Finding Comp Titles for Your Novel

What’s a comp title?

In spite of the fact that I’m still (or at least should be) in revising/editing mode for another month or so, lately I’ve found my mind wandering more and more in the direction of comps. For those of you not familiar, a comparable title, or ‘comp,’ is a published book that you use to help explain the intended target audience of your own WIP (work in progress).

This is something that every writer needs to do at the query-writing stage. In one of the paragraphs in your query letter to agents, you need to give one to three comp titles to send your potential agent’s mind down the right track. What readers are you reaching for? Where would your book be shelved in the store? What frame of mind should they be in when they read your first pages? Comps help to answer all of these questions.

My experiences so far.

When I first started querying back in 2007 (oh my sheesh that’s a long time) for Book 1, I had no idea what I was doing and I didn’t even really include comps. I just tagged “vampire fans” for the most part, which was a pretty lazy way out. The query was a flop – absolutely no requests for anything (although I can hardly blame that on the comps alone).

When Book 2 magicked its way to the surface, the comp titles were easy. I was modernizing classic gothic novels, so I specified the lineage with two choice books and explained the updating. That query got a couple of requests. The revised version got several more.

My original query for Book 3 didn’t even have comps. At all. It had a stellar, knock-you-on-your-ass hook/summary (thanks in large part to my super-human critique group) that led straight into my bio. I got so many requests so fast I had whiplash. I was convinced, at the time, that no comp titles was secretly the way to go. I mean, I hadn’t mentioned a single other book and look at the response!

Turns out I was wrong. My lack of comps had short-changed me, in the long run. Several of the agents who’d requested my manuscript weren’t in the right mind frame genre-wise when they read my pages, and I had no one to blame for that but myself. (Not to mention that I’d rushed to respond to the requests and undercut my revisions. Lesson well learned.) By the time I sent out a revised query to a new round of agents, I’d overcorrected, going on too much about the genre and comparables and not nearly enough about the book itself.

And now I’m within eyesight of the query process for Book 4. I’m flexing every mental muscle I have to be patient and not make the same mistakes I made before. And for some reason, out of all the things I learned about every stage of the process, I just can’t stop thinking about those damn comps. Which brings me to today’s blog post. I’d love to talk a little bit about comparable titles, both to share what I’ve learned and to get some input.

What to look for.

When choosing which books to compare your books to, there are several things to keep in mind.

Choose books that have an obvious connection to your WIP. If you’re describing a romance for your whole query and then suddenly list a fantasy novel as a comp, you’d better have a good reason. And more importantly, you’d better explain that reason. Writing style? Themes? Why the drastic difference, and what makes you think those readers could be your readers?

Choose books published within the past 10 years – the more recent, the better. Market trends matter. If you’re comparing your book to Stephen King’s The Shining, you might want to rethink. The Shining is old – really old in publishing terms – and if you can’t think of any similar books published since then, it could send warning signals to your potential agent. They want books they can sell now, not 32 years ago. (Yes, The Shining really is over 3 decades old.)

Choose successful books. Why would you want to compare yourself to a flop? Remember, you’re trying to make your book as marketable as possible.

Don’t choose super famous books. I know this might seem in conflict with the tip above, but it’s not. Choose successful books that sold well, but don’t choose massive super-bestsellers. Why? Well for one thing, it sounds arrogant. Claiming you’re the next Anne Rice makes you look a little presumptuous. But for another thing, it makes the potential agent doubt if you’ve truly done your market research. Is Harry Potter the only YA fantasy novel you’ve read? This, too, can set off warning signs, so tread cautiously with big names.

Choose 1-3 books, and make them different enough to be worth listing. Try to cover what you think of as the 3 most important aspects of your WIP (genre, style, and main character, for instance). And if you can make one of those comps a book your potential agent actually represents, all the better – but no cheating. Only do this if it’s really applicable.

A shortcut.

Yay! We’ve reached the fun part. (Maybe you’ve all already thought of this, but I just figured it out.) There is an easier way to find these comps than by chance or personal recommendations: Goodreads. Like Pandora and Amazon, Goodreads has a recommendations feature that automatically suggests new books for you based on your bookshelves. You can use this to your advantage.

Today, I created a bookshelf called “WIP-comps.” In it, I placed 6 books that I strongly believe, for one reason or another, are comparable to my WIP. (They need to be in their own shelf so you can isolate them from your other random reads.) Then I clicked on my “recommendations” tab at the top of the page and selected that shelf. Voila. 50 books that Goodreads thinks might interest me.

Now this doesn’t mean these 50 books will have anything in common with my WIP. Goodreads can’t know why I added which book. But the cool thing is that if you mouse over each recommendation without clicking, it will tell you which book it’s basing its recommendation on at the bottom, with a little note that says “Because you added…” and the cover of one of the books on that shelf. Using this and the blurbs, you can eliminate a lot of options, and then add some intriguing ones to your “to read” shelf. (And you should definitely read them. You couldn’t pay me enough money to compare my WIP to a book I haven’t actually read.)

By doing this, I’ve found several new books to read before I send my query, in hopes that one or more of them might be the most precise comparable yet. Pretty cool, huh?

My request for your recommendations.

Finally, no matter how much fun the Goodreads trick is, it’s still a computer-generated list, which makes it flawed. What I’d love to hear from you all is if you happen to have any more suggestions for me. What I’m really looking for right now is a post-apocalyptic horror novel that isn’t based around zombies or vampires. If you want brownie points, I would also love it with a wide scope, on the literary side, and starring a female protagonist. Adult is preferred. Any suggestions?

Also, I’d love to hear what your experience is with comparables. Any tips, thoughts, or discussions are welcome! Have you chosen comparables before? Did you enjoy it, or did it stress you out? How’d you decide which books and how many to list? Do you think they’re a necessary part of a good query?

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  • I forgot to tell you guys what I already have! I haven’t
    read all of these yet, though, so if you think one sounds spot-on go ahead and
    let me know. Here’s my list so far:

    Justin Cronin, The Passage

    Colson Whitehead, Zone One

    Carrie Ryan, The Forest of Hands and Teeth

    Jeff Long, Year Zero

    Cormac McCarthy, The Road (probably too famous to use)

    Stephen King, The Stand (probably too old to use)

    Alden Bell, The Reapers Are the Angels

    Rhiannon Frater, The First Days

    Marcel Theroux, Far North

    Charlie Huston, Sleepless

    • AnnabelSmith

      The Passage is an amazing book but it’s based around a kind of zombie/vampire

      • Yes! That’s actually why I didn’t want any more. I’m using one vampire, one zombie, and one that’s neither. The Passage = the vampire. =)

  • Melissa Crytzer Fry

    What a fabulous post, as usual Annie.I LOVE the Goodreads tip! LOVE, LOVE, LOVE it. I’m at pretty much the same stage as you with edits. And for me, the entire querying process stresses me out. For novel 1, when applicable, I compared my book to ones that agent actually represented. And like you, I felt I HAD to read them to make that comparison. I also cheated on occasion (which I’m seeing was probably not in my favor) in that I compared myself simply to other ‘writers’ and not specific books.

    I so wish I had some advice for you on other comps. But it’s a genre that isn’t really familiar to me (though it will be once I buy YOUR book!)… Best of luck!

    • Thanks Melissa! I’m so glad you like the tip. I was pretty giddy when I figured it out. =) And I think comparing yourself to other writers is still better than nothing, especially if those writers are particularly “nichey.” We do seem to be at about the same stage with our WIPs. Good luck with yours!

  • Paula

    This is such a good post, I’d never even thought of this.
    Thanks for brining it up Annie!

  • I don’t have much experience querying (sent out two early this year, then backtracked because I realized there were still some big things I could and should change in the novel) so unfortunately I have no advice for you. But your tips have given me a lot to think about as I move forward with the current novel. Thanks!

    • The more you know! I totally respect your decision to stop and revise. Best of luck with moving forward.

  • got showing to show you at group tonight:-)

    • That one looks cool but I need a novel instead of an anthology. Tell me if it’s good though! I still might read it after you.

  • Amanda

    This is a remarkably helpful post. Thinking back to the queries I’ve sent out, I can definitely see how I might want to revise them. My comparables are all old or famous. Whoops! Thank goodness I haven’t sent all that many so far. It’s also fascinating to hear about your experiences regarding revision, since I’m sort of in this weird uncertain space of having decided that my novel is ready to go, but not being really sure whether that’s true.

    I have no advice – I’ve queried like five people ever in my life, and I’m still not sure what mistakes I’ve made (other than not putting enough stamps on one of my envelopes – MAIL FAIL).

    The last post-apocalyptic novel I read was Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. It isn’t horror, but fits your criteria otherwise. It might be too old or too famous, though. Still, it’s definitely worth a read.

    • Lol, mail fail! I like that. It happens; one time I put the a different agency’s name and address under an agent. Pretty sure she wasn’t tickled. But we’re only human.

      And I’m really glad the post is helpful to you; that’s why I wrote it. I was too head-strong to listen to most advice when I was first starting out, but it would have saved me some grief. So yeah, whenever I can share what I’ve learned, I feel good about that.

      As to when you know if you’re really finished… I was just talking to @openid-86336:disqus about that on Facebook. Here’s what I said: If you no longer have a reaction to scenes that other readers have a strong reaction to, you’re probably finished. Good luck with yours, Amanda.

      I will definitely find Parable of the Sower on Goodreads. Thanks for the rec!

  • I am absolutely lacking in the skill of being able to compare my work. My mind over-complicates everything! The moment I think, “it shares these traits with this story”, it’s immediately countered with, “but has nothing to do with these other things!”. Just one of those skills which will take me a while to master, I think. Because comparisons are vital, as you said, for putting the reader in the mind mindset of what to expect.


    • I totally understand that. I used to struggle with the exact same aspect of it. Like, what if I compare my book to a novel because of the setting or genre, but the main character isn’t very likable? Am I shooting myself in the foot? Eventually I just had to get over that, although if you’re really worried about it, you could specify *why* each book you list is like yours. Takes up a little bit more space, but could give you peace of mind.

  • Jordan

    Great idea! I’ve tried this but haven’t had a whole lot of luck. I also like to use Amazon’s suggestions the same way.

    • I’ve never tried it with Amazon before. I hope you have better luck with Goodreads!

  • Regina Richards

    Great tip about using Goodreads to find comparables.

  • My suggestions might be too old or too famous or too young, but I’m going to throw ’em out there anyway. (These are all on my GR “to-read post-apocalyptic” shelf.)

    Walter M. Miller, Jr. – A Canticle for Leibowitz

    Ben Marcus – The Flame Alphabet

    Jean Hegland –  Into the Forest: A Novel

    Jeanne DuPrau – The City of Ember

  • Okay, so I have no recommendations for your genre, but I love your advice here for people in the querying stage. As usual, it’s practical and useful and I will pass it on!

    • Thanks Nina!

      • Taurean Watkins

        I also am unable to advise you, and that’s only because I can’t even do it for myself, let alone someone else. I just feel this whole comparison thing does NO ONE but the marketing world any lick of good. 

        How are people ever supposed to feel even an OUNCE of confidence in doing things THEIR way, if we have to cross-reference others to the umpteenth degree? What good does it REALLY do?!

        Besides, if you can find no “modern” comparable worth mentioning, what can you do? It’s not in me to just throw away years of work just because there’s nobody to compare my story to. Why should I, anyway?

        Are Anne of Green Gables and Pippi Longstocking exactly the same, just because their spunky girls with red hair?

        Are Lassie and Snoopy the same because they’re dogs? Hardly, in my opinion.

        Besides, isn’t the point of querying to show OUR story, not someone else’s, because while “comparable” may share some things in common, most writers I know, myself included, don’t copy someone else’s approach exactly. While some writers may find writing “in the style” of someone else a way to help their own process, some of us find that confining beyond tolerating, and despite what the “Hard Knocks” folks might say, not everyone can learn that way, doesn’t mean we don’t want to or not trying, at all.
        (No Yoda quoting here, or I can’t be held responsible for what I reply next…)

        How does comparing REALLY show that? It feels like self-adsorbed name dropping whenever I do it, and I HATE coming off like a shifty used car salesman, anyway. What good does it do, really, I ask you.

        For every person who says “You can only be you” there’s just as many who still say “How’s what your doing like someone else, yet not so different it’s unplaceable) ” am  I the only one who feels torn here?

        AM I?!

        I ask because those I know don’t have this problem, or at least work through it better than me, I often feel like I come out of left field to my inner circle more often than not in matters like this.

        Feel better, Annie.

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  • Parable of the Sower/Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler. I’ll take it over The Road any day. Literary, fierce female, and certainly horrifiying (if shelved more likely in SFF than horror).

  • AnnabelSmith

    This is such a helpful post and was definitely something I struggled with when sending out my agent queries. I had one book that was too old and one that was too famous… And had no idea how to find others. I’m going to try that right now.

    • I’m so glad it helped! Best of luck finding new comparables.

  • A.B. Davis

    Your stalker here again! I know this post is old–but if I remember right, I think I saw Once the Darkness Comes is still a WIP to date–and my suggestion won’t perfectly match, but have you ever read The Road? If you have not, it is a post-apocolyptic novel with a heavy literary bent. I don’t know how horror-genre it is because I am still trying to work out for myself what I understand horror to be (your works and specifically your blog on the Horror Writers website have really sent me into a frenzy over this–an enjoyable, explorative one that is). Also, it follows a father and son, not a woman, but you might find the atmosphere or tone or themes are comparative. And it’s just a great novel everyone should give a read. 😉
    Also, thanks for the tip about comparables with Goodreads. Genius! I was wonderin what the heck that shelf was about on your Goodreads page.

    • Yes indeedy! The Road has been on my to-read list for years and years. It’s a classic in the genre, so I know I should read it, but for whatever reason it just doesn’t appeal to me very much, so I’ve been putting it off. And enjoyable frenzies are always good. =)~ You know I love blogging about horror — more coming soon!

  • I know what you mean about rushing to deliver the MS to an agent. I was thrilled to get a request, only to turn myself into a neurotic with a deadline and rush it right out to her. Big mistake. I won’t be making that one twice. But do you know what the average turn around is once a request for MS is made? Meaning, how long they’ll wait? Two days? Three? It seems like a fine line between perfection and the shot at losing the agent’s interest.
    The only problem I have with Goodreads is I can’t think of even one book that is comparable to mine. I’ve been searching everywhere for a starting point. My novel is about a cat burglar who chooses the wrong house and a perilous cat and mouse game ensues. Would you know of any that sound familiar? You’d be really helping me out. Unfortunately, I don’t read your genre so I have no suggestions for you. Best of luck with your search.

    • Hi Susan! The best lesson I took from that was not to query until the manuscript is COMPLETELY ready to go. Rushing it isn’t worth it. So the turn-around time *should* be within days. If for some reason you find yourself with requests and an unready manuscript, I would wait. Different agents have said different things about this, but in general they seem to go with “I’d rather wait and have the book be its best.”

      I’m really not at all familiar with the type of book you’re describing, so I’m afraid I can’t give you any comparables. Maybe you should send it around to some beta readers or take it to a critique group? Sorry I can’t help more! Good luck!

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