Competitive titles: how to write a convincing book proposal

For most nonfiction authors, a book proposal is one of the most difficult texts they ever have to write. What makes it worse: you don’t get any practice and the stakes are very high. The chances of your book getting published with your dream publisher rise and fall with the strength of your proposal. And though it seems like a very confusing ask, the competitive titles section plays a huge role in the success of your proposal. So today, I thought I’d demystify this comp titles or comparative titles section, by telling you the why… And the how in two simple steps. 

In this blog post series, I teach you how to write a good book proposal that agents and publishers will love. We discuss what to include in a book proposal, and how to make every element in your book proposal stand out. (If you want to start from the beginning, follow this link to the first post in the series.) 

And as I said: today we talk about the comp titles (also: comparative titles or competitive titles). So let’s dive right in with the question on everyone’s mind: why do publishers care who I compare my work to anyway? 

The purpose of competitive titles

The “Competitive Titles” section often gives people anxieties. But it doesn’t have to! What helps is to realize that the publisher wants the answer to two questions in the comparative titles section: 

  1. Is there a market for this book? Is this the type of book that is currently being sold?
  2. Within the market, will people buy your book rather than the books that are already out there?

Don’t fall for this common mistake in the competitive titles!

In the comp titles section, people often make the mistake of saying that there are no competitive titles. They feel that the new ideas and methods in their book make it completely unique. And they think that that is a strength. So they feel that the best thing they can do in the competitive titles section is to say: there are none.

But if you look at the first question I posed, you’ll see that that is actually not your best bet. If there’s no book like yours out there, if you don’t have any comparative titles, that means the market for books like yours doesn’t exist. And that means that it will not sell. If it doesn’t sell, why would a publisher want to invest in your book by publishing and marketing it? They wouldn’t. And that is why the comp titles section of your book proposal cannot be a sentence or two to telling them there’s no comparative titles. 

So let’s find you a different solution! 

Image that shows how to make your book stand out in the Competitive Titles section: it's a combination of your genre, your tone of voice, your take and your methodology

Though there might be qualities that other books have in common with yours, such as methodology, tone of voice, and genre, your book is unique in its precise combination of these factors.

1. Identify your competition

What you should do is to really look at the comp titles section from a commercial perspective. If there is absolutely nothing like your book on the market, then people will not be actively looking for a book like yours. So first, look at the people who you think will be buying this book: what need do they think your book will fill?

Competitive titles basics: What is your reader’s need?

Yes, your book is original. And the uniqueness and originality are things we can focus on in other parts of the proposal. But to find your list of competitive titles, you first need to figure out what your audience’s need is your book responds to. 

And once you’ve done that, you need to figure out which 3-5 other popular books that are currently available respond to the same need. These books need to be popular: if you stack your competitive titles section with self-published books that don’t sell, that doesn’t prove to the publisher that your book will make them money. 

Image that describes the six qualities a comparative title should have in your book proposal: published in the last five years, by a reputable publisher, shares one USP with your book, similar author profile, addresses a common question in your genre, and was successful in terms of popularity or sales.

And, remember, that is the whole purpose of this comparative titles section and the proposal as a whole! 

So for the comp titles section, try to find books that are doing well in the rankings; were published by a traditional publisher; and were released in the last five years. 

Showcasing your USPs in the comp titles

When you’ve identified comparative titles that are like yours in terms of the reader’s need they respond to, you can see if there are other aspects of your book you can identify and find competitive titles for.

Maybe you use a rather unique methodology? Then you can find one or two books that do the same. Or maybe you yourself have a unique profile (in terms of your background, ethnicity, gender etc). Then you can find one or two books from authors who share those identity markers. Or maybe there’s a subtopic in your book that’s rarely covered in literature but there’s one or two comparative titles that cover it as well.

If you manage to find different books that are like yours in different ways, this still allows you to showcase your uniqueness. Yes, you do things that comparative titles do as well. But the sum total, the combination of qualities in your book, is completely unique! And this is why I often tell people to start their book proposal with the Competitive Titles section.

Use this in the rest of your book proposal

Once you’ve figured out what your competition has written, it’s easier to choose an angle for your proposal. And this angle can be the foundation for your description or synopsis, your hook, title, USPs and every other element of your proposal. Once you’re done with this comp titles section, you can find more about the rest of the proposal in this blog post.

2. Write a paragraph on your competitive titles

When you’ve listed the 3-5 titles that you’ll include in your proposal, you need to tell your publisher a bit about each book. First, write down the title and basic information about the book (author, publisher, publication date, list price). This part of the comp titles section your can absolutely write as a list. Then, write a paragraph containing an answer to the two questions I outlined above: Is there a market for your book? And why would people buy yours instead of what’s already out there?

2a. How are you similar to your competitive titles?

You start each comp titles paragraph by outlining what the similarities are between your book and your comparative title. How does the fact that the competitive title you found is selling (well), suggest that yours will sell too? What qualities or topics do your book and the competitive title share? And how will that help you with which audience? This one should be easy at this point: After all, there’s a reason you selected these competitive titles to begin with. 

2b. How are you better?

This is where your imagination comes in.

Imagine that an ideal reader walks into a book store. They see your book standing right next to the one you’re comparing with. What will make them choose your book instead of the other one? Which qualities your book possesses (but the other doesn’t) make yours the more attractive one? 

It never helps to be mean and overly critical of the comparative title. Be respectful of your colleagues (fellow authors) when you describe in what areas your book excels. Remember: this is a combination of a business proposal and a job application. If the publisher feels that you have a superiority complex, they might think you’ll be a pain to work with and not worth their trouble.

Once you’ve figured all this out, the only thing left to do is work it into a nice little paragraph per title. And you’re done!

Final notes on the Comparative Titles section

Here's how to write the competitive titles section of your book proposal, so a publisher or agent will want to pick up your book (summary image of the blog post)

This post has not only taught you to avoid the most common mistake in the Competitive Titles section (saying there’s no competition). It also explained why this is a problem (the publisher wants to know if there’s an existing market). If you follow the steps I outlined above, you will be able to admit that there ARE books like yours out there, whilst still showing your book is unique and superior to anything out there. Not bad for a free blog post, eh?

If you would like to learn more about the different aspects of a book proposal, you can click on the blocks below or go to all posts in the book proposal series.

Or, if you want my help with your proposal, click the button to go to my book proposal page. There, you’ll find the different book proposal services I offer, ranging from final checks to writing the proposal for you. 

Talk to you soon!

– Susanne