Book Proposal Basics: How to Do the Competition Right

Are you a first-time author who wants to traditionally publish a nonfiction book? You’ll need to write a nonfiction book proposal, a detailed sales pitch to a publisher showing that your book can succeed.

One section of a book proposal — the competition section —  is where you tell the publisher what your book is up against even before it gets to market. This is vital to your book’s success; addressing books similar to or in conversation with yours asserts that your book has a place in the publishing world and that you are an expert on what’s out there in your field.

5 things to keep in mind when writing your book proposal:

1. Know that you DO have competition.

What? No other book out of the millions published since the dawn of man has dealt with the subject matter of your book? Are you really the first person to write about this topic? The catch is, if that’s really true, then all that tells a publisher is that there is no market for your book. No market = no book contract. In a way, you want to hope your book has competition. Competition pushes you to really assess how you can enlighten readers in ways they’ve never been enlightened before.

2. Embrace positivity.

Don’t trash the competition. This is bad form, on top of just being a bad idea. It’s tempting to say how badly such-and-such book handles your subject matter and how your book is far superior, but think of this: what if the editor or agent of the book you’re trashing is reading your proposal? Do you think they’d be inclined to want to buy your book? Instead, show how your book handles the topic differently, or expands on what’s already been done, or adds new information.

3. Do your homework.

In other words: Don’t copy and paste the book’s description from Amazon. Talk about lazy — and talk about something that publishers will see as the mark of an amateur right away. If you didn’t take the time to explore the shelves of a brick and mortar bookstore, comb through a genre or category, buy books, read them yourself and make your own conclusions about what the competing book is about, how do you think a publisher will trust you to do the work necessary to write your own book?

4. Choose your titles wisely.

Don’t use self published books. This is just common sense. Choose books that held their ground in the traditional publishing world, not a self published book that didn’t make enough waves to get picked up by a publishing house. Remember, especially in today’s publishing world, every publisher is only seeking books that make a big impact. Bonus: Include books that have been recognized, e.g. earned the title of a New York Times Bestseller.

And, keep it timely. Don’t choose titles from 50 years ago. Your goal is to show that there is a current conversation in the zeitgeist that a publisher has to tap into immediately. One exception: If a book is a stand-out classic in its field — e.g. Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus — that’s okay to include.

5. Keep it short and sweet.

Don’t list a library. Five or six titles will do. The more energy you dedicate to writing great synopses of a few books will definitely build a stronger argument than spreading yourself too thin over 10+ books.

Remember, the key to finessing any book proposal is following through every step of the way. And, if you think you need extra help, consider hiring a developmental editor to guide you. Good luck and happy writing!

Those were five ways to write a winning book proposal. Find out 45 more ways to give your book an edge. Just sign up for my weekly newsletter and you’ll receive Special Report: 50 Ways to Stay Out of the Rejection Pile as my gift to you.

18 comments on “Book Proposal Basics: How to Do the Competition Right

  • I feel liek there is a fine line between “Don’t trash” and “critique.” Is it still stepping over the line if we say something along the lines of “This book does x,y,z well but not abc?”

    And, your website is very nice.

    • Hi there,

      Thanks for reaching out — and I’m happy you like the website. You bring up a good point. Again, the aim of this section is to show publishers (a) there is a healthy market for your book, and (b) your book will stand out in that market. Thankfully, this doesn’t require a necessarily negative critique, but rather a thoughtful, detailed, honest deconstruction of what makes this book your competition.

      Hope that helps,
      Diane

  • I have to say, #1 is spot on. I’ve published two nonfiction books and that concept that this idea I’ve worked such long, mind rattling hours to make unique actually, in fact, is not unique was hard to grasp. But, it’s so true — it’s about making your book marketable yet valuable, fresh and new. Every person in every field has competition. It’s about finding a way to contribute, yet stand out to your specific kind of audience.

    • Hi Sebastien,

      Thanks for sharing your concern. To answer your question: it’s not a bad idea. Too many authors give short shrift to the Competition and Comparison section of their proposals — either because they become so discouraged by the competition, or because they don’t understand why it’s a necessary part of the proposal. The aim is to show publishers (a) there is a healthy market for your book, and (b) your book will stand out in that market. The best way to achieve this is to truly know the market through and through. This is why I encourage first-time authors to at least read the books in their field completely. That will better set you up to know how to bring something new to the table, and convince a publisher that you know what you’re talking about.

      Hope that helps!
      Diane

  • FINALLY, a step-by-step like this! I’m so anxious when it comes to getting book proposals right. I’ve actually been putting it off for quite some time. These are very specific tips. I feel calmer already!!!!

  • Isn’t it a bit preposterous to say in a book proposal that my book is in the same category as a stand out book like Gray’s Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus? I can’t figure out if it shows strength or if it marks you as a bit delusional. Perhaps I am too humble.

    • Hi,

      This is a very solid point. However, I think Diane’s 3rd point (Do your homework) speaks to the importance of knowing a competing book through and through, to the point where a thorough, well-written exploration is enough to sway any publisher from thinking you’re just tossing a famous book into the mix. Don’t you think? I say, go for it! It doesn’t hurt, as long as the book description covers all the right points.

      • Hello,

        Thanks for chiming in! Take a look at my response to Altynai and I think you’ll see that I agree very much with your point. “Tossing a book into the mix” is certainly amateurish; striving for a well-researched, well-written explanation is superb.

    • Hi Altynai,

      Thanks for contributing to the conversation. I think you bring up an excellent point, and one that certainly brings up a lot of confusion for first-time authors. You do want to avoid coming off as an amateur to any agent or publisher. However, your book proposal is your opportunity to argue that your book IS worth a second look. If your book’s idea and execution stands up to it, sometimes it is appropriate to include famous, groundbreaking titles. However, again — ensure you do your homework about this book, and are able to pinpoint exactly how your book is in conversation with it. If you write a high quality, thoughtful summary, you should be in the clear.

      Great question. Let me know if you have any others!

  • Hi Diane and Write to Sell Your Book: I found this post/blog via Twitter and I have to say this was a great find. Great tips, I love how specific it is for applying to my dream of traditionally publishing a book. I know that nonfiction books are much more involved proposals than fiction, which is why I am quite intimidated. But I am enjoying this very much.

    • Hello,

      Welcome! I’m so happy with the connections we’ve forged over Twitter and I’m thrilled you’ve found it to be a good resource. That’s my goal. To address your point about Nonfiction book proposals: Nonfiction proposals are certainly more involved. Be sure to read my free Special Report (my gift to you here: http://www.1shoppingcart.com/app/join.asp?merchantid=205293) to get a clear step-by-step. Hope that helps!

  • Solid, informative tips. I think authors of any genre can benefit from what you say here. Great things to keep in mind. We don’t live, write or read in a bubble, people!

  • Hi Diane,

    I’m so refreshed by the specificity of these points. I stumbled upon your blog via writing experts I follow on Twitter, and this was a wonderful find. These posts actually function as mini lessons.

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