The Scream Series – #3: “I Need to Read My Competition”

I wrote The Scream Series to highlight experiences I’ve had over the years that frustrate the bejabbers out of me…and it’s not because I’m being put out (well okay, that’s part of it), but because authors are adversely affected (which I think is criminal). Be it through an author’s own lack of understanding or someone else who screws up the publishing works; it’s important for authors to know the pitfalls and downfalls. I want authors to be successful. Let the screaming begin:

Scream #3 – “I Need to Read My Competition”

There are topics in memoir that are heavily impacted; diseases; substance abuse; divorce/change of life; stories about professional life (healthcare professionals, teachers) are an example. If you’re writing in a crowded category – like cancer – then you must have the unique elements that make your story stand out.

jan-storyI know, I know, everyone believes their story is unique, but the author who has done a lot of research on the elements of a great query realizes what those unique elements are. For example, there have been a gazillion books on Alzheimer’s, so when Barry Petersen’s agent sent me Jan’s Story, I was ready to reject it. But Barry’s agent was very smart and immediately pointed out the controversial, unique issues that made this book a gotta have it. Anyone who knows someone with Early Onset Alzheimer’s must have this book.

That’s a success story. But too often, authors aren’t aware of anything called competition. They sit down to write their books and send off a query letter. Because they don’t know, my rejection letters can often look like this:

“Thank you for writing. There are so many [pick any crowded category] memoirs already on the marketplace, and I don’t see any unique elements in your query to make me feel that I could successfully sell this to readers. I appreciate you taking the time to write, and I wish you the best of luck with your writing endeavors.”

Over the years I’ve had numerous responses that include something like, “Wow, I had no idea there were so many other books that deal with my topic. I guess I need to go back and read them so I understand what makes my story unique.”

Um. Yes. Wish you had done this before querying.

One author – many years ago – wrote back again to tell me that after all her reading, she discovered she didn’t have anything unique to say. Ouch. Broke my heart.

Authors, save yourself needless angst. Be familiar with your competition because, at some point, someone is gonna ask.


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