I’ve received several questions about comp titles lately, and I realized I’ve never done a full post on them. Choosing useful comp titles is a valuable skill for any querying writer. Using comparisons in a query can be a great way to introduce an agent or editor to your work, but choosing the wrong ones can do more harm than good. So, here are my tips for using comp titles in your query.
First, a definition. A “comp title” is a published book that you feel provides a useful comparison to yours. Agents and editors use comp titles to understand where your book fits in the market and where it would sit on a shelf. Comp titles can be enormously helpful in quickly establishing what kind of book this is and how marketable it is. Many editors even use comp titles throughout the acquisition process, so offering a great comp title upfront can be tremendously useful.
However, I would like to make it clear that you don’t have to use comp titles in your query. Sometimes not having one is better than choosing the wrong one. But I think it’s important for all querying writers to at least consider including comp titles. For one thing, you might end up finding the perfect comp that will help you pitch the book. For another, you’ll still have a better understanding of where your book fits into the marketplace if you consider comp titles carefully.
So, here are my suggestions for selecting comp titles:
- Match genre, category, and tone
When selecting comp titles, the genre, category, and tone of the book should be your top priorities. I think some writers think mostly about plot similarities, and try to match their book to another with similar plot elements. But I find that comp titles are most useful when they suggest the correct genre and tone of the book, rather than the plot. Comparisons to writing style and voice can also be more useful.
For example, let’s say you’ve written a humorous adult space opera featuring a deadly virus. You shouldn’t compare it with, say, a dark YA dystopia that also features a deadly virus. If you do, agents/editors are going to assume that your book is a dark YA dystopia. At best, they’ll be confused; at worst, perhaps they’ll decide that they already have too many YA dystopias on their list and won’t even ask for pages. This is why it’s so important to represent your book accurately. If you’re writing a humorous adult space opera, then your comp titles should, at the very least, be humorous adult sci-fi books, in order to give agents/editors a better understanding of your work.
- Use current titles
This is an issue that I see frequently: authors using comp titles that are old. There are a couple reasons why you don’t want to use outdated comps. One, using older titles makes me think that you aren’t very familiar with current ones and haven’t read widely enough in your genre. Two, market trends come and go, and something that was popular ten years ago might not be popular now. For example, comparing your YA book to The Hunger Games will hurt rather than help you, since the market is still oversaturated with YA dystopias.
To be clear, when I say “current,” I don’t just mean within the last decade, either. Ideally, your comp titles should have been published within the last few years. Why? Because traditional publishing moves slowly. A book that receives an offer right now probably won’t be published until late 2017 or even 2018. And that’s not including the time it will take to sign with your agent, revise the book, and get it out on submission. So the market from ten years ago is going to be wildly different from the one your manuscript will be entering. The more current your comp title is, the better it will reflect your book’s marketability.
Having said that, I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong to use a comp title that’s a little bit older, as long as you pair it with a more current one. Keep at least one of your titles relevant to today’s market if possible.
- Don’t use the biggest bestsellers
Many of the comp titles I see are major bestsellers—Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Twilight, The Fault in Our Stars, etc. But this creates several problems. First, just like using an outdated title, this suggests that you’re only familiar with the major bestsellers and haven’t read widely enough in your genre. Second, it’s going to sound pretentious. There’s just no good way to compare your book to Harry Potter without making it sound like you have highly unrealistic expectations for your publishing future. It’s much better to use a comp title that’s had moderate success—this shows that you’ve done your research, have more realistic expectations, and can be confident that your book is marketable. Third, everyone is going to compare their books to the big bestsellers. Comparing your book to Harry Potter is just going to remind me of those other two queries I got last week that made the same comparison. Instead, choose comps that make your book stand out.
- Don’t use obscure titles
On the other hand, you don’t want to select titles that the agent/editor has never heard of. Agents and editors read widely, but that doesn’t mean they’ve read everything. And a comp title doesn’t do you any good if no one knows what you’re referring to. Plus, using a more obscure title suggests that you were unable to find a more well-known one, which may mean that your book isn’t marketable. Don’t use a comp title unless you’re relatively certain that the agent/editor has heard of it.
Also, one of my querying friends suggested something that I think is smart: look the agent up on Goodreads! Many agents/editors use Goodreads, so you can check their virtual shelves to see if they’ve read the book. Granted, if you’re querying as widely as you should be, you probably don’t have time to look up the Goodreads pages for every agent/editor on your list, which is why it’s still best to find a better-known comp title if you can.
- Don’t use too many
Combining two or three comparisons can provide a more complete picture of your book, but I would advise against using any more than that. Having too many comparisons makes your query feel confusing and muddled. It may also suggest that you aren’t really sure what your book is. Comp titles should make it more evident what kind of book this is, not less.
What do you think? Do you have comp titles for your WIP? Have you ever used comps in a query? Let me know in the comments!
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This post is part of my Submission Tips series. For information about submitting to literary agents, publishing houses, and more, check out other posts in the series here, and follow the blog to see future posts.