The “Competing Works” Section of an Academic Book Proposal

Of all the parts of an academic book proposal, the “competing works” (sometimes called “competing titles,” “competing books,” “market competition,” or simply “competition”) section is probably the most daunting and least understood by first-time academic book authors.We don’t usually tend to think of our work as “competing” with others, and the idea that we need to compile a list of all the books that are similar to ours tends to make us worry that the publisher will think the market is already oversaturated, or that our book is not “novel” enough.

A successful “competing works” section of an academic book proposal for a university press needs to do two things:

  1. Show that there is a market for your book.
  2. Identify how your book distinguishes itself from others in the market.

What the “Competing Works” Section of an Academic Book Proposal Shows: There is a Market

Presses are in the business of selling books, so they want to be reassured that your book participates in an existing discussion (and hopefully moves it forward in some way). First-time book authors often become nervous when they have to compile a list of “competing works” because they worry that their prospective publisher will think the market in which they hope to be published is already overly saturated. This is entirely not the case! Many strong monographs published in the past 5-7 years on a particular topic shows that there is a healthy interest in your field, and that your book is likely to sell. But, of course, you need to articulate how your book contributes something new to the scholarly conversation.

What the “Competing Works” Section of an Academic Book Proposal Does: Identify How Your Book is New

This is where first-time book authors tend to go wrong. They tend to think that the whole book must be new, or else it is not publishable. So, they tend to use an aggressive tone, bashing all the other “competing” titles, hoping that highlighting the flaws of the other books will make their book more attractive. Instead, I recommend you take a different approach. First, establish why that monograph is significant in your field. Identify its scope, methodology, and corpus of evidence, and then state how your book complements that earlier study by extending its scope, using a new methodology, or engaging a new corpus of evidence (or a mixture of all three).

For instance, if you’re writing on the art of underwater basketweavers, and there is a comprehensive monograph on the subject, but its study ends in the early 2000s, while yours ends in 2015, you can state that your book builds on the earlier one, extending its analyses into the present. Or, if that same book only looks at male basketweavers, you can state that yours supplements the existing scholarship by adding the dimension of gender to the conversation. Or, perhaps the earlier book only analyzes the work itself, but ignores the biographies of the basketweavers–and you know that students and other scholars will find the biographies relevant to their own scholarly research. In this case, you can pitch your book as offering a more complete picture of these artists’ lives. Your tone should always be positive, and should focus on how your book builds on, extends, or even challenges previous research, but in a collegial way.

What Academic Competing Titles to Include

Because your book is a monograph, your competing titles list should primarily be other scholarly monographs. Unless they are classics in the field, the titles should have been published in the past 10 years; 5-7 is best. If your book is in dialog with other titles by the same press or in the same series, you should definitely highlight those titles. Pay attention, too, to the “authors” with which your book is in dialog. My acquisitions editor used his own familiarity (through past or in press books and edited volumes he’d acquired) with the authors I listed in my competing works (whether or not those works themselves were published with my target press) to gauge whether my book was a good fit for the series.

I ended up including one edited volume in my list of titles because that was currently the only scholarship dedicated to one particular subfield to which I hoped my book would contribute, and because it had been published within the previous 6 months, which indicated that this subfield was poised to grow. The fact that the only scholarship to date in one of my book’s subfields was an edited volume, and not a monograph, became a selling point in my book’s favor. However, I think this is pretty much the only case in which including an edited volume can help your case. Rather, seeing multiple edited volumes might make acquisitions editors wonder whether the hopeful author understands the difference between a monograph and an edited volume.

What Advice Reputable University Presses Give About the Competing  Works Section:

Do not be fooled by seemingly simple requirements such as those guidelines NYU University Press offers to its prospective academic authors:

[You should include] a list of three or four competing books, and [explain] how your book will distinguish itself from the competition.

If you see something like this, you should still follow the advice above, and outline the book’s strengths, weaknesses, and differences in scope, methodology, evidence, and/or conclusions from yours.

Oxford University Press asks academic authors to:

  1. Consider the existing books in this field and discuss specifically their strengths and weaknesses. Spell out how your book will be similar to, as well as different from, competing works.

  2. Consider what aspects of topical coverage are similar to or different from the competition. What topics have been left out of competing books and what topics have been left out of yours?

  3. Please discuss each competing book in a separate paragraph. (If possible, please provide us with the publisher and date of publication as well.) This information will provide the reviewers and the publisher a frame of reference for evaluating your material. Remember, you are writing for reviewers and not for publication, so be as frank as possible regarding your competition. Give credit where credit is due, and show how you can do it better.

MIT University Press says academic monograph authors should:

Consider the existing books in this field and discuss their strength and weaknesses, individually and specifically. This material is written for reviewers and not for publication, so please be as frank as possible. You should describe how your book will be similar to, as well as different from, the competition in style, topical coverage and depth. If significant books are now available, you should explain why you choose to write another book in this area. Please mention all pertinent titles, even if they compete only with a part of your book.

Clemson University Press recommends authors of academic books:

You should list any published works in direct competition with your proposed book and explain what distinguishes yours from them. Please include publication details for each competing book (author, title, publisher, date of publication).

Further Reading on Academic Book Proposals:

Humanities First Book Author Inner Circle

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