Reading your competition

I received a number of queries that piqued my interest, so I did what any good, black-hearted, soulless editor does and asked for a full proposal that included title comps. Most of the authors sent exactly what I’d asked for because they knew the elements that go into a full proposal. They came to the party prepared.

Show me da comps!

One proposal was pretty well filled in, but didn’t list any title comps.  So I contacted the author. “Oh,” sez Mr. Author, “I don’t have any. See, I didn’t read anything that was comparable to my book because I didn’t want other books to influence my writing.”

Let me just say that not providing an agent or editor with information they requested is noobish  (someone who doesn’t know what he doesn’t know – and doesn’t care) because it makes us wonder what they’re hiding. It’s unprofessional because we expect writers to come to the party prepared. After all, you queried us, right?

In this case, I wasn’t sure whether the author’s  lack of title comps was a true fear of being influenced by someone else’s writing, or whether he was too lazy to do any outside reading. I know, it sounds strange not to do any reading in the genre one writes, but you’d be amazed at the number of people who think up an idea and write it.

Do you have a story?

This head in the sand stuff drives me buggy because the author has no clue as to whether he even has a marketable story. Whazzat, Price? you screech. Bear with me.

We’d all like to think our imaginations rock and roll and we can crank out a great story. But until we have something to compare it to, we don’t really know, do we? I’ve mentioned this before, but years ago I had a guy send me a story that sounded eerily like J0hn Grisham’s The Rainmaker. When I brought this coinhinkydinky to his attention, he wrote back: “who’s John Grisham?”

Facepalm. I’d like to think he was pulling my leg, but I’ve encountered many queries where the story was either cliche, or it’s been done a thousand times already (hello, vampire romance, teen angst, cancer, and biopolar disorder).

Case in point: I discussed an author’s cancer book with her a couple years ago. I pointed out that there wasn’t anything in her book that hadn’t already been discussed in countless other books. She was genuinely shocked at my comments…until she went out and read a couple cancer books. She wrote back, chagrined, to say that, wow, she really didn’t have a story after all. Aside from the possible catharsis provided by writing her book, it was a total waste of time. I can’t think of a worse fate. And all she had to do was simply reach out and read her competition.


And knowing your competition can help the smart author determine whether the marketplace is saturated. When DaVinci Code came out, I thought I’d lose my ever-livin’ mind with the plethora of knockoffs. Sure, imitation is the highest form of flattery, but not in publishing. Dan Brown did it already, so I strongly advise you do something else.

Knowing that you’re writing in a saturated category will force you to ask whether your story is unique enough to strike a chord with this particular readership. That can only come from knowing what’s already out there.


I know what it’s like to write a novel, and there was absolutely nothing that could get in the way of my story. It’s because I know my characters inside and out and have a firm grasp on the plot. If you’re that concerned that someone else’s book is going to influence you, then how strong of a writer are you? How committed to the story are you?

These are the questions rolling around the dark caverns of my sometimes-working brain.

Besides, I think authors can gain inspiration from reading their favorite authors. For example, I’ve always loved John Lecroart’s dialog because it’s so real and witty. With a simple keystroke, Lescroart makes his characters come to life because his dialog is that strong. I drew great inspiration from that and worked hard to pattern his style and make it my own. To date, readers always tell me dialog is my strong suit and makes my characters become three dimensional. Had I not read and found inspiration in others’ works, I don’t know where my writing would be.

Someone is going to ask

At some point in your writing career, your book is going to be compared to something else. It’s the way of the industry. If you’re talking to a radio producer and they want a quickie rundown of how your book compares to Eat, Pray, Love, what are you going to say? “Uh, gee, I didn’t read that book.” Ka-thunk. Not only do you look like an idiot, but no one will take you seriously.

The more you know about your competitors, the better able you are to highlight your unique qualities.

So, long story short is this: If you don’t read your competition:

  • You have no way of knowing if you even have a story.
  • You have no way of knowing whether your book is marketable.
  • You have no way of knowing if the genre you’re writing in is heavily impacted.
  • You have no way of knowing the unique qualities of your book.
  • You will piss off any editor who wants title comps.
  • You will greatly embarrass yourself in an interview

Ask yourself whether you’re in this game to win it or to be a grain of sand on a very big beach? Know your competition.

14 Responses to Reading your competition

  1. NinjaFingers says:

    Yeah. I apparently have to read ‘Percy Jones and the Olympians’ at some point because one of my beta readers compared the latest one I sent out to it (favorably), and I haven’t read it (pure coincidence on the similarity there). Something I’m going to have to get to in the not too distant future.

    I also tell people who want to be fiction writers that they must read…primarily in their genre, but also step outside their genre, dip into the classics, and read those books that become phenomenons. Of course, I’m slipping on that…I’ve been majorly procrastinating about inflicting Twilight on myself. I *hate* vampire romance…

  2. I’m a voracious reader, so by the time my novel pointed out to me that it was a murder mystery and not litfic as I originally thought, I had already read a lot of crime fiction. What was new to me was South African crime fiction (which is what mine is too), so I went and read some of that. I discovered that while we have similarities of setting and certian preoccupations, what my novel is doing is separate and different from other SA crime writers. Relief!

  3. I rest my case. You go, Charlotte!

    Ninjie, that’s very good advice.

  4. NinjaFingers says:

    It would be better if I had remembered the title right…Jackson, not Jones. Mutter.

    In fiction, it’s easy if you don’t read and read widely to not realize what comp titles you have, as even the ‘smaller’ genres are pretty huge. Heck, it’s easy enough if you DO read widely.

  5. In fiction, it’s easy if you don’t read and read widely to not realize what comp titles you have, as even the ‘smaller’ genres are pretty huge.

    I think I know what you meant to say here, Ninjie, but it came out a bit confusing.

  6. NinjaFingers says:

    You’re right.

    I mean that there is so much on the shelves that it is very easy to not know what it out there, no matter what steps you take.

  7. Ohhh…hehheh. Got it. I agree that there are tons of books on the marketplace, but I don’t think that should hinder a writer because they ostensibly read the genre they write and are eager to keep abreast of the latest books.

  8. NinjaFingers says:

    I do read extensively in my genre. I read quickly. I still cannot keep up with everything released. I *have* to pick and choose, or I’d never have time to write.

    What you have to do is search the shelves for things in your exact sub-genre and keep up with those.

  9. Irene says:

    Thank you very much! May I very humbly ask a very small question?

    Me too, I read extensively in my genre and for this reason I do know that my genre/subject (historical novels set in Russia) is not doing well at all at the moment. In fact, all the recent books have pretty much flopped, and they are lovely novels by respectable authors. So am I setting myself up for a failure writing another Russia-set historical novel knowing in advance no one will want to read it? It really depresses me 😦

    Thank you very much!

  10. Hi Irene, thanks for your comment and question. I’m the last person to ever suggest an author abandon their writing on the basis that the genre isn’t selling well.

    It’s the same kind of thinking that goes into a heavily impacted genre, like vampire romance or cancer nonfiction.

    Readers will buy a book, regardless of genre, because of its plot, characters, and unique elements.

    Write what you love. It’s the passion than comes through every time.

  11. Sally Zigmond says:

    I LOVE historical novels set in Russia. I didn’t know they weren’t selling well. UK novelist Helen Dunmore has written two that have been very well received and , I assume, have sold well. There’s one out now, can’t remember the author (sorry!) called The House of Special Purpose about the Ekaterinburg assassinations I am longing to read.

  12. Sally, I’d make some disparaging remark about the US attention span being somewhat short, but it would be unkind and possibly untrue (tho I have my doubts about that). So I won’t.

  13. Irene says:

    Oh thank you SO very much! Of course I know it’s stupid and unprofessional but I did struggle with the manuscript because I doubted it would ever get into print. I feel so much better now I’ll make it the best ever :-))

    Thank you so much, Sally, I didn’t hear about The House of Special Purpose (talking about knowing my competition :-)) so I’ll need to investigate.

  14. CarolRose says:

    If only people understood how important this is!!! Thank you for devoting a blog post to it. 🙂

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