Competitive Titles: Step 5 of How to Write a Compelling Nonfiction Book Proposal in 10 Easy Steps

How to Write a Nonfiction Book ProposalAnyone who’s written a nonfiction book proposal will probably tell you that proposal writing is more difficult than writing the actual manuscript. After all, you’re an expert on the subject you’re writing about, and sharing that knowledge is fun, but putting on your marketing hat to write the proposal often presents some unique challenges for writers, and facing your competition is one of those.

After all, you’re an expert on the subject you’re writing about, and sharing that knowledge is fun, but putting on your marketing hat to write the proposal often presents some unique challenges for writers. Facing your competition is one of those.

Your book proposal needs to convince the literary agents you query, and ultimately acquisition editors (who decide whether or not to bring your proposal forward for consideration through several vetting steps), why this book will stand out in a sea of other books about your subject, and why you are the perfect author to write this book.

This section of the proposal shouldn’t overwhelm you. This is actually another place for you to let your book shine and show your expertise about your subject—you just need to remember a few things.

Things to Do:

  1. Research the competition and understand how your book fits in the market. Your book will be shelved next to other books in the genre; your book will come up in an online search as one of many in the genre. This section of the proposal is where you discuss the differences between your book and the others. If you’re writing about a subject that has plenty of competition to choose from, list 5−10 books, but if your subject is very niche, think outside the box a little and come up with at least two or three comp titles. Even if your book is truly unique, find and list books that are similar to yours; for example, if you are shopping a book about baking gluten-free treats for goldfish, you probably won’t have a lot of competition, but compare and contrast your book to others about homemade pet food, raising healthy fish, and food allergies in pets.
  2. Help your (future) editor sell your idea. The editor who falls in love with your proposal has to present it to the rest of the editorial staff and the sales and marketing departments, so give that editor all the ammunition he or she needs. Give a brief description of the comp title and then explain how yours is different/better/more comprehensive/more in-depth/more diverse/more focused—you get the idea—and always make it a positive comparison.
  3. Consider other sources readers will use to find the information in your book. A wise man I know says, “We carry the Library of Alexandria in our phones.” In other words, it’s pretty easy these days to do a search on a subject and find blog posts, free and for-pay articles, and websites offering some or all the information that is found in your book. This is another place a strong author platform will help you: discuss why you (as an authority on your subject) are and will continue to be a go-to source for information.
  4. Use recently published books. This is a strong suggestion, but not a hard and fast rule. By that, I mean editors want to see recent sales for books in your genre, so limiting your comp titles to books published within the last five years is a good idea, but if there is a bestseller that continues to sell year after year, don’t be afraid to include it. For most books, though, the more recent, the better.
  5. Use traditionally published books. Traditional book publishers are gradually coming around to the idea that self-published books are here to stay, but most of them don’t consider self-published books as competition for a variety of reasons, including the unavailability of sales figures through Bookscan (an industry service that tracks about 70% of sales). So unless the only competition is a self-published book, I advise against using one.
  6. Look carefully at the categories listed for your competitive titles. is a great place to find most of the information for this section of your proposal, and you’ll also receive a good education in category placement. If your book covers two genres, it’s especially important to show how both categories will appeal to readers. In What’s Your Book?, using the example of a food-and-running book, Brooke Warner writes,

It’s okay to say that there’s not another book that approaches the subject of running from the vantage point of food and cooking, and then to showcase the most popular food memoirs and most popular running books. This is a double whammy, since it will effectively prove to the publisher that both categories are good sellers and your book appeals to both markets.”

And Some Don’ts: 

  1.  Don’t let the competition intimidate you. You’re a professional writer, not a participant in a popularity contest. The success of others does not mean there isn’t room for you; in fact, one of the reasons publishers look carefully at your competition is to determine whether or not the subject matter sells well enough to take a chance on a book that is similar.
  2. Don’t compare yourself to the #1 best seller in your category. I know I said in #4 above that you could use a big seller, but be careful to distinguish your book. When I was an editor at a traditional publisher, I read proposal after proposal for memoirs that were compared to a memoir about abuse the publisher had released years before; the proposals discussed abuse that was “More horrific than that book,” but that comparison did nothing to further the author’s chances. The memoir in question continues to be a big backlist seller, but we weren’t looking for another version of it.
  3. Don’t trash the competition. Nothing screams “amateur” like a writer who denigrates someone else’s work. Compare and contrast in as positive a manner as possible, and show how the market will benefit from your book. Who knows? You might sell your project to the publisher of one of your competitive titles!
  4. Don’t say there’s nothing like your book on the market. Unique features are wonderful, and you should absolutely point out those in your book, but as Michael Larsen puts it,

If you come up with an idea for a book that has never been done, it means one of two things:

  • You’ve created a great opportunity.
  • There’s a reason it’s never been done before.”

You won’t trick editors with that line, either. They acquire books in certain genres and know the competition. Your job is to educate yourself so you can offer reasons why your book is the one the market still needs. You want to impress agents and editors, but you also want to be realistic and credible. Just like your marketing plan shouldn’t lead off with “I’ll go on Oprah,” your competitive titles shouldn’t simply be a list of New York Times bestsellers.

The Competitive Title section of your book proposal must make your publisher’s job easier when it comes time to sell your book. Michael Larsen goes on to say,

Editors must prove to their editorial board that a book can stand up to the heat of competing books. . . . Your ability to place your book in the context of competing books is essential to selling it.”

So now that you’ve found the competitive titles you’ll use in your proposal, what other information do you need to provide? If you’re submitting directly to a publisher, be sure you follow the submission guidelines, but if you’re shopping for an agent, here’s the information you’ll need to include:

  • Each book’s full title and subtitle
  • Author
  • Publisher and year of publication
  • Number of pages
  • Format (hardcover, paperback, mass market)
  • Trim size
  • ISBN 13
  • Price

Keep your descriptions brief, factual, and positive, highlight the strengths of your book in comparison to your competition, and help your agent, editor, publisher, sales team, and bookseller say YES to your book!

Do's and don'ts of the competitive titles section of your #nonfiction book proposal #nonfiction #amquerying Click To Tweet

I’ve read hundreds of book proposals as an acquisitions editor for a traditional publisher and helped many authors write them, too. I know how carefully agents, editors, and publishers’ sales and marketing staffs review proposals, and I’ve tried to share that information with you. If you have specific questions about writing any part of your book proposal, I hope you’ll email me at and let me know how I can help.

Happy Writing,


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Candace Johnson is a professional freelance editor, proofreader, writer, ghostwriter, and writing coach who has worked with traditional publishers, self-published authors, and independent book packagers on nonfiction subjects ranging from memoirs to alternative medical treatments to self-help, and on fiction ranging from romance to paranormal. As an editorial specialist, Candace is passionate about offering her clients the opportunity to take their work to the next level. She believes in maintaining an author’s unique voice while helping him or her create and polish every sentence to make it the best it can be. Learn more here.

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