Comp titles: Agents love them; writers agonize about them. Comp titles are one of the most consistently misused aspects of querying, and it’s no wonder so many authors would rather dispense with them entirely. But a good comp title is a great selling point for any book. It’s well worth learning how to choose an effective comp title to use in a query.
In this post, I aggregated 12 blog posts from industry professionals (list is after the cut) and noted what advice they mentioned most often.
Don’t use extreme bestsellers as comps: 7
The most common advice was not to use extremely popular books as comp titles. Authors constantly claim their book will be the next Harry Potter, but doing so only demonstrates two things: That you’re not realistic about your goals and that you probably haven’t read very widely.
Comps should be recent: 6
This was the second most common advice. Using really old comp titles, like The Lord of the Rings, is not helpful because it doesn’t demonstrate that there’s a market for your book today. (This is true even if the book still sells well today, because it doesn’t doesn’t show that there’s a market for a new book Agents listed cutoffs anywhere from 3-20 years, but the more recent, the better.
Comps demonstrate the market for a book: 4
The most common misconception about comp titles is that their purpose is to demonstrate what your book is like. It isn’t. Their purpose is to demonstrate that there’s a market for your book: That there are readers who bought similar books and will probably buy your book, too. That’s why it’s so important that comps be the same genre and age category, and above all, recent.
Don’t use overly obscure books: 4
The flip side of not using overly popular books is not to use overly unpopular books. A comp title is no use if the agent hasn’t read it, and if the comp title didn’t sell well, it’s not a good way to demonstrate that your book will. On which note, you also shouldn’t usually comp self-published books, since you’re trying to show that your book can compete in the world of traditional publishing.
Comps should be in the same genre and age category: 4
I lumped these two together, as did most agents who mentioned them. This is self-explanatory: If your book is kidlit, the comps should be kidlit. If it’s fantasy, the comps should be fantasy. Don’t use a book from another genre even if it’s really similar thematically or otherwise.
Comps are important: 3
Three people specifically mentioned that it’s important to include comps. However, one person specifically mentioned that you don’t need to include comps (see below). But no one said that they hate comps and never consider them.
Comps should be in the same format: 3
This is getting into the more technical publisher side of things, rather than the agent side, but if you plan to release a print book, don’t comp an ebook. If you want a hardcover run, don’t comp a trade paperback. Also, your comp titles should be, you know, books.
Comps should be from the same publishing season: 2
I’d never heard of this, but two different people mentioned that comps should be released at the same time of year as you plan to release your book. Again, this is mainly publisher stuff.
Finally, the following tips were each mentioned once. These are individual opinions and may not be representative of the industry as a whole.
-Comps should share your book’s themes
-Don’t use more than two comps
-Comps are not essential
-Movies and TV shows make good comps
-Tone is more important than plot
-You should be able to explain why the titles are comparable
-Comps demonstrate that you read your own genre
Two types of advice stood out as the most common. First, comp titles should be in the right range of popularity: Modest enough to be realistic, but popular enough to demonstrate your book’s potential. (My suggestion: Use titles that are very popular within your narrow genre or subgenre. For instance, I use some of the most popular YA historicals. They aren’t mega-blockbusters, but any agent or editor with the skill set to take on my book will know them.)
Second, comp titles should share as many technical features with your book as possible: Genre, age category, format, publishing season, and of course a recent release date. Conversely, few people mentioned more subjective elements like plot and themes. I conclude that finding reasonably popular comp titles that closely match your book in these respects, even if the plot or general feel of the book is very different, is a much better strategy than using more loosely-related books, even if they capture the subjective feel of your book very well.
The sources I used are after the cut.