Compelling versus competitive

Miss Snark:

My agent sent me two rejection letters from two heavy-hitting publishers. One editor stated there were too many similar books; the other praised the proposal, saying it was compelling, fascinating, impressive, but she feared that the crowd of competitive books made her think she wouldn't be able to make the book stand out from the rest.

My question: Could compelling writing conquer competitive titles?

This is non-fiction, right? One thing about a crowded field is that you have to say something new about the topic. Without that, it's pretty darn hard to persuade buyers to shell out for a book. "This one is better" may be true, but it's not much of a sales hook for books. It works on cola and toothpaste, but not books.

I had to deal with this just this morning. A very good proposal about a very interesting topic but there's already a book out there about the event. I looked up the book and it's from a big house, with a starred review from PW. First question an editor is going to ask is "what's new and better about this one". Without a very compelling answer to that question, you can have great writing, but I can't sell it.

This is one of the reasons non fiction is sold on proposal. You don't have to produce the gleaming prose till yo know the publisher actually wants it.

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