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I'm writing a proposal for a book and have been asked to provide examples of similar books and list how my own work is different from them. Unfortunately I don't know how to approach this question because there are possibly many other books that share similar themes/plots/characters/etc that I've never read. How can I go about searching for books that may share such characteristics with mine (or any others I wish to write in the future)?

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The point of this is to help the person judging the proposal know how to position and sell your book. If there are other books in the same general space, it shows that there is a pre-existing market. This may be harder to demonstrate for a book that is well and truly unique --unfortunately in today's marketplace, no one wants to be a pioneer. On the other hand, however, even the most experimental book typically has "distant cousins" it may resemble. The thing to remember is that ultimately the question isn't really what books are like yours?, it's what audience will buy your book? A book quite different from yours could be a good comparison if it has the same audience.

The only way to do this well is research --at a library, bookstore or on the internet. A mistake I've personally made in the past is to use too many bestsellers as comparisons. While it might seem that this would position your book as a future hit, it actually makes it seem like you only know the "greatest hits" among your competitors.

Once you've established that yes, people do in fact buy books like yours, the task shifts to showing why the world needs another entry in that category (in other words, what makes your book special).

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  • So you're saying it's a more general question about genre and theme as it pertains to the audience, and I don't need to go pick out the closest possible matches, just some that target the same readers? – thanby Mar 19 '15 at 13:43
  • My best guess is that by "match" they mean that it matches the audience, not that the plot, characters or style must be identical. A lot of it usually comes down to wanting to make sure right up front that it's the kind of book they actually publish. – Chris Sunami supports Monica Mar 19 '15 at 20:36
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Unlike Chris Sunami, I suspect that this task was not given to help the agent or publisher better sell the book. They are professionals and (should) know their field. If they don't, you have chosen the wrong publisher.

I rather believe that these professionals want to see if their prospective new author is a professional, too, and knows the context in which he is writing – or if he is ignorant of the literary tradition and artistic context in which he stands and with which his work is in dialogue with. After all, authors of a certain level of literacy are expected to write (give interviews and theorize) in relation to what goes on around him, and not write from and for himself.

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  • So if I'm understanding you correctly, it's not so much about the mechanical task of finding the closest possible matches and postulating why mine is better/different, but more about showing that I'm not ignorant of my genre and context? – thanby Mar 19 '15 at 13:24
  • That's how I understand it, but you'd need to ask the person giving you this task to know why they want you to do it. We are just guessing and cannot read minds. – user5645 Mar 19 '15 at 14:34
  • Is this something that isn't really standard practice in the publishing world (for fiction anyway)? I haven't published anything before so I'm not sure what to expect. – thanby Mar 19 '15 at 14:42
  • @thanby It's standard for nonfiction. I haven't heard of it before for fiction, but I'm unsurprised. While I wish I could believe what's explantation of the motivation behind this request, the fact is, in today's publishing environment, the writer is expected to take on a large part of the selling and promotion of the book, even when publishing with a reputable publisher. – Chris Sunami supports Monica Mar 19 '15 at 20:32

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