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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