The second part of your fiction book proposal includes “comparables,” four to six novels that you see as similar to your own in some way.
To recap, a great fiction book proposal essentially breaks down into five elements:
- About Your Book and the Target Market (What can you do for us?).
- Your “Comparables” (What’s your niche?).
- Your Biography (Who are you and why should we care?).
- Marketing and Publicity (How can you help me to help you?)
- Sample Pages
Today, we’re going to talk about competitive analysis, or “comparables.”
Some publishing agents call this section of a fiction book proposal the “Competition” section, but I prefer to think of it as “Competitive Advantages,” or better yet, the “Comparable Titles” section. This emphasizes the idea (in your own mind and that of book agents and publishers) that your book is unique (and in some ways better) compared to other “similar” titles in your genre.
This section of your fiction book proposal analyzes “competing” or “comparable” book titles and why yours is different or better. Whatever you do, don’t claim there are NO competitors to your book. If there truly is not even one single solitary comparable title out there in the great wide world and all of human history, then your book might be so weird and specialized that it just won’t sell.
More realistically, the typical analysis includes 5-10 titles. You might get away with discussing just a few titles if your book is on a specialized topic or for a very narrow audience.
This is where you’ll address questions like:
- Although your novel is different than anything else that’s been published, what competing or “similar” titles can you compare it to… so book agents and publishers will know what it’s like (or not like)? How is your book similar? How is your book different?
- Why do you believe that your book should be published? If you think your book has bestseller or high commercial potential, why?
- What unique content do you have in your book (e.g. special knowledge or research, life experience, etc.)?
- Do you believe that you have a unique writing style (e.g. structure, format, voice, etc.)?
“Competitive” vs. “Comparable”
“Competitive analysis” is somewhat of a misnomer for what needs to be done here, for three reasons.
- The readers of another author’s work in the same genre are likely one’s own readers. Readers are more voracious than the bloodsucking insects of the Midgewater Marshes, and can chew up books faster than any one author can keep them satisfied. Even the most prolific fantasy author I know, CJ Cherryh, who has SIXTY lifetime novels to her credit, only averages one new novel every 18 months. So readers of her work might enjoy mine, or yours, or your neighbors, when there’s nothing new on the horizon from her.
- Most fiction authors don’t like to think of other authors as “competition.” Fiction is a difficult racket in the best of times. Most fiction authors rely on writing critique groups to workshop their craft, and work with other authors to cross-market their books. So having a good working relationship with other authors is important, and competition can sometimes get in the way of that, unless you and your competition are capable of maintaining a “healthy rivalry” where each pushes the other toward greater skill and success.
- Time Marches On. Assuming you immediately snatch up an agent, who immediately snatches you up a book contract, the average publisher’s time to market with a new book is anywhere from 12-18 months, sometimes longer. In the immortal words of Robert Herrick, “this same flower that smiles today / Tomorrow will be dying.” Which is to say that any books that currently represent “competition” for your book will already be on the downswing in the publishing life-cycle by the time your book even thinks about getting to market.
For these reasons, fiction publishers and agents generally want to see “comparables”: other fiction books on the market today that have an audience comparable to yours, that have themes, settings, and characters comparable to yours, that have a market niche comparable to yours, and then they want to know what sets your book apart from those.
Why Do You Need Comparables?
Comparables help the editor/agent develop a big-picture understanding of your book and where it fits into the marketplace. It’s best not to include blockbuster bestsellers (Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, Twilight, Hunger Games, et al.).
But Mike! My book is toooootally like Game of Thrones! It’s super-awesome and has dragons and ice zombies and stuff!
Then why should anyone read it if the Song of Ice and Fire has already been written?
Keep in mind that George R. R. Martin didn’t spring fully-formed from the head of some fantasy publishing god when HBO picked up his book to make a TV series out of it.
He was a fantasy editor and short story writer for years, one of the driving forces behind The Wild Cards shared-universe science-fiction anthologies that started publishing in 1987. He turned down Neil Gaiman’s short story pitch for that anthology because Gaiman lacked any solid credentials at the time. His first Song of Ice and Fire title, A Game of Thrones, was published in 1996, fifteen years before HBO aired the first episode of the first season on April 17, 2011. Publishers and agents want to know what you can do for them today, not what you might have done for them 20 or 30 years ago.
The point is, despite what a lot of hucksters will tell you, no one really knows the sure-fire formula for blockbuster success, and chances are the market is already saturated with imitators of those books.
But you do want to include well-known books with solid sales figures. Include title, author, release year, and a couple of sentences about the book and how yours is similar and would appeal to the same audience.
How to Format Your Comparables
For each entry in your comparable title analysis, begin by listing the title, subtitle, author, publisher, year of publication, page count, price, format, and the ISBN. If it has a specific edition number, include that, too. You don’t need to list things such as Amazon ranking, star rating, or reviews. Also don’t worry about including the sales numbers of the competing titles. There’s no way for an average author to find out that information, and the agent or editor can look it up if required.
Then comes the most important part: for each competitor, you briefly summarize the book’s approach in relation to your own (about 100-200 words per title). You should be able to clearly differentiate your title from the competition, and show why there’s a need for your book.
Resist trashing the competition; it will come back to bite you (remember, these are “comparables;” if all goes to plan, you might end up sharing a stage with those lads and lasses one day). And don’t skimp on your title research—editors can tell when you haven’t done your homework, and fully understanding the competition should help you write a better proposal.
I’m busy preparing for my book reading, discussion, and signing event next weekend, but look for my next post in this series, when we discuss the another important element of your fiction book proposal: Your Biography.
Meantime, write on! And if you happen to be in the New Jersey/New York/Pennsylvania tri-state area, please come by Black Dog Books in Newton, NJ on July 15 and say hello! I’ll be lurking about town before and after the event, so come early and/or stay late!