I’ve completed my first book, a memoir, and did my homework prior to writing a book proposal. I’ve read many memoirs to get a feel for style, focusing on those that are popular. I’ve studied books, websites, and blogs about how to write a good book proposal. The market analysis and complementary and competing titles sections are giving me fits. Everything I’ve read says don’t ever say your story is unique, because it’s just not true. However, I’ve honestly not found another story like mine. I’m not bragging here. After months of research, I’ve found no other book about a woman who became one of the first female forest firefighters. Plenty of books by men about firefighting exist, however most are self-published. (That leads to my second question.)
My questions: Do I dare say my book is unique, or should I just focus on published memoirs and how mine differs? Also, should I mention complementary and competing titles that were self-published?
You're mistaking what agents mean by unique. You may have been the first female forest fire fighter, but your memoir is "first female fill in the blank."
And you are assuredly not writing the ONLY book wherein a woman is the first of something.
Thus you will not now or EVER say you haven't found a story like yours because that only says to me you haven't read widely in your category and that is a HUGE Red Flag (one might say it's a hotspot.)
Don't focus on the firefighting aspect when you look for comps. Look for "first female" and you'll have a better list.
As for what books to choose from for comparable titles:
1. Front list or within a year of publication is best. Thus, you want books pubbed in 2013 and 2014.
2. Do not use self-pubbed books unless they sold so well that editors will be impressed. Most self-pubbed books didn't. How to tell? Well, Amazon rankings are helpful. Number of reviews on Amazon are a good indicator. When in doubt, leave it out.
3. You'll want to use books that got review attention. Good review attention is best, but BAD reviews offer a place to show why you are better/faster/stronger/hotter. Books that have no reviews or only blurbs from authors are less useful as comps.
4. If there is a classic in your category (and in your case it's most likely Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean) you want to make sure you've read it thoroughly and can clearly state why your book belongs on the shelf with it.