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.
Bear in mind that with agents, unless the agent specifically asks for comp titles, or if you’re writing a nonfiction book proposal, this is a strictly optional activity. But it can be helpful!
So how do you do it?
Here are a few approaches that work:
[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 drawing upon two different works like so:
- It’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold meets Blade Runner
- It’s Fifty Shades of Grey meets Wolf Hall
- It’s The Hunger Games meets Jurassic Park
As you can see, I personally think it’s fine to draw upon movies and TV shows here, because the key is to just plant the essential style of your novel in the person’s head.
Try your comparison on your friends and gauge their “Huh”s. If they say, “Huh…” like they’re thinking, you may be on to something. If they’re saying “Huh?” like they don’t know what you’re talking about, try again.
I use a version of this format in conversation when I pitch Jacob Wonderbar as being like “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for kids,” which immediately resonates with anyone familiar with Hitchhiker’s Guide.
“Will appeal to readers of…”
The other main approach to comp titles is to simply list the books and authors whose work is similar to yours, and 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 the goals are slightly different.
For marketing to literary agents
The key here to understand is that 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 of this, 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 hone 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.
Also, as literary agent Tess Callero advises, make sure at least one of your comps was published within the last five years. Otherwise you might leave the impression that the zeitgeist for your book was in the distant past.
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].”
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, 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 it’s really going to help your book.
Be accurate and honest, don’t overthink it, and remember that at the end of the day it’s YOUR story that really matters.
But wait, there’s more!
• Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!
• For my best advice, check out my guide to writing a novel (now available in audio) and my guide to publishing a book.
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Art: The Seventh Plague of Egypt by John Martin