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A Low-Cost Tool for Assessing New Books

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To identify promising areas and subjects for new books as well as areas that may be over-published and subjects to avoid, I recommend a simple technique.


  • Drop into four or more local bookstores

both chain stores and independents–and look at books on the subject or subjects you’re considering.

  • Visit online databases

such as Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com and review listings there for subjects that interest you.

  • Go to the library

to examine relevant categories in the Subject Guide to Books in Print and the Spring and Fall Announcements Issues of PublishersWeekly.

  • Study catalogs

from relevant publishers.

  • Organize the information you collect

by using a simple Comparative Book Template, like the sample below, so that trends will become visible.


In essence, what you want to know is what titles are selling now. Be sure to look at older books, which have “shelf life” because people keep buying them; their longevity means they have become essential backlist. And as you look at new titles, see if you can figure out whether a trend is beginning that you can publish into, or whether there are already too many books on that particular subject to allow for easy entry of another one.


Create a different Comparative Book Template for each subject category you want to focus on, and use as many pages as you need. As you work on each template, you’ll identify a variety of salient features including:

  • Title
  • Author
  • Publisher
  • Price
  • Number of pages ·
  • Price per page
  • Color or black-and-white interior
  • Size of book
  • Copyright date ·
  • Special features
  • Format (hardcover; paper-over-board; paperback).

Once the template is completed, you can review it to see:


  • Who are your competitors’ current authors?


    Are they well known? Have they written just one book or many? Might they write a book for you if you approached them?


  • Is your subject category highly published, or are there only a few books on the shelf?

If only a few, why? Is the explanation a lack of demand or have you found a niche to exploit?

  • Who are the dominant competitive publishers in the subject area?

What are they doing right? What gaps can you see within their programs?

  • What is the average retail price of the hardcovers and the paperbacks on your list?

How should you price your book in relation to the averages? Higher, the same, or lower? Why? Is there a large price difference between books in four color and books in black-and-white?

  • Is there a subject difference between four-color titles and black-and-white titles?

  • What is the ratio of hardcover to paperback books within the subject category?

What does this tell you about the format you should use if you want to be competitive?

  • In relation to the average price per page (retail price divided by the number of pages), is your price per page higher or lower?

Why? Are you contemplating using printing specifications above or below the average? Is that necessary to help you market your book?

  • What do the jackets or covers look like?

Are there similarities? Are they primarily type or do they use art or photographs? What “buzzwords” appear on the jackets or covers that might apply to your books as well?

  • Is there a book size that is fairly standard?

(such as 6″ x 9″) Or do trim sizes vary?

  • How many titles have copyright dates that go back more than two years?

Do books on the shelf have longevity or are most newly published titles? What distinguishes those that have been out for some time? Which are in second or even later editions?

  • Are there special features

(such as spiral binding, maps tipped into the book, spot varnish on the cover, or included disks) that are particularly attractive and might work for your book?


After reviewing your findings, apply them to the book or books you might publish. If you’re planning a book similar to one that’s already out, how will yours differ? Can you identify areas that are fertile ground for new books? If so, you now know the category parameters for price, format, color or black-and-white, page count, and many other factors.

In short, although the technique is not foolproof, this template can help you make much more informed decisions than you could before.

Currently President of Cross River Publishing Consultants in Katonah, New York, Tom Woll has more than 25 years of senior-level publishing management experience at firms such as John Wiley & Sons, Rodale Press, and Storey Communications. This article is adapted from the new edition of his book ”

Publishing for Profit: Successful Bottom-Line Management for Book Publishers” (ISBN 1-55652-462-5, $24.95), recently published by Chicago Review Press and distributed by IPG. “Publishing for Profit” is available in bookstores nationwide and through major online retailers or by calling 1-800/888-4741.

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