Your Book is Not Unique: Market Research and Why It Matters

There’s a strange sort of tension that exists when writing a book. On the one hand, it needs to be a book that hasn’t been written before; it needs a new angle, an unexpected switch, or a rarely-addressed but important theme. At the same time, though, publishers don’t publish and people don’t buy completely unique books. There’s probably some complex psychological reason why, but it boils down to the fact that we’re more likely to spend money on something when we have a preconceived notion as to how it will benefit us.

From the publisher’s perspective, when an author tells us their book is “unlike anything available,” we immediately know you haven’t done any market research. Having three or four titles to compare to your proposal helps us understand a few things:

Your understanding of your target audience and ideal reader
How similar books have sold, and therefore how your potential sales might line up
The audience’s interest in the topic or approach
What other writers are already respected in this space

So how do you pick helpful comp titles? You may not find two similar-sized Granny Smiths to compare to each other, but you should be able to find material for an apples-to-apples comparison.

Start with the theme or topic for non-fiction; genre and demographic for fiction. Look for partial overlap.
Explore books by the voices your target audience listens to, even on different topics.
Use key words from your book and see what they pull up on Amazon or Google.
And when you find a comp title that looks useful, scroll down to the “you might also be interested in” section.

Once you have a few titles selected, read as much of their description, content, and reviews as you can. Then prepare a few sentences to compare and contrast each title with your book.

Let’s take an example: the nonexistent book I worked up for another article over at the Catholic Writers Guild blog. J. Alfred Prufrock is pitching a 65,000 word manuscript to Michaelangelo Press. He wrote Coffee Spoons and Mermaids to discuss the increasing lack of meaningful relationships among men in their 30s. The book isn’t a memoir or autobiography, though Prufrock does discuss his own feckless life. He intends it for the target demographic of 30 to 40-year-old men, with a secondary audience of mothers who are tired of cooking meals for their adult sons.

Good old J. Alfred is going to start by doing a keyword search for “relationship books for men”, “relationship advice for men”, “books on dating”, and “adult children at home”. He’ll discover that two men with large Twitter followings have been speaking on this topic: Cyrano de Bergerac and Miles Standish, both of whom have written self-help books. J. Alfred also discovers a book that gets referenced a lot in online conversations about his theme: Basement Romance: How to Find the Woman of Your Dreams Without Getting Off the Couch.

J. Alfred then reviews the table of contents, marketing text, introduction, and a few pages of each book. He writes up the following descriptions in the “Marketing Comparisons” section of the proposal document for Michaelangelo Press:

Basement Romance: How to Find the Woman of Your Dreams Without Getting Off the Couch, by Alfred Yankovic — This book is the primary resource for my target demographic on this topic. However, it has not been updated for about fifteen years, and does not include more recent expert advice. In addition, it relies on tips like “buying a telescope” which is not well-received by modern women.

Courtship Catastrophes, by Miles Standish and John Alden — Standish and Alden focus on the concept of “wingmen” and the role of friendship in romance. I will cover this topic in a single chapter, but Coffee Spoons and Mermaids deals more with the broad scope of cultural issues.

Cyrano: A Life in Letters, by Cyrano de Bergerac — De Bergerac’s title is a comic autobiography which includes sidebars of relationship advice. While the audience and purpose is similar to Coffee Spoons and Mermaids, my tone conveys an authoritative gravitas.

On the flip side, the publisher will look at these comparisons and decide if Prufrock has enough of a platform to reach the same audience as these big-name authors, explore whether there’s really room for another book on this topic, and perhaps encourage Prufrock to lighten up a bit since no one wants to read similes along the lines of “When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table.”