After brainstorming a great new idea for a nonfiction book, one of the most important questions to ask yourself is “What can I add to this topic?”
To find out, you must check Amazon.com or take a trip to a couple of bookstores to find out what’s already been published about your subject.
Agent Djana Pearson Morris says, “Take a serious look at the competition– if someone’s already done it well, or if there’s a glut of books on the subject, this may not be a book that will be able to stand out in the market, hence it will be of little interest to publishers, regardless of its attributes.”
Pay no mind to the out-of-print books, vanity-published titles, or e-books, because traditional publishers won’t consider them competition and general readers are unlikely to have read them. But do pay close attention to anything that’s on bookstore shelves today.
Ask yourself if there’s a need and a demand for more information on the topic. For example, even if you have great insights to add, the world probably doesn’t need more than one book about how to properly water a fern. Sure, I’m using an absurd example, but if your book has a limited potential audience, how hungry is this audience for new information? Would anyone buy two books about how to water a fern?
If not—and bookstores already stock one—stores will be unlikely to stock a second one. “We already have a fern book,” they’ll tell the sales rep. “What else have you got?”
Some topics, however, have dedicated audiences who will happily buy more than one book, provided the books each offer something the others don’t.
Take my latest book as an example—Make a Real Living as a Freelance Writer. I knew there were already plenty of books about freelance writing. And just the fact that I was going to write a book on the topic in my own style would not be good enough. Just the fact that I could use some personal examples that the others hadn’t was not enough, either.
Publishers knew it was a crowded market, but they also knew that writers don’t need just one book about freelance writing; it’s likely that they’ll read a handful of books on the topic, and it’s worthwhile for them to do so. There are plenty of ways to be successful as a freelance writer, and different perspectives on how to break in or to stay successful.
So my job was to convince a publisher (and readers) that my book would offer something substantively different from what the other books offered, or that I would take over where other books left off.
There would be some required overlap, of course—you can’t write a book about magazine writing without ever explaining what a query letter is or what types of rights a publication may buy, so you’ll probably find that in every book for magazine writers. But the key to selling my book was figuring out what I could add to the already-vast mounds of literature on the topic.
I realized that I found my success as a writer somewhat differently from the other authors I’d read. I had broken most of the rules in the other books for writers, and I had bent the rest of them. And I realized that, at the time I proposed it, no other book for freelance writers had current information about the way magazines “really” worked since the Internet came along. No one else was discussing e-mail queries or how to figure out an editor’s e-mail address. No one was addressing the issue of how to send out clips electronically, or what sites to visit to find interviewees and experts for articles.
On top of that, nearly all of the books were meant for beginners. I couldn’t find books that reliably showed me how to go from getting my first few credits to moving on and actually making a career at it—becoming a columnist or a contributing editor at a major magazine, for instance.
So in my proposal, I stressed the things I would add: a more timely perspective, an alternative to the rules other books laid out, and a slant toward the intermediate writer rather than the beginner.
As an author, you don’t just do these things because it’ll help you sell a proposal to a publisher; you also do it for the reader. I’ve been mighty frustrated when I’ve spent hard-earned money on a book, only to find that it regurgitates the same information I’ve found in other books, magazines, or online. Your obligation as an author is to cherish your readers, and to make them happy with their decision to buy your books. Otherwise, don’t expect them to follow you to the next book, and don’t expect to build any word-of-mouth buzz.
A few chapters of new information in a book that’s otherwise filled with information easily available elsewhere just isn’t enough to justify the cover price of books today. So, aside from your (certainly engaging) writing style and personal anecdotes, how will you add to a reader’s knowledge in a way that justifies the hard work he put in to earn the money to buy your book? Here are some possibilities:
– Can you slant it for a specific group of people within the category’s market that the others haven’t? For example, while there were plenty of books for screenwriters on the market, there weren’t any geared toward young people—so Christina Hamlett wrote ScreenTEENwriters just for them.
– Can you talk to people who disagree with what “experts” have said on the topic?
– Can you find out recent developments that have changed the accuracy of information in other books?
– Can you offer a significantly different perspective on the topic?
– Can you expand on a little-known or little-written-about aspect of the topic?
– Can you perform real-life experiments that show the results of theoretical discussions in other books?
– Can you make it interesting and relevant to a group of people who wouldn’t normally pick up a book on the topic? (Adding humor to a book about punctuation, for example, helped Eats, Shoots and Leaves author Lynn Truss pique the interest of more than a million people who never would have thought of buying a book about punctuation before.)
What makes your book different is what makes it important. Ask yourself what you can add, and you may just have yourself a bestseller in the making.
Jenna Glatzer is the editor-in-chief of Absolute Write (www.absolutewrite.com). She has written for hundreds of national and online magazines, including Physical, Woman’s World, Woman’s Own, Salon.com, and Contemporary Bride. She’s a contributing editor at Writer’s Digest and her latest book is MAKE A REAL LIVING AS A FREELANCE WRITER, which you can find at www.jennaglatzer.com. Find out how to get a FREE editors’ cheat sheet with this book!