A good “comp title” (which I’ve seen variously expanded as “comparative title,” “comparison title,” or “competitive title”) can help put a literary agent or reader in the right mindset when you’re trying to pitch your book. A bad one may leave them with their eyes glazing over.
So what are comp titles and how do you come up with good ones?
In this post I’ll cover:
- What are comp titles?
- When you need comp titles
- How to come up with good comp titles
- Two approaches for utilizing comp titles
What are comp titles?
Comp titles are books (or occasionally TV shows/movies) that are in the same vein as yours. Pretty simple right?
Well…the goal of comp titles varies just a bit depending on the audience.
If you’re providing a comp title to a publishing professional (e.g. a literary agent or editor at a publishing house), the goal is to give them a sense of the current market for your book. As in, listing books like yours in style, tone, genre, and potential readership that have been successful in the recent past.
Once more for emphasis: the current market for your book. Sometimes authors think far too narrowly about comp titles and come to me saying, “I have no comps because there have been no books about space unicorns learning ballet!” Or they reach back to a book published a hundred years ago for a comparison.
The point isn’t to find another book with the exact plot or thematic elements as yours, it’s to give the publishing professional a sense of other books that have been published recently (as in the last five to ten years) that were popular with readers who might like your book.
If you’re providing comp titles as you’re writing jacket copy and thus simply trying to appeal to potential readers, your goal is to place yourself alongside books and authors they might have read that are in the same ballpark as yours. As in: “If you liked that, you might like mine.”
There’s definitely some overlap between these two goals and I’ll get to the nuances later in the post, but as you’re coming up with comps, just remember not to be too narrow. This is more horseshoes and hand grenades territory. It’s okay to just be broadly close.
When you need comp titles
The only scenario when you definitely need comp titles is if you are writing a nonfiction book proposal, which usually has a market analysis section to give a sense of the current landscape for the nonfiction book project.
But some literary agents (such as Tess Calero, interviewed here) put a lot of stock into comp titles, and my impression is that this has become a bit more common in recent years. Agents will also likely provide editors with comp titles in their pitch letter since editors use comps to compile P&Ls, where they factor in the sales of other similar titles as they’re preparing an offer.
So overall? Mostly optional for novels unless an agent specifically asks for them. And it’s optional for jacket copy if you’re self-publishing.
But it’s still essential to know your market and it’s helpful to have some comp titles in your back pocket.
So how do you come up with these bad boys? Here are some tips.
How to come up with good comp titles
If you have a nonfiction book project, you’ll want to hew pretty closely to simply focusing on market fit. No need to get overly creative. Survey the market and have a sense of who else addressed your topic and was published by a traditional publisher in the recent past.
For novels? You can get a bit more expansive.
It’s okay to draw upon movies and TV shows, because the goal is to give a sense of the market potential. With so much cultural overlap and so many book to film adaptations, it’s all largely swimming in the same waters.
That said, I highly recommend including at least one book that was published in the last five to ten years. You’re giving a sense of the current market for your book.
Yes, books like Confederacy of Dunces and Wizard of Oz are still read and beloved today, but they were published in very different times. You need to appeal to the current zeitgeist. If all your comps are 50-100 years old you might give a sense that your book is behind the times.
It’s a massive industry out there, and it shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours of good market research to hone in on some books in your zone. If you’re struggling to find anything even remotely in the vein of your book, you may have written something truly idiosyncratic, which may require a gut check around whether you got too far out there for traditional publishing, or you may be thinking too narrowly.
Remember: you’re just looking for what your potential readers are reading/watching.
Once you have a list of comp titles, there are a few different ways of presenting them to publishing professionals and readers.
[Blank] meets [blank]
For novels, one of the most tried and true ways of giving someone a sense of the style of your work is to use the “[blank] meets [blank]” formula.
The comparison should be unexpected but easily comprehensible.
You’re essentially isolating the flavor of your novel by blending two different works like so:
- Fifty Shades of Grey meets Wolf Hall
- The Hunger Games meets Jurassic Park
- Conversations with Friends meets Alien (someone please write this)
Try your comparison on your friends and gauge their “Huh”s. If they say, “Huh…” like they’re thinking that sounds pretty cool, you may be on to something. If they’re saying “Huh?” like they don’t know what you’re talking about, try again.
A variation of this approach is to take the essence of one project and reframe the genre or setting.
“Will appeal to readers of…”
The other main approach to comp titles is to simply list the books and authors whose fans you want to reach.
Your approach on this should vary depending on whether you’re coming up with comp titles for agents or for readers, because again, the goals are slightly different.
For marketing to publishers
An agent is going to be thinking about how your book can be positioned in the market. The mood you want to strike them with is, “Oh yeah, I can see how there’s a readership for this book.”
As a result, it’s important to strike a fine balance between mentioning books that are popular but not too popular.
- If the comp title is too popular: It doesn’t help the agent zero in on the market since megabestsellers pretty much appeal to everyone. (Also, trust me the agent has heard books being compared to [insert megabestseller] a million times before.)
- If the comp title is too obscure: The agent may either not have heard of the book or may feel like there’s not a strong market for it.
As a general rule of thumb here: it’s fine to mention bestsellers, but avoid books that are household names or veritable industries like Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, or The Da Vinci Code.
In a query, when you’re mentioning the comp title (or comp authors), just stick to a very simple formulation here: “My book would appeal to readers of [comp titles or comp authors].” It’s not necessary to “prove” why you’re including these comp titles, such as listing the themes associated with each comp title. Keep it simple.
When you’re writing a nonfiction book proposal, a section of the proposal is typically devoted to competing titles in a bit more of a detailed way, with some basic analysis of how your proposed work compares. Note that this should be a bit more thoroughly researched evaluation of previously published books that compare to yours, and should include:
- A super brief description of the comp title
- How well the comp title sold (if you know it)
- How your book is different
Try to be concise with these and spend no more than a paragraph on each one.
For marketing to readers
If you’re marketing to readers with jacket copy, you’re just trying to appeal to another author’s readership. If you want to say your book would appeal to readers of Harry Potter or Percy Jackson by all means go ahead if you think the comparison is accurate and will help sell books.
Be accurate and judicious
At the end of the day, remember that this step is optional unless specified otherwise, so only deploy comp titles if they’re really going to help your book.
Be accurate and honest, don’t overthink it by getting too narrow, and remember that at the end of the day it’s YOUR story that really matters.
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Originally published April 18, 2018
Art: The Seventh Plague of Egypt by John Martin