How to Pick Better Comp Titles
"Comps" are "comparable titles" or "competitive titles" (I've heard both, but the former more often than the latter) and they are often required by agents or acquiring editors. Even when they aren't required, they're often strongly requested.
Lots of people describe comp titles as "where does your book fit on the shelf?" And while that's not bad advice, it's also woefully inadequate. My books, for instance, would sit on the YA shelf. (Maaaaaayyyyyybe in YA fantasy/sci-fi, if the bookstore or library breaks things down that far, but they rarely do)
But the YA shelf covers everything from ARE YOU THERE GOD, IT'S ME MARGARET to TWILIGHT and up through DEAR MARTIN.
It's a big fricking shelf, in other words.
Better advice: Think about who is going to buy your book. Not voracious readers who plow through 200+ titles a year in 40 different genres and categories, just... regular readers. People who have a niche that they love. Now, tell me what books they bought last year and the year before that.
Those are comparable titles. They share something with your work. They share enough with your work, in fact, that you feel confident that someone who likes those books would also like your book.
Why do comps matter?
Comps tell an agent/editor that you know your market. You've read widely and broadly enough to not only identify these comps but give a reason why they line up with your own work
They give a lot of info very, very quickly. If you're querying, you've got a few seconds to snag an agent/editor's attention and you need to spend those seconds wisely. Waxing poetic about themes in your work is slow, careful work that doesn't always come across quick enough. Comps convey themes and tone and voice and all kinds of information very quickly.
A good set of comps tells an agent/editor that you have thought about marketability and you understand - to some small degree, at least - how to sell your work.
How to Pick Better Comp Titles
Read widely within your genre and category: The more you read within your genre and category, the more easily you can identify trends within themes, voice, setting, character, and plot. The more of these trends you have in your head, the better you can match something to your work specifically. You can see where your manuscript fits into the existing market and you can better see when your manuscript fills a void in that market.
Read widely outside your genre and category: I cannot tell you how many times I've heard people pitch their work as "Twilight but without the insta-love" with the implication that this work is inherently better because there's no insta-love. If you read YA fantasy romance, though, there's a lot of insta-love. It's kind of a staple of the genre. Maybe you didn't mean to write a YA fantasy romance? Maybe you meant to write a gothic horror with a romantic subplot? Reading outside your current/intended category and genre can show you what else is there and where you might fit better. (Nobody likes a snide pitch, for a lot of reasons)
Identify your most aspirational comp title and then BACK OFF: Who is the writer you wish against wish, hope against hope that someone will compare you to? What book is the one that makes you go "MAN. I wish I had written that"? It's probably a huge runaway bestseller with a movie adaptation, or a genre-bender that revolutionized the industry, or ... you get the point. You cannot comp to that title. I promise you. You are not Brandon Sanderson or John Scalzi, you did not write Harry Potter or The Fault in Our Stars. But! If you find a book that says "For fans of Brandon Sanderson" on the cover... maybe that's something you can comp to. Read the acknowledgments of your aspirational comps, find the authors who helped shape those huge, runaway bestsellers, and read books by those authors.
Find comp titles that were published within the last five years: Comp titles tell an agent/editor how your book fits into the market right now. Not ten years ago. Not fifty years ago. If the most recent book you read is Dune, then you have no idea what 21st century science fiction is doing. If your book is exactly like Dune, with no updates on voice or pacing or characters, then your book is not prepared to sell in today's market.
Ask your CPs/writing group for possible titles: You cannot possibly read every book in your genre and category. But your writing group is a whole group of people who know you and your work and want you to succeed, so they can recommend books for you. They can point you in a direction, save you a lot of time.
Ask non-writers what they think of your comps: They probably can't help generate a comp title, but they can give you an idea of what you're currently selling. If you pitch your contemporary thriller as "Stephen King's IT meets MEAN GIRLS" to a non-writer and they say "Oh. So it's a horror book?" you now know you've got some work to do. Comp titles convey a lot of information in very few words, but you have no control over that conveyance. At the very least, this gives you a chance to tweak the pitch and say it's "The setting of Stephen King's IT mixed with the duplicitous social web of MEAN GIRLS" (this is a terrible pitch please don't try to get me to read anything like this)
Do NOT look at the cover copy of other books in your genre/category: That cover copy is meant to sell books to as many people as possible. Go see how many books are compared to Twilight, Hunger Games, and Harry Potter, when all they have in common with those books is "there is a speculative element in this story". Cover copy is always comparing a book to the big, runaway bestsellers in an attempt to lure in non-readers. Everyone knows Harry Potter, even people who don't read have an opinion on it. Marketing departments are banking on that, and hoping to sell books to people who otherwise wouldn't pick up a book. That's not what you're trying to do.
Using Comps in Your Pitch
The laziest way to use a comp in your pitch is to say:
This is perfect for fans of Sarah J Maas.
Uh.... okay? WHY? Within the publishing industry, Sarah J Maas is known for:
- epic fantasy series
- fairies having graphic sex on the page
- voicey, accessible female-driven fantasy
- byronic romantic heroes and morally gray protagonists
- unapologetically feminine main characters
- broken girls who still know they have worth
- widely varied settings
- loose interpretations of popular fairy tales, with a lot more violence
Which one of those things does your story have? If it has all of those things, then you've written a rip-off. If it has one of those things, or even two of those things, then say so:
This is an explicit fantasy romance in the vein of Sarah J Maas
Fans of Sarah J Maas will love this female-centered epic fantasy
If you're going to cross a pair of comps, make sure they each bring something different to the table, and make sure you identify the difference. For example, I wouldn't cross Sarah J Maas and Leigh Bardugo. They share too many similarities. They both are epic, sweeping, female-driven, second-world fantasies with an elaborate magic system at the center. They both aim at the upper-YA audience and cross over into adult stories at some point in the series. They both have intersecting series with multiple entry points.
And they're two of the biggest names in fantasy right now. Comping to both of them is a little like saying, "I've made this brand new cola. It is going to sell like Coke and Pepsi combined in the next five years."
So instead, you could do something like:
My manuscript has the epic scope of a Sarah J Maas series, but the subtle magic of a Rae Carson novel.
This has a Russian-esque setting, similar to Leigh Bardugo, mixed with the whimsy and humor of Gail Carriger's CUSTARD PROTOCOL series.
They're all upper YA/NA fantasy series featuring female leads, but that's basically where the similarities end. Sarah Maas is (as stated earlier) epic, sexy, second-world fantasy, but Rae Carson is historical fantasy set in the 1840s in the western U.S. Leigh Bardugo is a second-world gunsmoke fantasy, but Gail Carriger is an LGBT steampunk romance set in the 1890s on an airship shaped like a ladybug.
No one - and I mean absolutely, positively NO ONE - cares about specific plot elements in these comp titles. I was once brainstorming with someone on comp titles and she was writing MG contemporary fantasy, but kept trying to comp to The Fault in Our Stars and a Jodi Picoult novel because one of her main characters had cancer.
"Cancer" isn't a genre. It doesn't define a story. It might be worth a content warning, but people aren't just walking around, desperately trying to find every novel with cancer in it, regardless of age category or genre. A middle-grade contemporary fantasy just flat-out does not have anything in common with serious literary book club fiction. Not anything from a marketing perspective, at any rate.
And that's what comp titles are for: MARKETING. They help you find an agent who will sell your book, and then they help that agent find an editor to buy your book, and eventually they will get replaced with "HARRY POTTER MEETS HUNGER GAMES" so that the publishing house can sell it to the public.
But you should not comp to Harry Potter. Period.