Serious book proposals (6): ‘competing’ books
Publishers routinely ask prospective authors for information about what the former call competing books.
The paradigm case occurs in textbook publishing. Each academic or professional course is likely to adopt only one textbook as its primary reference. Thus textbooks exist in a state of genuine competition: typically several books are available, but only one will be preferred.
It makes good sense in this case to provide detailed analysis and evaluation of each competitor and to provide explicit comparison and contrast to bring out what makes the proposed book distinctive and what advantages it offers.
With other types of books, it is less certain that they are in competition. Take, for example, a book on how to write a novel. Some wannabe novelists may indeed be prepared to buy just one book. Thus there is competition. But some may buy more than one – it’s not uncommon for readers in the how-to market to buy multiple copies. In this case, it may sense to think of other titles as comparable books rather than necessarily competition.
This is more unequivocally the case with monographs. Someone who reads a monograph on the causes of the Great War may read many other monographs on the subject. Isn’t that the kind of thing that scholars do?
It may even be that each book helps to create a market for other books. For one thing, the publication of numerous books on a topic helps to demonstrate that the topic matters. For another, each monograph is likely to discuss, critique, or at least cite other monographs, thus leading the reader on to explore those titles too. In this case, it makes more sense to think not of competing titles, but of complementary titles.
Be that as it may, the stock term of publishers is ‘competing titles’, so that is the phrase one must use — but that is a matter of phraseology only.
In the review of other titles, the prospective author must identify the distinctive advantage of the proposed book. Authors commonly fall into three pitfalls here.
The first is to claim that there aren’t many competing titles. That is a mistake. The publisher’s sales department will infer that, if there aren’t many titles, there can’t be much of a market. In that case, the proposal will fail.
The second pitfall is to assume that the proposed book must be wholly, or at least radically, original. Note that thorough-going originality can be a bad thing: it can make a book difficult to explain to the market. And, in any case, it isn’t necessary. All that is needed is for your book to offer some distinctive, and distinctive, advantage.
The third pitfall is to adopt a zero-sum mentality: to present my proposed book as good, I must present all the others as bad! This move has serious disadvantages. It is dishonest and it presents the prospective author as negative rather than balanced. It also doesn’t go down well if the publisher uses as a peer-reviewer the author of one of the books you’ve slagged off.
Be honest; be generous. Identify what each ‘competing’ title does and bring out the distinctive strengths of each. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
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