Making the Leap from Great Idea to Book Proposal Part 2: Know Thy Competition
By Sage Cohen
Last month we laid the groundwork for your book proposal with the thinking, dreaming, reading and team-building that could take you to the starting gate. If you’ve done your homework, you’ll have three key accomplishments under your belt:
- You’re clear about your book concept: what it’s about, whom it’s for, why it matters today and why you’re the best person to share it with the world.
- You have read a how-to-write-a-book-proposal book such as Nonfiction Book Proposals Anybody Can Write by Elizabeth Lyon.
- You have created a dream team to support you in your proposal development process.
Great work! Now you’re ready to venture into the realm of competitive research.
Knowing how you measure up to what’s out there before you start writing your proposal is a critical step in clarifying your unique niche. This can also help ensure that you are not reinventing a wheel that’s already on the bookshelf! Before you even start thinking about putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), I recommend spending some time in bookstores–in your community and online–to take a good, long look at what’s out there on your topic. Take detailed notes while you’re at it. This will inform the “About the Competition” section a little later.
Let’s say your topic is dog training. What do you have to offer that Cesar Milan hasn’t covered? How is your audience different than his? (Maybe you’re targeting single, urban women.) How is your approach different than his? (Maybe you’ve found that women exhibit pack leadership in a unique way that requires a different set of skills, which you’re teaching.) See where I’m going with this? When you know the range of books that exist on your topic already and how your idea is similar and different, you’ll be able to contextualize where your project might fit in today’s book market.
A note of warning: In my experience, it’s easy to get intimidated during this phase of the game. Looking at a published book on the shelf, you can jump to the conclusion that your topic has already been covered exhaustively by someone far more impressive than you are. However, chances are good that you offer an angle or approach that is uniquely your own. And the truth is that the author whose book you’re holding was once in your situation, most likely just as unsure as you are. I recommend that you suspend any disbelief about your own place in the hallowed halls of authorship and instead focus on letting all of your great ideas flow.
Once you’ve confirmed that you have a valid concept that offers something new to the conversation in your field of expertise, it’s time to write that book proposal! In the next installment, we’ll discuss how to maximize every free minute and every stroke of genius to create a polished, powerful proposal in just one month.
Sage Cohen is the author of Writing the Life Poetic, a creative companion for poets forthcoming from Writer’s Digest Books, and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World. Her poetry and essays appear in journals and anthologies including Oregon Literary Review, Cup of Comfort for Writers, Greater Good and VoiceCatcher. In 2006, she won first prize in the Ghost Road Press annual poetry contest. Sage holds an MA in creative writing from New York University where she was awarded a New York Times Foundation fellowship. For organizations including Writers on the Rise and Willamette Writers, Sage teaches poetry writing and publishing workshops. Visit Sage at www.sagesaidso.com.