By Nancy Peske

The comparative books list is a crucial element in a successful book proposal. While all the pieces of a proposal are important, the comparative books list (sometimes called the competitive books list) is your best tool for convincing an agent or an in-house acquisitions editor that your book will stand out in the marketplace and add something new while appealing to an established book-buying audience. How do I know this? Because as in in-house editorial assistant at HarperCollins Publishers several years ago, it was my job to check out the comparative books lists in book proposals my boss was considering to see if there was any way to strengthen them, which would make it easier for us to “sell” the book to the rest of the book publishing team (the marketing director, the subsidiary rights director, the sales director, etc.). In-house, the editorial department is less concerned with how many people fit into the demographic your book is addressing than the sales figures for books that appeal to that particular audience. If a publisher has never published, say, a book on leadership in the corporate world, they won’t care how many leaders in the corporate world are potential book buyers unless the house has already decided to take the plunge into this area of publishing. And if that’s the case, they’ve already looked at the demographics. They just want to know “Can we sell a book to these folks?” They’ll compare your books to other books, and research what those other books’ sales figures are, to get a sense of how well your book might sell.

One way to describe how your book compares to others is to say it can be boiled down to “It’s like X meets Y”: “It’s like The Help meets The Glass Castle.” Some editors are jaded about these types of pitches. Believe me, twice a day they see a book being compared to Eat, Pray, Love, and many are quite cranky about books being compared to bestsellers, so avoid that common mistake. However, the “X meets Y” comparison can be helpful to them. More importantly, you need to be able to describe your book succinctly and make it sound fresh, original, and important. If an in-house acquisitions editor knows the market for your type of book very well, she may immediately see the appeal of your book and its audience—and then she may tell her colleagues about comparative books that prove yours has potential to reach book buyers, too. However, in my experience, it’s best to make her job of “selling” your book to her colleagues and bosses easier by creating a terrific comparative books list in a compare-and-contrast format.

To do so, you must research other similar books that are already in the marketplace. Go to the bookstore or check them out online, and familiarize yourself with them. Then, you’ll need to choose 3-5 successful books that are like yours in some way, yet different. Chose ones that have been published recently or that are older but selling very nicely. Pay attention to whether they’ve been updated, had multiple printings, or have a high ranking on or despite not being recently published. Stick with books that are closely related to your topic. What other similar books might your ideal reader have purchased recently? Why would that reader want your book, too?

In a few sentences, explain the attraction of the successful books you’ve listed, and why your book would appeal to that audience as well while offering something different. If there are hundreds of books on environmentally friendly “green” cleaning that your book Cleaning Your Car Without Hurting the Environment will appeal to, you might choose the top “green cleaning” books for comparison. However, then you must make the case that people who wash their cars care about being “green,” to the point that they’d buy a book on the topic rather than just research it online and read a short article or two. Is this a book for owners of vintage and collectible cars who are picky about the products they use, and who have shown they will buy books on car care and are interested in protecting the environment? Or do you need to rethink your book’s topic and audience?

Keep in mind that an in-house acquisitions editor will research books on your topic or in your genre as well to make sure that your book hasn’t already been “done.” He’ll have some access to information about books that are “in the pipeline,” that is, books that are under contract at other publishing houses and not yet on the bookshelves. You may not realize that yours is the fourth book on green cleaning for cars to be submitted to that publishing house in a week, and that there are three similar books coming out six months from now. That’s why it’s crucial to know the market and to be aware of trends. You can’t come into the game too late and expect a publisher to get excited about a topic that is already fading in popularity. Use your comparative books list to show that you’ve truly got something new to offer book buyers a year from now when the book comes out.

Now, what’s “new” may be your approach or voice. Make the case that your way of handling the topic will give your book the edge it needs in a field that may be crowded.

In your comparative books list, please don’t badmouth other books! You can point out their weaknesses and what they’re missing, but do it in a positive way. You never know whether an editor and agent is a huge fan of the book you’re criticizing, or even served as its editor! Be proud of your “baby” but recognize the value of the other books in your genre that have paved the way for yours to achieve success.