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.
Good writing is like good pasta sauce. The ingredients in a good sauce are simple enough — tomatoes, garlic, onion, basil, oregano, salt, pepper — yet the range and breadth of flavors that can be created with these seven ingredients are enough to fill an entire section of the grocery store.
What all good sauces have in common, and good books too, is that they were allowed to simmer so that the flavors could meld. If you are hoping for a positive end result, one thing you can’t do, whether in writing or in cooking, is hurry.
Generally speaking, both fiction and nonfiction require some level of research. Although the demands for these two genres are different, good research is nonetheless important for the satisfaction of your readers.
During the writing process, you may be tempted to insert your newfound knowledge without much synthesis. This can become a major stumbling block for your readers. Why? When you don’t allow yourself time to process the information you have gathered, you are likely to abruptly switch between the technical aspects of the research and your natural writing style.
Further, readers may find themselves distracted by the digressions into historical or technical background. Whereas you, the author, may have intended to create a richer description of a person, place, or thing, the result may leave readers wondering what this detail has to do with the rest of the story.
This problem occurs in every kind of writing. As the author, you have to make sure your thoughts are flowing clearly from one to the next and that your inclusion of research improves the reading experience rather than hurting it. With multiple revisions over several weeks, there will be no obvious patchwork, no raw spices.
Researching while you write is a contributing factor to this problem, and it can easily lead to the worst gaffe that can come from hurrying your writing: plagiarism. With so much material online, it is too easy to simply copy and paste someone else’s words and pass them off as your own. Avoid the temptation by allowing yourself time to fully understand what you have learned before you attempt to use it.
But it’s not just research that needs this simmering time. The manuscript as a whole needs a chance to meld. If it took you a long time to get all of the pieces together — many writers report spending five years or more writing their books — once you type “The End” you may want to jump into editing. Hold on! Give that work of yours some room, come back to it when you can read it from beginning to end, and fix any glitches.
Now, it has been suggested to me that setting a project aside for a time to give yourself a fresh perspective may be a luxury that some writers don’t have. Publishers have schedules and they expect their authors to adhere to them. Others might look to some of the prolific best-selling authors, the ones who put out multiple books a year, for examples of when this rule does not apply. Here are my thoughts on those caveats.
First, if your publisher is asking for a book in a faster timeline than you can manage and still write a good book, you need to:
take that into consideration the next time you negotiate a contract, and
ask for an extension.
Although I always encourage my authors to meet their deadlines, I have to also admit that a good 50% of the books I have edited over the past 17 years have been behind schedule at some point. So, if you need more time in order to make a great product, ask for it. You won’t be the first author to miss a deadline.
And second, if you aren’t James Patterson, then you shouldn’t expect to produce books the way he does. Many of the top-producing best-selling authors have ghostwriters. You will also notice that the quality of the books tends to suffer over time. Plots are formulaic, story lines digress, and you wonder if the editor was sleeping on the job. It’s clear the author’s name recognition is what sells these books.
Although you have a slim chance of reaching fame and fortune churning out book after book, if you have to sacrifice the quality of your writing in order to do it, and thereby risk your reputation, I’m not sure it’s worth it.
I offer you one more reason to take your time while you write. Traditional publishing houses do not spend as much time or money on editing as they used to. The large presses only accept books that are in tip-top shape (unless you’re James Patterson). Smaller presses may accept your work but offer little in the way of editing assistance. In both cases, that means it’s up to you to deliver a manuscript that is very nearly publication ready. That only happens when you take your time. (Self-publishers keep their own schedules; no excuses for rushing when you’re the publisher!)
Of course, this is all coming from a woman who quit her job as an in-house editor because, as a member of the quality control team, she was unhappy with the quality of books the house was producing. I work for myself now. That means I control the quality of my writing and editing and I can take pride in whatever comes out of my office. It’s a good feeling, one that I believe every author should aspire to.