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Check out the competition.

Elite athletes know all about their competition. They are acutely aware of the 800-meter runner who took out the last world championship and is tipped to do the same again this year, or the freestyle swimmer who scooped up gold at the last Olympics but suffered a stress fracture six months ago. Naturally, they need to know who they are up against.

So how about you? As a writer, do you know who your competition is?

Maybe you’ve never thought about it. If not, now is a great time to start.

Any publisher worth its salt is keenly aware of competing titles on the market and how their own author’s work stands out. Take Berrett Koehler, an independent publisher in Oakland, CA. In their submission guidelines, they ask authors to include an analysis of competing books:

What are the five most competitive or similar publications, and how—specifically—does the proposed publication differ from and go beyond each of them? Please describe your proposed publication's new contribution in considerable detail—this is a central issue.

What are “comp” titles?

This is a term you’ll often hear literary agents and editors use. It can mean competitive, or complementary. The difference between them can be subtle, and some books are a bit of both.

Competitive titles: Books that directly compete for your target audience’s attention.

Complementary titles: Books your target audience might also read that would complement the ideas in your book.

How to identify competitive and complementary titles

Let’s face it: if you’re writing a book on a particular topic, you are an expert. That means you’ve already read many other books on the topic. So start by making a list based on what you know right now.

Then take it a step further. You may not be familiar with all of the similar books on the market, especially new ones. And the newest books matter. Their authors are heavily promoting them, so they might compete with your book even more than some of the classic bestsellers.

1. Hit Google: Search specific key terms relevant to your book and add “book,” “new book,” or “bestselling book” to the end of the search term. Start by identifying key terms you would expect readers to use to search for your book.

2. Explore Amazon: Search Amazon using the same key terms you used on Google. Click through the book or ebook categories and look at the bestsellers in the subcategories that are most relevant to your book.

3. Use lists: Every year, business media publish “best of” articles. Best books on leadership, best books on management, best books on strategy, best books on marketing. Other sites do the same but with a different focus. Those lists might just be attention grabs, but sometimes they’re thoughtful and revealing.

4. Walk into your local bookstore: Nothing beats being able to pick books off the shelf and leaf through them to see how they are laid out, what the cover shows, even how the bookseller has categorized them.

How to use what you learn

1. Test your book’s premise: Is it unique enough? Would your marketing copy sound just like one of the books you’ve identified? What should you do about that?

2. Add depth to your ideas: Complementary books are great places to look for quotes and excerpts to bolster or add credibility to your own ideas.

3. Complete your book proposal: If you’re creating a book proposal, this information is critical, and is usually captured in a separate section on “comp” titles. Here, you can highlight how these other titles demonstrate the need for your own book. Perhaps one title dives deep in a specific area but skims over another, while a second comp title addresses one demographic but doesn’t the needs of another.

Set yourself a goal this month to do an analysis of the competition for your book. And send me a message or leave a comment to let me know how it goes!

Image by Thomas Wolter from Pixabay

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