Here's a common question that came up in a Facebook group earlier this week. It is more profound than it might seem:
"Why should people buy your book and not your competitor's?"
My longer answer: This question completely misunderstands the nature of 95% of the book industry. This kind of competition is real and intense only at the very peak of the international bestsellers rankings, the top 0.01% of books published every month. In that rarefied arena, individual titles compete across formats, genres, and topics: a tech thriller and a foodie memoir can legitimately vie for the top slot, for example. In the top 5% you might possibly compete for readers/sales with other books very much like yours: other autobiographical cookbooks, or other pocket-sized travel tips books, etc.
But for 95% of us, WE ARE NOT COMPETING HEAD TO HEAD WITH ONE ANOTHER. Just the opposite, in fact. This is why book proposals require "comparables." You aren't explaining why you will dominate your "competitors." You are showing that readers love your kind of stuff: "If X and Y sold like hotcakes, then mine will too, because I'm just like them, at least in these important ways!" Why?
Because books are not cars or houses or gaming laptops. Those things compete with one another every time a purchasing decision is made, because
- those decisions don't happen very often, and
- marginal utility dives sharply negative for those purchases.
If you buy a home, you're no longer in the market for another home. Once you are finally signing the papers to buy just the right car, if the dealer says "I'll sell ya another one right now, for 30% off! Whaddaya think?" you'd think they were crazy. Even if you were a wealthy car collector, you can only own so many cars at one time. But if you're an avid reader, there is no emotional limit to the number of books you will want to buy. Readers can sell or give away books to make room for more books much more easily than a car collector can sell or give away cars, or a billionaire can sell or give away unwanted personal real estate. And books, especially ebooks or audiobooks, are far more affordable, even for persons of modest means.
At some point I might write a blog post about marginal utility and its bizarrely positive function for books (and memes, and movies, and nearly any other creative expression). But for now, trust me in this: readers who buy a book and love it will feel a strong and immediate positive marginal utility for a similar book: in other words, THEY WILL WANT ANOTHER BOOK LIKE THAT ONE, RIGHT NOW.
So if you write vampire-zombie-elf apocalyptic parodies and have slow sales, the problem might be the quality of your stories, your book covers, or your marketing strategy and tactics. Sure, as always, take a critical look at those from time to time.
But the other problem might be that you have no competitors. You've "cornered the market" but the market is too small to sustain one author who dominates it completely. Your little market corner could be small and stagnant because you can't supply your product fast enough at high enough quality to maintain the satisfaction of fans who finish reading your books a lot faster than you finish writing them. When strong and immediate marginal utility can't be satisfied by one product, consumers satisfy that craving by switching to a different product that is similar enough to satisfy... that means they step out of your corner of the market back into the wider market and buy other authors' books.
Counterintuitively, the best possible way to improve the sales of your "elvenvampzombapocalypto parodies" would be to convince Brandon Sanderson, Nora Roberts, and JK Rowling to write elvenvampzombapocalypto parodies too.
Would they absolutely crush your sales, past, present, and future? Yes of course.
Would they spark a huge and sudden hunger, for this new micro-niche subgenre? You fervently hope so!
Because if they do, a hundred million new devotees of this weird micro-niche subgenre will want to read more, long before Brandon, Nora, or JK will have gotten around to publishing their next books. So those hundred million readers will want to gobble up your book too! And 0.001% of a hundred million** is a lot more than 100% of five copies sold per month (if it's a good month).
Your book had better be good, at least good enough not to disappoint those hungry readers who loved your comparables!
Even if your book is what we sometimes call "a minimum viable product," a rising tide will lift all the authors writing in that micro-niche, including you.
So don't ask "Why should you shun my competitors and buy my books instead?" Ask "How can my colleagues and I all improve our story-niche to increase readers' hunger for the kind of books we write?"
The practical principle here, in any topic or genre, is that your toughest competitors are doing you a huge favor. Don't hate them. Thank them (someday, when socially appropriate). Study their writing to improve your own. Speak well of them, don't trash them, especially in front of readers and fans. Befriend them and look for opportunities for cross-promotion.
Your "competitors" can be your best allies in your fight to grow your fanbase and increase your sales.
*The question as I saw it phrased this week was actually "Why should people read your book and not your competitor's?" This goes beyond the purchase decision to the reading and enjoyment of books. It assumes either that there is no objective qualitative difference between your various competitors (one competitor is the same as another, none can be better than you), or some kind of tribal appeal of "your" book that mandates choosing it over all other competitors, regardless of relative quality, regardless of subjective individual preferences of the reader —unless, of course, that subjective individual loyalty (an appeal to tribalism) is exactly what you have in mind, for your answer to this question. But the question usually focuses on competing for a sale, so that's my focus in this post.
**If you don't move decimal points confidently, 0.001% of 100 million is one thousand. How would you like to sell a thousand books in a year? Or in a month? Don't be a big fish in a small pond. Be a small but effective fish in a giant sea of craving (i.e. consumers with consistently strong and immediate marginal utility for products that are consumed faster than any one producer can produce them).
And live in fear and distrust of AI genre fiction generators ...but that's a different topic entirely.