Use WorldCat Subjects to Find your Academic Book’s Niches

To be convincing to university presses, your academic book proposal needs to clearly articulate how your book book needs fit in predefined subject categories. This post walks you through identifying subject areas that you think apply to your book, and discover what research exists in those niches.


Why You Should Identify Your Academic Book’s Niches

Libraries–like publishers–for better or worse, depend on pre-existing subject areas to classify books. These subject areas might or might not neatly correspond to what you think your book is doing. Knowing how your book will ultimately be classified, though, can help you craft a stronger, more focused, book and proposal because

  1. Knowing what subjects you hope will be applied to your book can help you think (both broadly and narrowly) about audience. You should use this information to strenghthen your book’s prose, especially your introduction, where you need to acknowledge where your readers are coming from (discipline, methodology, general familiarity with works, etc.). You will also use this information in your book proposal, where you will have to outline your book’s audience (and NO!, a “general audience” will not work).
  2. Knowing what other books have also been categorized in those niches will help you ensure that you are acknowledging and contributing to the existing discussions in those areas.

When to Identify Your Academic Book’s Niches

Ideally, you should do this exercise a few times over the course of drafting your book (or revising your dissertation). After doing it once, you can set a regular appointment (every 3-4 months or so) during which you ask whether those niches still apply to your book. If they do, you might quickly peruse WorldCat to see if there are any new publications in this/these area(s). If not, you should re-do the exercise.

Having an eye to the various subjects that will hopefully be applied to your book will allow you to keep these subjects/ disiplines/ areas at the front of your mind as you are shaping its content and structure. It will remind you who your book’s audience is so that you can craft your project accordingly.

How to Identify Your Academic Book’s Niches

1. Choose one book that is similar in topic to yours (different period, methodology, works analyzed, etc.).

2. Go to your library’s WorldCat database and search for that book. Scroll down until you see the “Subject(s)” fields. This is necessarily an imperfect list–it depends on how libraries have “tagged” the book. It’s still nevertheless useful as a starting point.

3. The way subject(s) work is on a scale from broad (one term) to narrow (multiple conjoined terms). So, for instance, “France” by itself would be an incredibly broad category, while “France–social aspects” is narrower, and “France–social aspects–21st century” is even narrower still. Still consulting the subject headings for the book you have identified, write down some “large” subjects that might work for your own book, as well as some ways of narrowing these subjects. Additionally, notice what types of “niches” libraries use to categorize books, such as geographic areas, centuries, or methodologies. (If you’re really curious, you can check out the Library of Congress’s Subject Introduction to Subject Headings Publication).

4. Click on the most specific subject area that you think your book could fit in. This should take you to a new search results page. Notice: how many books are out there  that, according to WorldCat, fit this narrow niche? Do you know of these books? Their authors? Do they appear in your book’s bibliography? If so, you’re in the right orbit. Click on one of the books, scroll down and get some other ideas for possible subject headings for your book. If not, what do you notice about how this subject niche seems to be used? Why would your book not fit?

5. Repeat this process by identifying other possible subject areas. Your ultimate goal is to identify 2-3 narrow subject areas (3+ conjoined subjects) in which your book might reasonably be classified.

6. If you ever want to search for a subject directly (without first identifying a book, preface your query with “su:”.

Reflection and Takeaways on Identifying Your Academic Book’s Niches

Doing this exercise means nothing unless you apply what you learned. So, I highly recommend you spend some time answering the following questions. Ultimately, they will help you revise and propose your book most effectively:

  • What subject areas seem most germane to your project? How does your book distinguish itself from others published in this area? How does it build on these earlier studies? (You will use these answers to draft the “audience” and “competition” parts of the proposal; though you will not use the specific terminology of “WorldCat subject”).
  • On the other hand, what are the broadest possible subjects in which your book intervenes? Which disciplines or university departments are interested in these areas? What types of courses in these disciplines/university departments might be interested in the specific arguments/analyses you offer in your book? Could you see it being assigned in graduate or undergraduate courses in these courses? Could you see it being assigned in “introductory” courses in these areas? (It’s OK if the answer to these questions is “no.” But being able to make a convincing case that your book could reasonably be required reading for courses will strengthen your proposal).
  • Describe any ways you intend to revise your book, given what you learned about its possible niche(s), subject areas, and associated audience(s).

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