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3 Ways publishers evaluate book proposals and query letters

Coming to want to author a book is a slow process. There is likely ruminating, rethinking, internal debating, conflicting feelings, competing agendas, to say the least. Rarely, is it a moment of inspiration and then sudden action. Part of the decision process is thinking about what is already available on the market. Many prospective authors will say, "there is nothing like this on the market. No competition.” This is very rarely true. There is usually some book, or more likely books, that your idea is standing on the shoulders of, wanting to reach higher. Also, the competition for some customer might be to buy nothing at all.

Knowing the competition is an essential step. Looking at these books or textbooks (I usually suggest it only be the in-print ones), takes time. I recommend getting a recent copy of the actual competition and dedicating some solid quiet time to reflecting on what these books do right, and where they fall short. Be honest about their good points.

Publishers are looking for original ideas, which are easier to market and sell. If it takes four paragraphs versus four sentences to explain your concept, you might lose some potential users or buyers. Being able to succinctly explain your project is key. Practice it.

Also important is the difference between your potential project and the others in the field. Many authors are, essentially, pitching their project as follows: “My book will be like the Smith book, but up-to-date with the new developments in the field.” Or, “It will be like the Smith book but better because of X, Y, and Z.” Be able to speak in knowledgeable fashion about, in this case, the Smith book, but be prepared to take the jump to separate yours.

Years before the current movement, I heard people in publishing refer to projects like this as Me Too books. These works essentially were saying, “The Smith book is popular. Our publishing house doesn’t have one on that topic. So, here is the Smith book with a different slant, or newer, or cheaper, or by a different author, or with more bells and whistles.”

To be clear, I have been that publisher that tried to fill a hole in a company’s line with just such a book. There is a business case to be made for it. But when you are considering being an author, I strongly encourage you to know your competition and then using it is a jumping off point. Not only build a better mouse trap but take a whole innovative approach to the subject matter and the way it is taught. Have a defining aspect to what you intend to do, your unique selling proposition. This approach should cause readers and customers when they hear it to pause, and immediately say, “I see where you are going. Nice idea.”

It may sound like a tall order, but what it really requires is a thorough knowledge of your field and time spent deeply investigating what is currently available. Then think about how you want to change the world.

Republished from the TAA Blog


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