What books does mine compete with? Are they freaking kidding? No one’s ever written a book like mine before!! It’s unique, singular, exclusive. Not one author in the history of the world has ever written a book like mine. Not one. Not never.
Instead of answering this belittling question, I thought I’d be smart as a fox and actually write and design and lay out the book instead of writing a proposal. Then I’d order a few custom published printed samples and cart them around to agents and publishers, drop them on their desks and say, “Here. It’s all done. You want a piece of this?”
I figured if I produced a real sample then agents and publishers could actually see what they were buying. I wouldn’t have to explain my idea, I wouldn’t have to demonstrate that I could write the manuscript, I wouldn’t have to promise that I would actually complete the book, and I wouldn’t have to define the competition. I could plop the sample down and the book would speak for itself. Publishing success, here I come!
But pride doth indeed cometh before the fall.
After all this planning and scheming, the first question from the first agent I spoke to was “what books does yours compete with?” Clearly Steinbeck (and Burns before him) was right when he wrote: “The best-laid schemes of mice and men often go awry.”
Luckily, I didn’t stomp off but instead blurted out the one book that I thought was most similar to what I had produced. Even more lucky, the agent told me that he keeps that same book on his desk to show people who ask him what kind of book they should write. Wow. It really is better to be lucky than good isn’t it?
Here’s what I learned: If you actually tell your agent that your book is like nothing else in the market they’ll hang up on you. First, it’s doubtful that out of all the millions of books that have been printed, and the billions that have been suggested, yours is totally different. Second, with all the potential authors scrambling for advantage, if no one’s bothered to write a book even remotely similar to yours it’s because there’s no market for it. Third, if you don’t know what else is out there, you haven’t done your homework. And fourth, no agent believes you’re actually smart enough to come up with something totally new.
Instead you have to pick a lane.
How many talented musicians languish in obscurity because they can’t (or won’t) pick a lane? “My new album? It’s kind of a ground breaking countryish, punkie, hard rock take on classical Broadway show tunes expressed through an urban techno-voicing over authentic Celtic rhythms.”
“Sorry,” says the A&R guy, “iTunes doesn’t have a category for that. Next.”
How many valuable non-profits can’t secure funding because they don’t (or won’t)pick a lane in the clearly defined sections on the grants applications they fill out?
How often do you see famous actors who can also dance, sing, play musical instruments, and do other things you didn’t expect from them? Actor Robert Downey Jr. singing with Sting; musicians Mandy Moore and Queen Latifah acting; actor Richard Gere playing the piano in Pretty Woman, the trumpet in The Cotton Club, and performing song and dance in Chicago; boy-bander Justin Timberlake and comedian Jimmy Fallon doing anything.
Despite all their prodigious talents, each one of them became famous for one thing because they knew, or someone told them, to focus.
As Steve Jobs said, “Do not try to do everything. Do one thing well.” Why? Because “deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do.” In other words, pick a lane.