If you’ve looked at the submission requirements for book proposals at scholarly presses, you’ve probably seen that they ask for “an account of your book’s relationship to comparable or competing works,” “a list of three or four competing books,” “a few of the books with which your book is comparable,” or something very similar. This list of comparable or competing titles is probably the thing that my clients most often misunderstand when they come to me for help with their book proposals. So let me break it down for you here.
The “comps” section of the proposal can feel mysterious because it looks kind of like something academics are familiar with—a literature review—but it actually doesn’t serve the same purpose at all. Much like most other aspects of the proposal, the comps section is about audience and market. When a publisher asks about “competing” or “comparable” works, what they really mean is “books that sold to the same types of people and in similar numbers as the one you are hoping to publish.” In other words, editors and presses use comps to try to get a sense of how well they can expect your book to sell and who they should be trying to sell it to.
“Complementary” is another good way to think of “comps,” because you don’t need to argue that people will buy your book instead of those other books. It’s smarter to make the case that people who have bought and liked the other books will have a compelling reason to buy yours as well. That means that you’ll want to establish that your book is different from these other books in some way, but there’s no burden to prove that your book is better. You don’t need to put down these other books or expose their intellectual shortcomings. You just need to show that they leave a gap in the market that your book is ready to fill.
How is the comps list different than a literature review? For one thing, publishers only care about recently published books, because those are the only ones that are truly comparable in terms of sales. A classic in the field isn’t really comparable to your book, even if your manuscript happens to be of similar quality, because it doesn’t get sold in the same way and people will buy it for different reasons than they will buy a fresh, new book. Listing recent books establishes that the people who are buying new books right now (or as close to right now as we can get) are interested in books like yours. Presses are also only interested in comparing books, not journal articles or other types of publications that are distributed differently than your book ultimately will be.
The information you provide about the comparable works is also different than what you would include in a lit review. Whereas a lit review might zero in on the fine minutia of data, theoretical framework, methodology, or conclusions of other scholarship, here you should be thinking in broad strokes about what attracts people to those books and how your book offers similar features and distinct ones. Aspects of your book that might make it stand out from similar ones on the market might include your topic, broad theoretical approach, research sites, objects, methods, or style. You might point out differences in scope between your book and other ones available: you might take a broad view of the phenomenon while other scholars have taken a narrower view, or vice versa; or there might be a wide-ranging multi-author volume on your topic while your book offers a sustained inquiry. If you think your book is written to be more teachable to undergraduates than a book on a similar topic, that would also be a good point to include.
However it is that your book differs from what’s out there, try to stay positive in your framing. As with people, what makes your book unique makes it special. And, as with people, just because another book is different doesn’t make it bad. (You might privately believe a competing title is garbage, but it’s best not to say it that way in your proposal. That book might be a favorite of the editor you’re pitching or its author might even be one of your reviewers.)
I’ll share a few more tips about comps this weekend. See you then!
Enrollment is now open for the 8–week fall session of the Manuscript Works book proposal accelerator. If you know anyone who wants to have a proposal draft ready to discuss with editors by this November, please spread the word!