes a little work on the part of the reader to follow the story, keep all the characters straight, and appreciate all of the underlying messages. I’m sure I’d have to read it a few more times to get it all. (In fact, someone in book group had just read it for the third time and said he felt he’d gotten something new out of it every time.) But the imagery and the texture of the writing were enough to sustain me. It was well worth the effort.

Is this too much of a rave review? Maybe. There are flaws in it, for sure, where the story gets long or too involved and where the reader might get frustrated trying to keep all the characters straight. For a minute, somewhere in the last third of the book, I thought I was going to be let down by the ending. But then, no, it was a beautiful ending, genius, solving the mystery you didn’t even know was the key to the story!

Certainly I’m not the first person to discover the wonders of this book. (It was published in 1967, after all.) But it has jumped into my top ten books and now I want to share it with everyone. So go check it out of your library and read it. Then tell me what you thought. But be ready to buy a copy too. This is one you’ll want for your shelf at home.