Pub Rants

Author Comparison—Don’t Let It Backfire

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STATUS: I’m feeling a little bummed. Everyone I know is going to be at World Fantasy in Austin this weekend and did I decide to go this year? Nope. Sigh. I went last year and loved it but the November timing just didn’t work for me. Next year…

What’s playing on the iPod right now? HAVE I TOLD YOU LATELY? by Van Morrison

I have to say that, in general, I really like when writers include in their queries what I call author comparables—which means a listing of a maybe two or three already published authors and their comparable books (as in same type of tone, same genre, same audience etc.)

It let’s me know that the writer has contemplated the market and where his or her book is going to sit on the shelves. Readers of these authors will also like what this new writer has to offer. It can be very savvy. It’s an instant context for the agent and hey, that never hurts.

But recently I got a query letter where the writer compared the work being pitched to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Now it’s fine to say it’s similar in theme or in the same vein but this writer took it a step further wanted to show how the two differ.

Now this in itself isn’t a bad idea but the writer is now moving into risky territory. Why? Because sometimes it’s hard to talk about what is unique about your book without implying that it might be lacking in Neil’s. (And to even imply that your book might be “better” than Neil’s is pretty ballsy.) Not to mention, the agent might be thinking, “Yep, I know how these two will differ in a big way because how many people in the world can write as well as Mr. Gaiman. Don’t even go there.”

It can backfire.

I actually don’t think that was the query writer’s intent so I didn’t “read” it that way but it takes really careful phrasing in the comparison paragraph to not have it come off that way.

Just heads up that if you are using this approach in your query, proceed with a little caution.

18 Responses

  1. Kimber An said:

    I’m wary of comparing my stories to already published novels. Not sure why. Just doesn’t feel right. I do compare them to mythology (Hua Mulan and Psyche and Cupid) and even some of Shakespeare’s plays, like the Tempest. I don’t want to compare it to Star Wars, because my story has a very ‘Anti-Chosen One’ theme. And Star Trek, well, I’m just not worthy! Maybe it’s because I think it’s not a good idea to be inspired by currant stories. It feels like stealing to me, or like I don’t have enough imagination of my own. Mythology, on the other hand, is the story of the human race. Like I tell my Crunchy Critters, if you want to tell stories to humans it’s in your own best interests to study mythology.

  2. Maprilynne said:

    I am reading American Gods now and am just loving it!!!
    This doesn’t have anything to do with your post, but I love the addition of “sites that inform and protect writers.” This new IILAA thing is scary (and silly if–big if–you are already savvy about the agenting business). I think everyone in the writing community is doing a great job and spreading the word though and I’m happy to see you doing your part. Your blog gets a lot of traffic so I imagine it will be very valuable.

  3. pacatrue said:

    There was a query that came though Evil Editor’s site several months back, I think, and a whole bunch of people thought the query sounded just like Gaiman’s American Gods. Of course, I have no idea if you have received this query, updated, or not – the odds seem low and Gaiman is really popular. The point is that I wonder if the author was responding to some critique group’s concerns that his or her novel sounded too much like Gaiman. And therefore they added a whole section about how it was different. Sounds like the better way to go about it is to pitch your story in such a way that it is clear how it’s different without having to make the comparison explicit.

  4. Termagant 2 said:

    This whole exercise seems overly gutsy to me. Unless my work’s been compared, by others, to writers I admire, I’d rather concentrate on what I’ve done. Comparing my stuff to someone else’s seems risky. What if your work resembles the one author that makes your dream agent put a finger down the throat?

    Just wondering,

  5. Zany Mom said:

    When mentioning published authors of similar works, does it matter if you personally (or your agency) represents them? Or just in the same genre?

    I’ve found it’s not always easy to find out who represents who (at least the last time I queried over 2 years ago anyway).

  6. Anonymous said:

    I was very relieved to read this post. 🙂 I have a direct comparison in my query (which has seen some success (VBG))

    I think the technique is a good one, as long as you don’t try to say your book is somehow better. I simply said my style is similar to such and such and I think readers of author X will most likely enjoy this book as well.

    No harm, no foul. 🙂

  7. katiesandwich said:

    Hmm. Yes, this is an intersting topic, but I think authors should be cautious with this approach. When I first started thinking about my query, I’d heard that agents liked to have something to compare a work to, and I spent all this time trying to fit my book into a “category.” If your book lends itself to comparisons, I think that’s fine, but don’t try too hard.

    Also, I did actually find a book that I think is similar in tone to mine, one whose readers I really believe would like mine. But when I mentioned this author to an agent at a conference (after he asked me to compare my work to someone else’s), he hadn’t heard of her. She was on the bestseller list a few years ago, but so far, she’s only published two books (just found out today that the third comes out this time next year!). So I think that’s another potential pitfall of mentioning an author in a query. Because I’ve always heard that you shouldn’t compare yourself to someone really well known… but at the same time, if you pick someone too obscure, the agent won’t know who you’re talking about.

  8. John S said:

    I’ve always been confused on how to use this advice. I understand the notion of showing a familiarity with the market, especially with other of the agent’s clients. But just how do you say it?

    “I recently read TITLE OF BOOK by your client Thee Fabulous Author and enjoyed it very much.”

    Now, if the book in question is not NEW this may sound a little lame…it sounds a little lame under any circumstances.

    “I thought that if you liked stories with X, Y, and Z, you might be interested in MY BOOK.”

    C’mon. Doesn’t pass the straight face test. How would such a notion be worded? Any thoughts?

  9. Anonymous said:

    I’ve used this in queries before. I simply say “My Book will appeal to the fans of Great Author of Hit Book.” Just to show that there is a market and I have some understanding of it.

  10. December Quinn said:

    I’m too scared of doing this. I’m always afraid it will put the idea in an agent’s head that I studied those books carefully and then wrote mine–in a plagiarising kind of way, you know?

  11. Linda Adams said:

    The thing we’re doing instead is looking for agents who represent writers with books in the same vein as ours. Then our query starts with something like “I’m a fan of one of your clients, John Smith.” It gets us away from comparisons, gets an author the agent has definitely heard of, and gets us to an agent who might actually consider the book.

  12. Wilfred the Author said:

    I too was hesitant to use a comparison, mainly, since I didn’t find one that really fit. I merely listed several authors that inspired my style. However, recently and author friend read a portion of my thriller and made the comparison for me. She told me my voice and style were similar to one of her favorite authors, Vince Flynn. I was surprised since Flynn is one of my favorites also.

    After going back and reading Term Limits, I can understand her compariso. Now I’m considering a carefully written comparison for a future submittal.

  13. Misty said:

    I’m in the same boat, about World Con. My agent, my editor and a boatload of my favorite authors are all going to be there…and because I took a weekend job dancing at the Renaissance faire, I’m stuck here.


  14. sharman said:

    Well now I’m totally confused. At least 2 of the agents I’ve recently queried (Jim Hornfischer, Levine Greenberg) have made it clear somewhere (online submission form, copy of talk at book conference, etc.) that they want you to talk about other similar books AND how yours is different. And they make it clear that different means better in the sense of why will people buy your book instead of the zillions of other books out there.

    Now I would never be so bold as to say I am a better writer than anyone else. But in comparing my book to a similar one that was a mega-seller, I do point out (in a tactful way, I think) that while both books are narrative nonfiction, mine is completely factual (after the other book was published, the author stated in interviews that he changed some things around for dramatic effect; it’s important to me that agents know that my book is 100% true – to the best of my knowledge – because it includes a lot of things that aren’t very believable). I also state that my book goes further than the other book and addresses important social issues, as revealed by the story. Some might take that as an unpublished, unproven writer criticizing the writer of a book that was on NYT best-sellers list for years and who am I to criticize. But how do I position my book (and give agents what they’re looking for) without presenting something similar? And how do I know that one agent will find this helpful and the next one will think I’m full of myself?

    Now I realize that you gave the writer the benefit of the doubt about what he/she meant when drawing a comparison to American Gods but it still sounds like your gut reaction to the comparison was somewhat negative.

    It just feels like there’s no winning at this game of trying to give agents what they want since they all seem to want something a little different and while is fabulous, most agents don’t have a web site that spells it out clearly direct from the horse’s (sorry) mouth. Enough whining…

  15. katiesandwich said:

    Weeeeeird! I was cruising the Snarkives and found this:

    Don’t compare your work to anyone’s. First, you’re not that person. And generally (like 99.9% of the time, the comparison is NOT in your favor)

    But the divine Miss S went on to say that if you say, “I think readers of so-and-so might enjoy my work,” that’s probably okay. Just one more example of how different agents have different tastes.

  16. Lynne Simpson said:

    I agree, December. For a variety of reasons, I’ve been leery of going the comparison route. So much in fantasy has been done to death that I don’t want it to seem like I’m trying to be just like someone else. But I can also see the wisdom of showing potential agents that you have some idea of what’s out there in the market.

  17. Janny said:

    I don’t believe in comparisons, for the simple reason that I can’t, in all honesty, say that “readers of Famous Author will like” my book–even if we’re remarkably similar in tone, setting, subject matter, use of language, or other such things.

    There’s no accounting for taste, and so I think we’re hazarding really brazen guesses by saying “Those who like this author will like my work.” For all I know, readers of Famous Author will think I’m trying to ape Famous Author when they see my book, and pass me up as a wannabe…or worse. And, as was said so eloquently before, I don’t like to compare myself to someone lest that author be on the agent’s or editor’s list of People I Never Want To Read Another Word From Again.

    How do I handle the request if it’s part of what an agent or editor likes to see? I try to avoid it, but when I have to put something into that little blank, I try to keep it as general as possible–my work is a mix of Famous Author and Spellbinding Author, for example…but I don’t list specific titles. (After all, even if I LOVE Spellbinding Author as a general rule, if she wrote a clunker or two and someone says, “My book’s just like Clunker #1,” that’s not going to make any points with me either.)

    My thoughts, anyway…


  18. Kanani said:

    I know that some writers have done this with a lot of success.

    Though it’s difficult to do, I think to know what inspires us is probably more important, though I pause because a lot of the writers who were influential to my writing are older and if an agent is younger, I wonder if they’ll know them.

    I’m a child of Steinbeck, and Wegner. Also was moved by the beauty of Doerr. Would I compare my work to theirs? Not really, but I’m indebted to them forever, and those who like their books would probably like mine.

    So then I have to dig for newer authors. Proulx, McGuane…. yup, that’ll do.