The “Competing Works” Section of an Academic Book Proposal

Competing Works 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 three things:

  • Show that there is a market for your book.
  • Help the editor understand your audience.
  • Identify how your book distinguishes itself from others in the market.

This post gives you a broad overview of this critical, less intuitive section of your book proposal and gives quick guidelines for preparing your own competing works section.

The Competing Works Section Shows there is a Market for Your Book

Though university presses are non-profits, they cannot completely ignore financial considerations when evaluating proposals. Presses want reassurance that there is an audience for your book.

Many authors of first books think that being able to say “my book has no competing works” will make their project more attractive to presses. In fact the opposite is true. Hear what Chloé Johnson, commissioning editor at Liverpool University Press, has to say on this front (watch through 50:16):

So, your competing works section is your opportunity to show that your book participates in ongoing, vibrant conversations in your field.

The Competing Works Section Shows You Know Who Your Audience Is

Even if your press’s book proposal guidelines asks you to prepare separate “audience” and “competing works” sections, you should treat them as interconnected. Specifically, the titles (and authors) you reference will help the editor understand who you think your audience is and the books with which yours is in dialog.

My acquisitions editor, for instance, explicitly told me that the authors I referenced in my proposal’s competing works section helped him confirm that my project would be a good fit for the press. (This was probably in part because my working title at the time was so terrible that he couldn’t tell based on my title alone.)

Listen, too, to what Heather Stauffer, acquisitions editor at the University of Nebraska Press, has to say about how acquisitions editors implicitly use your competing works section, in part, as a barometer for how well you understand your book’s audience (clip ends at 54:03):

If you’re unsure about who your audience is or how to articulate it in a book proposal, consult my post and Chapter 4 of Laura Portwood-Stacer’s The Book Proposal Book.

The Competing Works Section Identifies How Your Book Differs from Existing Studies

A second purpose of your “competing works” section is to highlight how your book differs from other published research. Some authors think that critiquing existing titles is the best way to suggest their book’s novelty and significance.

I highly recommend you approach this section from a different perspective. Your competing works should not critique other titles or focus on their flaws. Instead, it should present, in a more objective (or even positive) tone, what the titles do (or claim), and how your study builds on or extends them. Assume that the authors of those studies will be shown your competing works section. In fact, editors often use the competing works section as a source of potential peer reviewers.

Writing the Competing Works Section of Your Book Proposal

If your press offers specific guidelines, follow those. If not, use these basic guidelines as a general starting point. Since proposals can be field-dependent, seek out feedback from a trusted mentor or colleague. For much more targeted, in-depth advice on brainstorming your competing and comparable titles and writing this book proposal section, consult Chapter 4 of Laura Portwood-Stacer’s The Book Proposal Book.

How Many and What Titles to Include

Aim for a list of 5–7 competing titles, each with the following characteristics:

  • a monograph (it’s OK in certain cases–especially when a particularly significant part of your book’s topic has not yet been treated in a monograph–to list an edited volume to suggest that there is interest in that topic that has yet to be taken up in a monograph)
  • published in the past 10 years
  • written for your book’s audience
  • published with a university press (as Heather notes in the clip, if you’re writing for a scholarly audience, your competing works should not include bestselling books published by non-academic trade presses)
  • the author is qualified to serve as a peer reviewer for your book

Finally, be realistic. Do not compose a competing works section consisting solely of incredibly popular, prizewinning 32nd books by superstar scholars in your field.

How to Structure the Competing Works Section

There is no universal “right” practice.

If your book intervenes in multiple fields or brings together multiple conversations, you can consider breaking your competing works section into discrete subsections, each of which focuses on one topic, approach, or characteristic.

You can choose to present your competing titles as a list or synthetic paragraphs (in prose). If you choose to present this information as a list (this is what I did), give the complete publication information. Under each entry, write 3–4 sentences describing the work objectively and outlining how your book builds on its conversations (again, see Portwood-Stacer’s far more helpful advice). In my experience serving as a peer reviewer for proposals, though, it’s much more common for authors to write this section as synthetic paragraphs. If you choose this approach, write one sentence summarizing the work and one outlining how your book differs.

Further Resources on the Competing Works Section

For more in-depth, actionable advice from an experienced academic editor who’s helped hundreds of authors write real competing works sections that get accepted, see Chapter 4 of Laura Portwood-Stacer’s The Book Proposal Book.

Do also consider the advice the following top university presses have to say about this section (click on their name to expand their advice).

NYU Press

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

Oxford University Press

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.

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?

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

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

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).

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