When you’re pitching or querying, comps are critical. But poorly chosen comps can work against you. How can you make sure you’re picking comps that increase your chances of getting your manuscript requested? Here are a few tips.
What are comps and what should they do?
“Comps” is industry speak for comparable titles or authors. Your two or three (but not more) comps should work together to do one job and one job only, which is fill in the blank in the following sentence:
“My book will appeal to readers who enjoyed ____.”
Your wording might be different, and that’s fine. We’ll come back to that next month, in Part II. For now, look at that sentence and pay attention to what it does: It identifies an existing audience who will enjoy your book.
- It doesn’t say, “I write like Bestselling Author X.”
- It doesn’t say, “My book is about themes of love and loss, like Bestselling Title Y.”
- It doesn’t say, “My book features dinosaurs, like Big Blockbuster Movie Z.”
All it does is say, “There is an existing audience who loved something, and my book will appeal to that existing audience.” As such, well-chosen comps are more about the market than they are about your book’s literary merit.
Now, if your comps speak to your book’s literary merit, that’s better than not having comps at all. So don’t go ditching them yet! Furthermore, the best comps pack a one-two punch, speaking to both merit and market. That’s another thing we’ll come back to next month.
As a slush reader, I like to say that good comps give me the right lens through which to read your pitch. I can’t even guess at how many query pitches I’ve read over the years that left me completely befuddled, scratching my head and asking myself, “What is the author trying to do here and who is the intended audience?”—until I got to the author’s comps and the light went on. Suddenly, I got that the author was reaching out to the existing readership of Christopher Moore or Arundhati Roy or the Dublin Murder Squad series. And suddenly I could see the connection, and that I (having likely just read twenty consecutive YA fantasy queries) had been reading this particular pitch through the wrong lens.
What can you comp?
In the world of novels, comps are most often books, series, and authors. But they don’t have to be. You can also comp movies or movie franchises; TV shows; comic books, manga, or anime; and documentaries or docuseries. Anything that has captured the hearts, the minds, or even the voyeuristic fascination of a large group of people can be a useful comp.
Comps should be recent and relevant.
How recent? There’s no useful way to stamp an expiration date on a comp. Some books (movies, TV shows, etc.) simply live longer in the Zeitgeist than others. So if you’re going to choose an older comp, make sure it’s one that’s still exerting considerable influence on today’s story consumers—at least those within your particular niche or genre.
Relevance has more to do with why and how your book will appeal to your comp’s existing audience. I mentioned above that comping writing style, themes, or story features (like dinosaurs) might be a wasted opportunity. Why? Because those alone are not generally the building blocks of audience, and comps should be all about audience. I’m going to go deeper into what I mean here next month in Part II of this article, so stay tuned.
For now, let me leave you with this image. Think of readers’ tastes as the globs of goo inside a lava lamp. They’re constantly on the move, floating around, rising falling, speeding up, slowing down, splitting apart, merging with other globs. It’s difficult to predict what those goo globs are going to do next or how long they’re going to stay a particular size or remain on a particular course. Yet that is exactly what career writers, agents, editors, and publishers are constantly trying to do, albeit with varying levels of success and sometimes by accident. A well-chosen comp tells industry folks, “Hey, look at that glob! It exists right now! And the reason it’s a glob is because all its particles enjoyed Only Murders in the Building. I’m telling you, that glob is going to love my book, too.”
Creative Commons Photo Credit: Ged CarrollTags: comparable authors, comparable titles, comps, pitching, query letters, query pitches, querying
Excellent advice. Thanks for publishing these tips.
Such a useful read; thanks. Understanding comps can be a bit opaque, but your article clarified much of my off-base thinking. Thanks much for the insight. Arthur
What a great elucidation of a very intangible topic.
Timely article for writers. Sure, it could break or make queries/stories. Thank you for posting this article. Very helpful.
Yes, always wondered why comps have to be generally regarded as books published within the last or previous two to five years. It would seem that if a particular book had a relevance to “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, if could and should be mentioned.
Thanks for sharing
I’m struggling with comps on this series. The precise comps are The Thin Man meets The Dresden Files. It’s more than a comp, really: The Thin Man is my inspiration for these characters. But the Thin Man is such a dated reference! And I don’t know of a more recent example of their relationship (except for Hart to Hart, which is also pretty dated, and less famous).
This article was incredibly useful. I’ve struggled with identifying comps for my current novel, but you’ve framed it in a very useful way.
My comps would be Robert B. Parker’s Spenser, blended with John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee, stirred together with Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, struggling in a near-future world where petroleum is illegal to burn.
This is brilliant. It changes everything for me about how to figure out which comps to use. Thank you!