Thinking of writing a book? Get to know the competition first
It might feel a bit daunting, but it has to be done. Maybe you're nervous about discovering that someone else has already had the exact same book idea as you. Maybe you fear that there's nothing remotely like it, and therefore no market. But at some point, every non-fiction author needs to survey the market for potentially competing titles. This isn't just about finding out whether there's a gap in the market for your book, although that is important. It's also about looking at how other writers have approached your subject, to gain inspiration and also to understand the conventions of the genre, so that you can follow them – or break them – as you choose.
Prospective publishers will want a clear idea of how your book fits into the market, and what makes it different from recent competitors. This is particularly important in popular genres like cooking, craft or gardening. If you're self-publishing, before you put all the work and effort that's needed to produce and market your book, you'll want to feel confident that there is a market for it.
Find your niche
But you don't need to completely reinvent the wheel. If there are books similar to yours, it means that there's a market in that area, which is a good thing. You just need to be clear about how your book will be different. Perhaps it offers a new take on the same subject, or addresses a different readership. If you do find something very similar out there, and it has been published in the last few years, take that as a cue to frame your offering differently, and as an opportunity to move the subject on in a fresh way. Publishers and booksellers value novelty, so if you find something very similar that was published more than five years ago and does not appear to be selling well, it's probably nothing to worry about.
Have a strategy
Rather than idly browsing, it's a good idea to have a strategy for surveying the competition. First of all, search for all the books in your subject area that have been published in the last five years. When searching online, use a variety of search terms to make sure you find them all, and use the browsing categories to uncover any you might have missed. Then visit a few bookshops to see what's on the shelf in the area where you'd expect your book to be stocked. Once you've looked at books in the same subject area, try expanding out into similar but related topics. For example, if you were thinking about writing a book about making your own jewellery, you might also look at books about making your own clothes or accessories. This helps you understand any trends or conventions that might be useful for your own book. It also helps if you're familiar with other kinds of books that your prospective readers might have on their shelves. When you find a book on the same (or a similar) subject, have a close look.
Areas to look at
Is the title effective?
What overall tone does the book have? Is it friendly, authoritative, definitive, inspirational, hard-hitting, serious, academic?
What is the book's key mission?
What kind of person is the author (what's their level of experience/expertise/fame)?
How is the book organised and illustrated?
How is the material arranged within the chapters? Pages of continuous text, or shorter chunks of text?
How extensive/in-depth is its scope? What does it cover?
How recently was it published?
How well has it sold?
This final question can be tricky to find out, but you can get an idea from how often you see it in bookshops, how many reviews it has received online, and its sales ranking within its genre.
What conclusions can you draw?
Once you've gathered the information, look back over it to identify anything that might be useful for your project. For example, if all the books in your area are written by professionals and you're not a professional, how could you use your status in a positive way? Perhaps you could present your material as a quest to answer a burning question or find the best way of doing something. If similar books all assume that readers have some prior knowledge of the area, could you aim yours at beginners instead? If their tone is serious and academic, could you offer a more accessible or lighthearted take on the subject?
If the books in your subject area all tend to be organised in a similar way, should you do the same? Especially in complex subjects, it's sometimes helpful to follow some of the conventions of the genre, such as structure, to give your readers an anchor of familiarity that will help them navigate through complex ideas.
Your research into the competition will have shed new light on some of your key decisions about your book. In the light of your survey of similar titles, here are some things to reconsider about your project.
Title and structure
Does your title stand out?
Do you need a subtitle to help make the proposition clear?
Roughly how many chapters will there be in your book, and how long will each be?
What kind of chapter titles will you have? Ones that tell you exactly what the chapters contain or that are more indirect and designed to spark readers’ curiosity?
Will your book have divisions within chapters, or parts that group different chapters together? How will these help the reader get an overall sense of the book?
How will the material be arranged within the chapters? Pages of continuous text, or shorter chunks? Subheadings? Boxes?
Look and feel
How do you imagine the overall look of your book (accessible, contemporary, literary, playful, practical, thought-provoking, intriguing...)?
Will it contain illustrations or diagrams? If so, what is their function (persuade, create atmosphere, convey information...)?
What tone of writing will you be aiming for? Informal or formal? Humorous or serious?
Finally, don't forget to look at your own favourite non-fiction books for inspiration, even if they seem to have nothing in common with your idea. They might have helpful ideas or approaches to offer. After all, adapting existing ideas with a new approach or angle is what creativity is all about. Good luck!