Competing Titles in Nonfiction and Market Saturation

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and as usual, they are half right. It's not really flattering, and it's costly, but it is sincere. It's sincere in the sense that another publisher is willing to gamble money that the success of your nonfiction title is based on your acumen in identifying and serving a new market. If they do a better job serving that market or promoting their knock-off, they'll eat your lunch. As long as no plagiarism is involved, it's both legal and ethical by business standards.

It's a two way street, and there's no point in getting self righteous about competing titles that are derivative of your work, especially since your original title was probably derivative of some other book. Unfortunately, competition in the book industry expands shelf space faster than total sales, so you get more titles selling fewer copies. Eventually, the market reaches saturation, and publishers begin to give up on new editions on declare their versions out-of-print. Ironically, the last title standing may actually end up earning more money in this "failed" market than the pioneering book ever earned in its "boom years."

If you think this view of the nonfiction publishing industry is cynical, just ask a trade publisher if you can leave the competing titles section out of your book proposal. The sales of competing titles as reported by BookScan is probably the main input for most editorial boards in their decision whether or not to publish a book. The whole process works like a bunch of kids trying to decide whether or not to cross a frozen pond. The bravest (or dumbest) kid inches out on the ice, and if it holds, the next bravest kid follows, until the whole gang is out there marveling at the beauty of the hairline cracks. Then the whole surface of the pond caves in and they all drown, proving that Darwin was no fool.

About the only thing you can do if your market segment starts to saturate is to settle in for the long run. Don't get carried away spending money on marketing to try to rebuild your market share, just start wearing a wetsuit under your clothes and prepare to outlast the other kids in the freezing water. One technique used by the bravest (or dumbest) publishers is to gamble on a substantial investment in titles to saturate their own market. It's risky, because as the publisher's titles compete with each other, the lead title may lose the critical mass (sales) required for preferred stocking in the stores, and the relative weakness makes it easier for a new competing title from another publisher to hog in. The same thing can happen on Amazon where the titles compete with each other for prominence in keyword searches, and as absolute sales fall, so does the prominence of the title in search results. However, if this self-saturation is successful, it may discourage other publishers from even competing to be another small fish in a small pond.

Market saturation is less of a danger for print on demand publishers who haven't made any investment in a big print run, so potential losses are limited to the editorial costs. The title can remain in print indefinitely with minimal carrying costs, waiting for the market shake out. Again, it's a two way street and an accepted one, so before publishing a book of your own, it makes sense to study the competing titles and their sales. For my money, if you're writing a book for a nonfiction market where there's already a dominant title, you're better off coming at the subject from a different angle and taking as unique an approach as you can to make the titles complimentary, rather than competing. With any luck customers will buy both books, and you won't get death threats in your e-mail from somebody whose initials bare a suspicious resemblance to the author of the book you've chosen to compliment.

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