Today I’m going to talk about one of the most important and undervalued phrases in the publishing world: comp titles. Comp titles are published books that you would compare your book to. They are similar to your book in terms of plot, characters, style or concept.

Why are comp titles important? They hook an agent’s interest. If you say your book is in the vein of The Secret History by Donna Tartt and that’s one of the agent’s favorite books of all time, then you’ve got their attention. They also make it easier for agents and editors to pitch your book. Agents use comp titles all the time in their pitches to editors, and editors use them in their pitches to the rest of their team, so if you’ve already done the work for them and found the ideal comp titles, it makes it easier for them to pitch it to other people.

Here are some effective ways to use comp titles:

  1. “I would love to send you my moody police procedural in the vein of Tana French…” This type of comp is very straightforward in that it compares your book directly to the works of another author. When I see this kind of comp, I expect your book to embody some of the qualities that make Tana French’s books so dynamic, like really deep character development in your cop protagonist, a memorable voice and vivid, literary writing. Or perhaps your police procedural is also set in Ireland, so your work is similar to French’s in that sense. This kind of comp wording is good when you feel like your book is similar to another author’s books in more ways than one. You can also refer to more than one author in a “in the vein of” comp (“I would love to send you my moody police procedural in the vein of Tana French and Caz Frear”), or you can use titles instead of authors (“I would love to send you my moody police procedural in the vein of The Likeness”), or more than one title (“I would love to send you my moody police procedural in the vein of The Likeness and Sweet Little Lies”).
  2. “I would love to send you my historical psychological thriller that I’d describe as Gone with the Wind meets Gone Girl…” Instead of comparing your book directly to another book, this kind of comp suggests that your book is a mash-up of two books, combining different aspects of each book to create something new. In this example, maybe your book is set in the South during the Civil War, like Gone with the Wind, but the plot focuses on the cat-and-mouse game between estranged spouses, like Gone Girl. The great thing about the “X meets Y” comp is that it allows you to combine two books that people normally wouldn’t put together, which makes the concept of your book sound fresh and unique. If I was pitched a book as “Gone with the Wind meets Gone Girl,” I would be all over it, because I would be curious to see how the author combined such different novels.
  3. “I would love to send you my young adult novel that combines the humor of Simon Vs. The Homo Sapien Agenda with the dark fantasy of The Hazel Wood…” In this case, you’re not just giving the reader a mash-up of two books or authors, you’re specifying what qualities each of those books has that make it similar to your book. This more specific “aspect of X meets aspect of Y” comp can be useful if you’re having a hard time coming up with direct comp titles.
  4. “I would love to send you my literary horror novel that I’d describe as Pan’s Labyrinth meets Dark City…” This the same as the “X meets Y” comp format listed above, but it’s with movie titles instead of book titles. Movies provide a quick reference point just like books, so it’s fine to use them as comps if they’re a closer match for your book.

Here are some ineffective ways to use comp titles:

  1. “My dystopian YA thriller is similar to The Hunger Games, but with much better writing and character development…” You should never criticize another book when you make a comp, because a) you sound like an arrogant jerk, b) the agent you’re sending your query to may have worked on the book you’re criticizing or may really like it. Not to mention, even if you didn’t like The Hunger Games you have to admit that it must’ve done something right to have been so popular.
  2. “My fantasy middle grade series will be the next Harry Potter…” One problem with this kind of comp is that it can never live up to the hype. I mean, it’s possible that your fantasy middle grade series will be the next Harry Potter, but is it likely? No. Because Harry Potter was such a massive success that 99.99999999999999% of middle grade fantasy novels will not measure up. So why set yourself up for an almost impossible goal? The other concern I have when I see comps like this is that maybe the author doesn’t know the middle grade fantasy market very well. If an author chooses comps that weren’t the most popular books in their sub-genre, but did relatively well or were well-reviewed, then that tells me the author knows the sub-genre deeply enough to go beyond the most obvious comps. So conversely, when the author chooses the most popular book in that sub-genre that everyone, even non middle grade fantasy readers, knows, it doesn’t give me the assurance that the author is well-read in the sub-genre, knows what’s already been done and what readers are looking for.
  3. “My quirky travelogue will appeal to readers of On the Road and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas…” The first issue I have with this kind of comp is that it repeats the same errors of the previous bad comp of choosing the most popular books in that sub-genre. The second issue I have is that these are both books that were published over 40 years ago. They were revolutionary for their time, but it’s been so long since they were published that oodles of people have tried to replicate their style since then and it’s no longer revolutionary or fresh. Again, this makes me concerned that the author isn’t up to date on the current travelogues being published and doesn’t understand the current expectations of the sub-genre. I feel the same way when I see YA novels pitched as being in the vein of Catcher in the Rye or The Outsiders. It tells me the author doesn’t know the current market for YA fiction, so I feel less confident that their book will appeal to the current market. So when you pick your comps, try to pick ones that have been published in the last 10 years.
  4. “My book is unlike any other book published.” I see this from time to time, and it raises all kinds of red flags in my mind. It tells me that the author hasn’t done any research into comps and doesn’t know the market for their book, which makes their book more difficult to sell. Publishers need to have a clear idea of “how to position” a book, meaning they need to understand who the readers for a book are and how to reach them. If they can’t get a clear idea of who the book will appeal to, they will turn down the book. So when an author tells me there are no comps for their book, they’re basically saying they don’t know who their audience is.

The easiest and most effective way to make great comps is to be a fervent reader of the genre you’re writing in. When you know what’s out there, you know where your book fits in the market, and that will turn your query from complete to incomparable!

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