How to Write a Book Proposal: Part III: Marketing and Publicity

Since I posted the first two installments of my "How to Write a Book Proposal" series, I've received great feedback from writers, agents, and editors, all of whom have told me how valuable they find the information. Well, I'm glad. Mission accomplished! If you haven't read those posts yet and are in the process of putting together a book proposal (or are in the process of thinking about putting together a book proposal), you can access the first one, which is about how to write the "Competing Works" (aka "Comps") section here, and the second one, on how to approach the "Who Is this Book For?" section here.

I haven't added to the series in a long while, but a couple of weeks ago, I attended a networking event where I ran into an agent with whom I've been friendly for several years. She told me how much she appreciates the series and has found it useful when discussing the proposal process with new clients. She asked if I would please write more and, because flattery works on me every time, I told her I was happy to oblige. I asked her what subject she wanted me to write about, and she said "the marketing section." Alright, here goes.

Probably the biggest mistake an aspiring author can make is assuming that their only job is to write a good book. That's only step one. Then you have to market it. Marketing and publicity have always been integral to a book's success, but, increasingly, publishers are depending on authors to do most of the grunt work. "Well, that's annoying!" you're probably thinking. I agree. It sucks. It would be great if writers could just write and have their work recognized on its own. But that's not how the world works, and if you want to be successful as an author, you need to understand this reality.

There are several reasons why authors are being tasked with more promotional responsibility, and, despite popular opinion, it's not because publishers are lazy and are trying to foist their responsibilities onto their authors so they can kick up their heels and drink martinis all day. It's because their efforts are becoming less and less effective and authors have become the best promoters for their books.

In the past few decades, several shifts have occurred that have made it more difficult for publishers to get attention for their books. There are fewer book review sections in newspapers and fewer bookstores in which readers can peruse and discover new books. Plus, there is increasing competition from outside the book industry to reach audiences. Up until relatively recently, books (and newspapers and magazines) were the only portable form of entertainment, but now that you can watch TV, listen to music, play games, check email, call your mom, shop for shoes--ALL THE THINGS--anywhere you go, books, which require effort and concentration, have a tough time competing. At the same time, audiences have become fragmented, with people seeking news, information, and entertainment from places designed specifically for their needs and interests. You don't need the New York Times to tell you which books are worth reading. You can find out from your favorite blog or on social media. It's a paradox really: there are more places to promote books than ever before, but their reach is relatively small and specific compared to the major media outlets of yore. Thus, the formula for a successful promotional campaign has become more complicated. 

Publishers--even the major ones--no longer have the power they once had to "make" a bestseller because audiences aren't listening to them nearly as much as they once did. Yes, they still have a lot of clout and resources, and the editor of the New York Times Book Review is still going to take their calls (or respond to their emails), but even a few major publicity hits is not enough to guarantee readers are paying attention. When it comes to first-time authors especially, publishers are tasked with creating an audience out of people who have plenty of other things they can choose to spend their time and money on. And that's really friggin' hard.

Enter the marketing section. The goal of this part of the book proposal is to convince the publisher that your book can be promoted in a way that will encourage people to buy it. All too often, authors neglect this section thinking it secondary to conveying what the book is about. But because publishers struggle to promote all of their books (not just yours, remember), they are looking for authors who can help them out and who understand that a successful marketing campaign is more sophisticated than simply "pitch the book to national media." Authors who understand how promotion works and are capable of doing some of the legwork on their own have a huge advantage over those who don't. There are two reasons for this: 1) publishers can use all the help they can get in publicizing books, and 2) readers trust authors more than publishers. 

The internet and social media have made it possible for audiences to interact directly with the creators of the content they consume, and so they no longer need a gatekeeper to help them gain access. They don't need NPR or the New York Times to tell them when their favorite writer has a new book out; they follow that writer on social media or join their mailing list so they get updates directly.

Of course there are exceptions to every rule, but, generally speaking, the more direct a connection you have to your target audience, the more likely your book will sell. And the more likely your book will sell, the more likely a publisher will want to publish it. Conveying this is the point of the marketing section.

The biggest mistake authors make with the marketing section is to list a bunch of generic venues in which their book could potentially be marketed: NPR, the Today Show, the New York Times, etc. etc. It is quite possible any of these places would promote your book, but it's also possible that they'd promote literally any other book, and pointing this out fails to distinguish your book in any useful way. The publisher doesn't need to be told to pitch your book to NPR. They know.

The other problem with doing this is that these places are extremely competitive, and they typically only cover certain types of books. For example, if you're writing a book about how to organize your closets, then the Today Show may very well be interested in having you on because they could create a fun interactive segment around it that their audience will love. But if you're writing a memoir about your life-changing trip to Transylvania, well, then, the Today Show is not the right platform. It's great to aim high, but being strategic with your marketing section indicates that you understand the market for a book like yours and have given thought to how it might be received. Publishers want to work with savvy authors. 

Don't be afraid of the niche market. Your potential reader is already seeking out information about their interests from places that cater to those particular interests, so meet them where they are. What blogs cover the subject you're writing about? What venues host events with authors like you? What podcasts have done segments on subjects similar to yours? The Today Show might not be interested in your Transylvania memoir, but a podcast that focuses on European travel or a blog dedicated to travel memoirs certainly might. And the people who listen to that podcast or read that blog have, by virtue of seeking out this content, expressed interest in your book before they even know it exists. The publisher may or may not know these places, but by proving that you do, you're demonstrating you know what your readers want.

Like I said, publishers are relying on you to do most of the work to promote your book, so it's still not enough to give them a list of helpful suggestions. They'll happily send a galley and a pitch letter to that European travel podcast, but what if Stephen, the creator of that podcast, is getting galleys of every European travel memoir out there and can only have one guest on his weekly show? Who is he going to choose? He may indeed choose you. Perhaps he's really interested in Dracula and has never interviewed anyone about Romania on his show before, so the opportunity excites him and will be fun for his audience. But neither you nor the publisher can control for this outcome.

There is a way to increase your chances instead of relying on blind luck: know Stephen. If you get a Facebook party invite from someone you don't know, you will not be attending their DJ set at the hot new night club downtown, even if they happen to be the best DJ on the planet. But if your best friend, DJ Kelv$n, invites you, you will definitely be down to go watch him spin some sick tracks on Saturday night because you know him, want to support him, regardless of how much you like (or dislike) his work. The same is true of book publishing and pretty much every marketing endeavor on the planet: people prioritize people they know. Period. This goes for Stephen and the people who listen to Stephen's podcast, too. If he knows you and likes you, Stephen would probably love to help you promote your book. And Stephen's listener will be more apt to buy your book if Stephen recommends it on his podcast because he trusts Stephen's opinion. 

I'm not suggesting you call up every podcast host and try to be their buddy (though it definitely doesn't hurt to network with people who are interested in your subject area). I'm making the point that you want to emphasize your strongest connections when putting together your marketing plan. Do you know someone who works at the New York Times and is in a position to cover your book? Great, mention that. Have you been a guest on Stephen's European Travels podcast before and think it likely he'd have you on again? Perfect. Write that down. Is your best friend the editor of that travel memoir blog? Nice! Your connections need not be the biggest wigs at the most famous publications; they must simply be real (none of this "my-ex-boyfriends-mom-once-met-Katie-Couric-at-a-cocktail-party" crap) and relevant (that's cool that your brother-in-law is a producer at ESPN, but he's not going to feature your Transylvania memoir on Sports Center). 

What's even better than knowing people who can market your book? Being able to market your book yourself. This is the holy grail every publisher is looking for: an author with a built-in platform and audience who can promote his or her book directly to interested readers. An author who runs a popular travel blog will have a better chance of getting her travel memoir published than one who doesn't (especially given that memoirs are notoriously difficult to publish). By way of example, in the past few years, some of the most popular cookbooks on the market have not been by Food Network stars but by bloggers who gained a dedicated following on their own by posting recipes and cooking tips on their websites. It's quite possible you've never heard of Angela Liddon or Dana Shultz or their vegan cooking sites Oh She Glows or The Minimalist Baker, respectively, but both women have published bestselling cookbooks whose sales were driven primarily through direct promotion on their websites and within the vegan cooking community of which they were already a part. 

Your following doesn't have to be a blog. It could be a podcast or YouTube channel, or perhaps you contribute regularly to another platform (like a website or magazine) that is already established. It could also be a robust speaking schedule or email newsletter (both of which are highly popular among business authors). It just has to be a venue through which you can communicate directly with your target audience--whomever they are.

A word on social media: while social media is an important marketing tool, having a lot of followers is not enough. It's much more important that your audience is engaged rather than large, so if you have 100,000 Twitter followers, but no one likes or re-tweets your posts, then those followers are not going to buy your book. Similarly, if you have 20,000 Instagram followers, and your posts average 15,000 likes, then that's a sign you have a highly engaged audience and will cause a publisher to take notice. That being said, social media has proved to be a finicky sales tool (perhaps because users browse through dozens of posts at a time and therefore have divided attention spans), so a robust social media presence may not suffice in enticing a publisher. If you've been thinking of hiring someone to boost your followers, save your money. Publishers can tell when your audience has not been grown organically.

Contrary to popular belief, publishing people love numbers. How much traffic does your blog get each month? How many people subscribe to your newsletter? How many people attend the events at which you've been invited to speak? What's the readership of the website you contribute to? Obviously, the larger these numbers are, the better. 

I suspect a good portion of you are reading this and thinking "Well, crap. I don't have any of that!" If this is the case, you might still be able to find a publisher depending on how unique your subject matter is and/or if you have a certain expertise that is rare. For example, if you are a professor of European history at an Ivy League school and are the world's foremost expert on Vlad the Impaler, a publisher can use that credential as a hook to attract publicity for your Transylvania memoir. Or if you've won a prestigious award in your field and are writing a book about that field, this will indicate to publishers that you have respect among your colleagues, who are all potential readers. If there is interest in the subject matter and no one is better suited than you to write the book, then an audience will exist that the publisher can target. 

If you lack this type of credential, then it is going to be very difficult for you to land a publishing deal with a traditional house. If you're not interested in self-publishing, then my biggest piece of advice is to spend some time building your platform so you can flesh out your marketing plan before writing a proposal. Some authors get grandiose ideas about how they'll build their platform after they get a book deal, and spend most of the marketing section in their proposal detailing all of these ideas. ("I plan to start a promotional hashtag campaign on Instagram!" "I will reach out to other famous authors to see if they'll mention my book on their website!" "I will hire a professional web designer to help me start a website and blog!") But publishers are interested in concrete things that either have happened or are likely to happen in the near future. How do they know your Instagram campaign will be a success if you've never run one before? I realize you want to appear energetic and eager, but so does every author. Focus on being realistic and specific so the publisher can tell you know what's up.

The way you go about building your platform is up to you. My advice is to go about it in a way that feels natural. If you hate Twitter, don't force yourself to use it. If the idea of blogging several times a week gives you agita, start a podcast or YouTube channel or pitch an idea to an established site. If you're writing fiction, submit short stories to literary journals. There are countless ways to get your idea out there. It requires effort, and nothing is guaranteed, but if you want to be a published author, the investment will be worth it.

In summary: when putting together the marketing and publicity section of your proposal, do your homework so you can be as specific as possible and emphasize all the ways you can connect directly with your reader. If you do so effectively, you'll convince the publisher that you're worth taking a chance on, and will be well on your way to a great book deal.

How to Write a Book Proposal: Part II: Who Is This Book For?

Apologies to all of you who have been waiting with bated breath for this post as I know it’s taken me a while to write it. You can exhale now! Phew. I’ll pause for a moment to let your brain adjust to the new intake of oxygen. That’s better.

Now, onward. In my last post I told you how to write—or, really, how not to write—a comps section for your book proposal. I hope it was useful. If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments section and I’ll address them as best I can.

I started this How to Write a Book Proposal series by tackling the comps section because it really is so easy to screw it up—and bad ones are frighteningly common. In this post, I want to cover another tricky element of the book proposal—the Target Audience section, otherwise known as the Who Is This Book For section.

Like the comps section, the Who Is This Book For section is easy to grasp conceptually. It’s a relatively short section (usually no more than a page long) of any proposal in which the author is charged with describing the target audience for his or her book. It is a good, ahem, complement to the comps section because it, too, helps the editor understand the market for the book and helps us understand your vision for it. It’s obviously impossible to know how many copies will sell before the book goes on sale, but if you can make a case that the potential audience is large, the more likely it is that a publisher will be willing to shell out big bucks for the book. At the same time, if the potential audience is relatively small, the advance may not be as high or the publisher might determine that they could not sell enough copies of the book to make it worth their while to publish it. (If you don’t know what an advance is, I encourage you to do some research into the book acquisition and auction process before you continue. The goal of this series is not to teach you how to write a proposal from scratch but to address some of the common mistakes authors make; You should have a good knowledge of the entire process for any of what I’m about to share to be useful.)

Like the comps section, the Who Is This Book For section helps “position” your book. “Positioning” is short-hand for describing your book in a way that helps put it into a context within the larger market. An easy way to do this is to compare your book to others as a reference point. For example, when Knopf published Cheryl Strayed’s (excellent) memoir Wild, they (and others) repeatedly described it as “Eat, Pray, Love but on the Pacific Crest Trail.” This was great because people immediately understood that it was a memoir about a women who undergoes a personal transformation while traveling (like Eat, Pray, Love) but also made it sound different (unlike Eat, Pray, Love, which took place in three different countries, Wild took place on the West Coast). Any time you compare your book to something else, place it in a category, or describe your target reader, you are positioning your book.

Which brings us to the topic at hand: Who is your book for? The biggest mistake authors make—and the reason I thought it important to address this issue—is when they answer this question with “Everyone!” No. Stop it. How many books over the course of human history have been read by everyone? Zero.

Saying this is no different from listing only bestsellers in your comps section except it’s worse because it suggests you’re not only delusional but have no clue who your audience is. “But true artists don’t create for others!” you say. “They create for themselves, for the sake of their art.” Okay, you sound pretentious now, but I take your point. However, I’m not saying you should write in order to please a particular audience or compromise your book in order to make it more commercial. All I’m saying is that you need to understand who will want to buy your book and why. When you do this well, you signal to the publisher that you’ve given this book a lot of thought, that you’ve done your homework, read the work of similar authors, and are able to talk about your book in a way that will pique the interest of potential readers.

I imagine the reason most authors like to say theirs is a book for everyone is not, actually, because they believe it is but because they’re afraid of underselling themselves. You worry that by saying “mine is a book for mothers who like to knit” you’re really saying “no one except mothers who like to knit will be interested in this book.” But that’s not what you’re saying; you’re saying “I know that there are people out there who would like my book and I know who they are and where to find them.” You’re not selling yourself short; you’re being realistic and, in the process, helping your would-be publisher understand how to position your book. We like that.

Publishers often like to say that a book for everyone is a book for no one. Yes, there are books out there that have been read and loved by millions of people, but even these books have natural limits on their audience. And even those books started off with a specific audience and grew from there. One tremendously successful book of the past few years is Just Kids by Patti Smith. Patti Smith was a famous musician long before she wrote a book, so she had a built-in audience of people who were automatically interested in what she had to say. However, many people—I’d be willing to bet most people—who bought, read, and loved that book were not huge fans of Patti Smith’s music. I am one of those people. I read the book because other people read it and loved it and the story (her memoir of her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe and their lives in New York City in the 70s before they became famous) sounded interesting. I can’t speak to how that book was positioned or published since I didn’t work on it, but I’d be willing to bet the publisher started by targeting people who liked Patti Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe, books on 70s-era New York, and music from that era. It was only after the book gained popularity within that core fan base that it was able to spread to a more general audience.  

You see this a lot with genre-specific fiction like fantasy or YA—they become popular with a certain audience and then spill over into the general public. Maybe your book has the potential to reach a wide audience—and that’s great. But when writing your proposal, you need to think in terms of your target audience—the people who are most likely to enjoy your book—and let the publisher extrapolate from there.

As I’ve already said, the biggest mistake authors make is when they believe their book is for everyone. This becomes evident in the Who Is This Book For section when it is vague and unspecific and describes too many—sometimes polar opposite—target audiences. Sure, there is always potential for crossover and overlap, but books require an investment of time and money and there are millions of other books out there competing for a reader’s attention at any given time. You cannot count on a casual or accidental interest in order to sell your book.

To illustrate, let’s pretend we’re writing a proposal for a book about harmful ingredients in popular American foods. The author (that would be us) is a journalist who has conducted original interviews with current and former employees of some of the biggest food companies in America. We have found that many of these companies knowingly put harmful ingredients in their products in order to make their foods more addictive. They can get away with this because of powerful lobbyists who have campaigned for relaxed regulations in their sector.

This is news-breaking stuff that affects pretty much every American alive. Therefore, you might be tempted to say that your book is for “Americans ages 18-80 who consume commercially produced foods.”

Of course many Americans will be interested to know what goes into the foods they love, but not all of them will care. And even those who do care—those who may hear about your book as part of a news segment, for instance—might not care enough to shell out money to buy and read an entire book on the subject. Who are the people who will make that investment of time and money? Well, for starters, they are the people who have previously shelled out money for books about food and food production. They’re also people who are conscious about the food they buy—those who buy organic or locally produced food. Another potential target audience would be parents as people generally care more about the health of their children than they do their own. Maybe there’s some particular information in our book about additives in baby food. Yikes! With that in mind, here’s a better Who Is This Book For section for a book like this:

Readers of Michael Pollan and Michael Moss: The popularity of books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan and Salt, Sugar, Fat by Michael Moss shows that there is a large potential readership for books on American food production and an increasing interest in learning about commercially produced food [Note: you might say this is repetitive from the comps section, but, remember, you want to be careful about listing very popular books in the comps section. The Omnivore’s Dilemma was a runaway bestseller and therefore you might not want to list it as a comp, but you can list it here because its popularity indicates a potentially large audience for your book.]

Organic food advocates: Approximately 10 million people shop at Whole Foods and other organic grocery stores in America every month, and according to a recent Cornell University study, 10% of Americans say they try to buy organic when possible. In addition, 2 million Americans belong to a CSA (community-supported agriculture), up from 500,000 just a decade ago. The rise in this sort of conscious and sustainable food consumption indicates that Americans are increasingly aware of the benefit of eating whole, organic food as opposed to processed foods.

Parents: Many of the foods I discuss in my book are marketed directly to children in an effort to get them hooked on processed foods at an early age. No doubt parents who read this book will think twice before letting their kids consume these products once they read my book. I could see the book being popular with readers of parenting blogs.

A few things to note: first, the numbers in the second bullet are completely made up. I added them because the more specific you can be about the size of the potential audience, the better because it shows you’ve done your research. For the record, no publisher will think “Oh! 10 million people shop at Whole Foods and therefore we can expect to sell 10 million copies of the book!” The numbers are simply useful for context. You don’t want to laden your proposal with facts and figures, but a few carefully chosen data points can serve you well.

Perhaps I could have communicated all of the above in far fewer words than I’ve used here. But I wanted to take time on this subject because you’d really be surprised at how many people fail to describe their target audience. In sum: be specific and realize you can’t be all things to all people. If you know what your book is, and if your book is truly original and worth publishing, this should be an easy task. The right publisher will believe in your book and see its potential clearly. Trust in that and you’ll be fine.

Good luck!

How to Write a Book Proposal: Part I: Comps

This is the first in a series of posts I intend to write over the coming weeks about how to write a book proposal. Given that I have worked for a major publishing house for the past seven years and that my job entails reading and vetting dozens of them on a weekly basis, I feel qualified to write this post, and, if you're an aspiring author, I hope you find it useful. If you're not an aspiring author, maybe you'll find it interesting. 

A quick disclaimer: the How to Write a Book Proposal series will not consist of step-by-step instructions on how to write a book proposal from start to finish. If you Google "how to write a book proposal," you will find dozens of websites with info on how to do just that. If you're looking for deeper information, check out one of the many books on the subject. 

Rather than giving you the soup-to-nuts skinny on writing a great proposal, I'm writing this series to talk about some of the things I, personally, pay attention to when reading a new submission. You know how some employers say that they throw out resumes with spelling errors on them because it indicates the job applicant lacks attention to detail? I don't do that (because we all make mistakes), but I do judge you harshly if your proposal does, or fails to do, certain things. I also laugh about you to my colleagues, but you will never know this because when I reject something (most often via your agent), I send a polite note saying I'm passing because "I don't feel this is a good fit for my list" or "I felt the subject was too narrow to attract a wide audience." These are, generally, my true reasons for passing on something, but they certainly don't let on that I spent a good 15 minutes reading portions of your proposal out loud to my assistant in order to entertain us both during a mid-afternoon energy slump.

Okay, to be fair, if your idea is fantastic or I love your writing style or you have a huge built-in audience who will trip over themselves to be first in line to buy your book, I would never pass on your project simply because the proposal did something that irked me. But, if you want to be safe, you will read what follows, take it to heart, and remember it when you get to writing. Okay, here we go.

In our first installment, we'll be discussing...


Otherwise known as "Competition/Comparisons." In this section, you list books that are similar to your own. Generally, an author will list 4-5 similar books and include the publication information (title, author, year published, publisher, ISBN) and a paragraph explaining what that book is about and why it is a good comparison to yours. This is a section you should always include in your book proposal, for two very important reasons:

  1. It makes the editor's job easier
  2. If you do it correctly, it shows the editor you know your audience, understand the market, and have done your homework

First, let me explain #1. A good comps section makes my job easier because part of any editor's job is convincing her publisher (and, if she is able to acquire the book, her publicity, subrights and sales departments) that there are people out there who like to read books like this. If the editor can say, with a straight face, that this new book is similar to other successful books that have been published, it is easier to convince those around her that they should pay attention. I know every author likes to think that their book is different that it's special that there's no book quite like this one. If that's true, which it rarely is, it generally means no one wants to read it. If they did, someone would have written it already. There is a book on the market called The Idiot's Guide to Submarines. There is also a book called Crafting with Cat Hair, which I can't, for the life of me, determine is serious or ironic. So stop it. There is definitely a book like yours out there. 

Remember, publishers are businesses. Yes, they are often run by English majors who got into the business because they loved books (that is a stereotype, but it is often true), but we also have to feed ourselves. There is no real way to know if a book will sell or not sell, but one indicator that a book has a chance of selling is the fact that books like it have sold in the past. Do yourself and me a favor: include a good comps section.

Now, #2. What does it mean to do a comp section correctly? It means a few things.

  • It includes books that are actually similar to yours
  • It doesn't only include books that were major, category-busting bestsellers

The first item should be obvious, but you'd be surprised how many people cannot seem to do this basic thing. If you're writing a memoir about your mother's depression, you should not comp it to Angela's Ashes. Yes, they are both memoirs, but that is not the point. 

If, however, you're writing a book about growing up poor in still may not comp it to Angela's Ashes.

"Wait! But WHY?" you ask. "Because," I say, "Angela's Ashes was a publishing phenomenon that transformed high school teacher Frank McCourt into a literary sensation." Comping your book to it is not useful because of the second bullet above. 

As I mentioned earlier, part of the editor's job is to convince her publisher to let her acquire the book. One of the ways she does this is by positioning it within the marketplace to show that there is a potential audience out there for this very book. The second step in this process is figuring out how much to pay for the book. If you're writing a book proposal, you're likely familiar with the concept of an advance. For those who aren't, look it up, but for the sake of context, an advance is a sum of money a publisher pays an author in exchange for the rights to publish his or her book. An advance is determined by a number of things--most dramatically the number of other publishers interested in publishing the book who compete for the rights by offering higher advances than their competitors. But before a publisher offers an advance, they have to figure out how much they think the book is worth, which brings us back to comps.

Like I said, it's impossible to know exactly how much any book is worth before it is published. I have no idea how much Scribner paid for the rights to publish Angela's Ashes, but I'm sure it was a lot less than the book was actually worth considering how well it sold. On the other hand, there are countless books that receive high advances--sometimes millions of dollars--and don't end up being worth that much at all. It's a crapshoot.

The reason you should not comp your book to a huge bestseller is because it's like saying to the publisher "I think this book is like Angela's Ashes, which means I expect it to perform as well as Angela's Ashes, which means I expect a lot of money for it." This may not be your intention, but it communicates that you are either delusional or simply don't read that many books and therefore can't think of another comp except for the one that everyone already knows. 

It is much better to list 4-5 comps that have sold reasonably well and are genuinely similar to your book than to list a bunch of huge bestsellers. We go back to the first two reasons why a comp list is useful: it helps the editor and it shows you know your market.

If I have a book I want to buy and can point to a handful of books that have sold reasonably well--say between 30,000-50,000 copies--I am in good shape. That is a nice number of copies for a book to sell, so I can tell my publisher there are similar books that have sold well but they have not sold so well that they aren't useful in helping me determine how much I should spend on the advance. This number will allow me to justify spending a fair amount of money on the book, but not so much that my publisher will, say, "No way!"

So, what does a good comp section look like? I used to work on business books and got a lot of comp sections that listed books like The Tipping Point, Freakonomics, Predictably Irrational, and Good to Great as comps. This was stupid for a number of reasons. For one, these books are nothing like one another except for the fact that they are often lumped together in the business section. It's like saying your novel is like The Kite Runner and The Client because they are both fiction. NO!

Also, all of these are huge bestsellers that defied the publisher's expectations in every imaginable way, so, for all the reasons I already mentioned, they are useless. 

Okay, so what should that misguided business author have done? Let's say Mr. Business Author is writing a book on running a small business. He should only include comps that are about that very thing. Some good comps he might mention are Small Giants by Bo Burlingham or The Pumpkin Plan by Mike Michalowicz or Built to Sell by John Warrillow. [Full disclosure: all of those books are published by my old employer, and I worked with each of these authors at some point in my time there. I'm only calling these to attention because I know them well. There are dozens of other great books on entrepreneurship out there.] 

Mr. Business would also likely include The E-Myth by Michael Gerber, which is pretty much the go-to book on starting your own business, no matter what kind of business it is. It is a business classic and a huge bestseller, so it's not really useful for my purposes, but I wouldn't be annoyed if Mr. Business listed it because it is not so far removed from his book and shows that he (or at least his agent) understands the genre. An author is allowed to list one (maybe two) bestsellers if they are truly complementary and if he or she also lists others. Use your judgment. 

If you're writing that memoir of growing up poor in Ireland, and really can't stop yourself from mentioning Angela's Ashes, though, I still wouldn't recommend listing it in the comps section. Idea-driven non-fiction is very different from fiction or literary/narrative non-fiction, which is, generally, as much about the quality of the writing as it is about the subject. Comparing yourself to Frank McCourt is a bold move, and you will likely come off as cocky. The only acceptable place to mention this comparison is in, perhaps, the overview where you can say, "My goal is to pick up where Frank McCourt left off with Angela's Ashes. McCourt described life in Ireland in the 1930s, but in Dirty in Dublin,* I describe growing up on the outskirts of the Irish capital in the punk-fueled haze of the 1980s."

I would read that book.

I think this about covers everything I have to say about comps, except for this: read them. Before you set out to write a book, familiarize yourself with the other books out there. This will not only ensure  you have a good comps section, it will make your book better because you will know what a successful book looks like. Also, an author--especially a non-fiction one--is expected to be an expert on his or her chosen subject. A good comps section will illustrate that you actually know your audience and feel like you can write something they'd be interested in reading.

Next up, Part II: Who Is this Book For?


*Feel free to use the title Dirty in Dublin for your Irish memoir. You're welcome.