Though writers work alone (usually), their work exists in a community of other work as soon as it is published.
Human beings think in terms of relativities. They observe what is there, assess it, come to conclusions about it, and place it in relation to other things in their minds. So a new writer, entering a field for the first time, has to be aware that their field, whatever it is, is normally already occupied and has been for some time. A writer of Westerns, for example, finds the genre has been dominated for decades by classic Western writers like Zane Grey or Louis L’Amour and that newer writers like Walter Van Tilburg Clark, Patrick De Witt and even E. L. Doctorow have already made a name for themselves in the genre. The new writer tries to make his or her book ‘jump up and down’ and attract attention in the already crowded mental space of existing Western readers. Naturally enough, most fail to get enough attention to get viable sales, if they get any sales at all.
This is where ‘positioning’ plays its part. Positioning in marketing terms is sometimes thought of as merely an attempt to promote a product, service, or business within a particular sector of a market, or as the fulfilment of that sector's specific requirements, as in the example a pizza which will position our pizza shop as a major customer stopping point in the mall. The word ‘position’ comes from Latin positio(n-), from ponere ‘to place’. But a fuller definition would include the attribute ‘in relation to things around it’ — in other words, a product, to make an impact in the minds of its customers, needs to find a place in relation to other, similar products in that field.
A new writer, striving to make an impression, will do so much more quickly and effectively if his or her book can be easily positioned in relation to the books already extant in that genre.
Hence a tagline like ‘Like Louis L’Amour on acid’ or ‘Zane Grey for the 21st century’ or whatever works for a particular book would grab the already-occupied attention of the browsing reader by placing the new book in relation to something with which that browsing reader’s mind was already familiar. You see this all the time in the fantasy genre bookshelves: ‘Comparable to Tolkien at his best’ was a tagline used to sell the Lord Foulsbane series in the ‘70s; ‘Part Tim Burton, part J. K. Rowling!’ is a tagline used sell a book similar to the Harry Potter series today.
How does this work for your book?
What authors have already conquered your territory?
There’s no harm or shame in admitting that the ground you’d like to occupy as an author is already occupied by others, much more famous than you. You can slink away in apathy and resentment — or you can work out how to use their fame and success to assist you to build your own reputation.
Take a famous author in your genre. Work out what about your book is similar to that author’s work. Then work out what is different.
Position your book in amidst the successful names and titles and let the fame and glamour rub off a tiny bit onto your work.