All aspiring authors should complete a competitive analysis for the books they plan to write. No matter how you plan to publish your book, look carefully at the competition it faces and place this information in your business plan. Competing (and/or complementary) books indicate the sales potential of your book. In other words, the sales track records of books similar to yours provide information on how well your book might sell in the same category or market.
I have twice (that I know of) had publishing houses reject my book proposals because of the Complementary Books section. This was not because I hadn’t researched or written this section well or excluded it. The marketing or sales team felt the books I listed hadn’t sold enough copies. This didn’t bode well for my proposed book selling well.
The information gained during a competitive analysis is extremely useful for your book’s business plan. You have to know if your book has the potential to sell in its marketplace—in its category and to its audience. Only if it does should you be pitching it to agents or publishers or planning to self-publish. You can determine this to a great extent by looking at other books in the category in which yours will be sold.
The Sales Numbers Make the Difference
You may think stiff competition, such as several bestselling books, bodes poorly for your book idea. In fact, that isn’t true. Many bestsellers in your category means a market exists for books like yours. People are purchasing those books consistently. If you can evaluate these other books and ensure yours is unique and offers new benefits to readers, you can prove to a publisher (or to yourself) it will sell just as well—if not better. You want to consider how you can capture those same readers and some new ones, too. If you can’t do that, your book won’t get the nod from a publishing house, which means it should get the nod from you as an indie publisher either.
Let me give you two examples so you can see this concept more clearly. Recently my literary agent pitched an idea to a mid-sized publisher. While several of the competing books had sold well, only one had become a bestseller. They came back with this response:
“We had our editorial meeting this afternoon, and I presented Nina’s book idea. I was told that, except for one outlier, BookScan shows the competing books in this area selling only about 2,000 hard copies during their first year, and then trailed off after that. We believe a substantial portion of the books’ sales come from Kindle sales, which we can’t track. So my director of trade sales and marketing wasn’t able to give me a sales projection for such a book. But, given the inevitable low price of such books, it would be risky for us to take a ‘flier’ on it (as we say) anyway.”
Note that the price of ebooks was also taken into account, as would be the price of the hardcover books in the list of Competitive Titles I provided.
Two years ago, my agent proposed a different book to a large publisher. This response came back:
“Sales of the comp books weren’t as strong as I had anticipated, so it would be tough to make a sales case to bring this one through acquisitions.”
The lack of sales produced by the competing books I had chosen, which were the closest ones I could have found, indicated:
- too small a market for my book
- a market with not enough interest in my subject
- potential readers who saw no benefit or value in the topic
Thus, they weren’t buying similar books because they represented too large an investment risk for my potential financial backer, the publisher. Let me point out, though, that in this second case one of the books on that list was Michael Larsen’s How to Write a Book Proposal, which had sold well over 100,000 copies at that point and was about to be released as a fourth edition. Yet, that could have been the only book on the list that had sold that many copies. The others could have been low performers as in my last example.
When my agent proposed the same project to a mid-sized publisher, however, the book was purchased with little problem. This shows you how different types of publishers see competing and complementary books differently—and so must you, especially if you plan to self-publish. Larger publishers want and need to sell more books. Small and mid-sized publishers have smaller sales goals. You need to go back to your goals—your idea of success. Then determine to the best of your ability if the competitive environment seems favorable for moving forward with your project.
Is Competition Good or Bad?
You’ll have to evaluate the amount of competition you find for your book. Don’t be put off if you discover a lot of competition exists for your book; that’s not necessarily an indication that your project is doomed to fail. A lot of competition can prove a good thing. If lots of similar books have been published on your topic, that can indicate publishers feel a market exists for the topic and readers are buying the books already released.
A category with few books and little competition does not mean your book won’t succeed or shouldn’t be written and published. It could represent an opportunity for you. A small amount of competition doesn’t mean a publisher won’t feel a market exists for your book. Your book could dominate the niche if your book is unique and necessary and a need does, indeed, exist for your book in a category.
No competing books in a particular category—or no category at all—could bode well or not. You’ll have to go back to your market research. If you can prove that people are ready and willing to purchase your book—people who need your book—then your project could still be viable despite the lack of competition. You might look at complementary books to see if you can find proof of need for your book. These are books that are similar in nature but not direct competition.
Armed with this information, you can take another look at your idea and determine how to make it stand out from the competition. We’ll discuss this in the next post.
Learn how to create a successful book—one that sells to publishers and to readers—by developing an AUTHOR ATTITUDE and writing a BUSINESS PLAN for a MARKETABLE BOOK. Register for the AUTHOR TRAINING 101 Home-Study Course, and go from aspiring to successful published author! This course is based on The Author Training Manual. If you like what you’ve read here, you’ll love the course.