Why comp titles are essential to a successful agent query letter — and how to find them
If you’re writing a query letter to literary agents, comp titles are an overlooked but underestimated factor in the strength of your submission. All my clients who have succeeded in getting agents and book deals have used solid comps in their queries, because as they’ll tell you I bang on about them. A lot.
In this article I guide you through the purpose of comp titles and ways to find them.
What is a comp title?
Comp titles are books already published that can be considered either a competitor or a complement to your unpublished manuscript. So there are actually two types of comps: competitors and complementary titles.
- Competitors — Competitors are books that could reasonably be considered a rival for your ideal reader’s money. Imagine your ideal book buyer facing a wall of books in the same genre or category as yours. (They could be standing in front of a shelf in a bookstore or scrolling a webpage of covers.) What book/s might stand in the way of them buying yours?
- Complementary — Complementary titles refer to books that might be considered “friends” or “neighbors” to yours. For example, if you have written a book about overcoming anxiety at work, then books about anxiety in other contexts (family, parenting, healthcare) might be relevant complementary titles. Complementary works are relevant but tangential to yours; they support and extend your chosen subject; as such they are typically most relevant to works of nonfiction.
Why do you need comp titles when querying a literary agent?
Nothing exists in isolation, certainly not books. (Do you know any book buyer who has read just one book?!) It’s helpful to provide comp titles when querying agents for reasons that include:
- Comp titles show literary agents what else has already been published by a traditional publisher, demonstrating a market exists for a book on a similar subject. If the agent is unfamiliar with a comp, he or she can find out how well a particular title sold, who published it, how it was published (produced and marketed) — and how it sold.
- Comp titles provide context to your own book. They help to define the shape of your book by helping you show differences between your book and your respective comps. Think of the market as a jigsaw puzzle — ideally there’s a gap in the exact shape of your book.
- Literary agents expect you to provide comp titles to help them when it comes to shopping your manuscript or pitching your proposal to a selected shortlist of appropriate book editors. This process is all about spoon-feeding relevant information in a persuasive manner to the agent, so that the agent can in turn utilize that information when defining and approaching a shortlist of appropriate editors.
It’s a real red flag when an aspiring author says, “Oh, there’s nothing like my book out there. There are no other memoirs or novels that do exactly what my book does.”
I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but that’s just not true. If it were true, booksellers would be out of business because they wouldn’t have any way to know who to sell your book to or how to describe it in such a way to attract you as a potential buyer.
The fact of the matter is that it’s essential to be able to compare your own work to others that already are out there because that shows agents and publishers there’s an existing market for something broadly comparable to the kind of book that you’ve written.
How do literary agents read the comp titles in a query letter?
You may find comp title research irritating and time-consuming, but it’s essential work. I’ll attempt to show the chain of influence that quality comp research can set in motion.
Chain-link #1: Writer’s submission to literary agent
Part of the literary agent’s work in reviewing a submission is looking for clues as to whether or not your book might be publishable. Existing sales of relevant related books — comp titles — are an important indicator of commercially viable.
So by including relevant and realistic comps you’re helping the agent by pointing to specific works that found readers. You’re establishing that there is precedent for someone who not only reads books, but buys them. Comp titles reassure an agent that
- book buyers bought these other books that you clearly show as being related to your work in one way or another;
- you have a good sense of where your book fits in the market; and
- you have established why yours is different or clarified your point of distinction.
Chain-link #2: Literary agent’s pitch to editors
Your literary agent needs to feel confident enough to pitch your work to editors at relevant publishing houses who themselves have a track record of publishing books in genres or subject areas related to your book.
It’s part of a good agent’s value to know which editor at which publishing house is interested in your type of book. That kind of knowledge is built on years of getting to know different people in the industry. Comp titles help shape the ‘shopping list’ of editors he or she will pitch your book.
Chain-link #3: Editor’s pitch to peers at acquisitions meetings
Editors are always looking for great book projects or completed manuscripts to acquire for their respective lists. When they decide they want to acquire your book, they must prepare a range of information for an acquisitions meeting, at which they will seek to persuade colleagues and senior purse-string holders that there is a market for the proposed title, and — assuming those colleagues agree — learn how much they can offer for your book. Comp titles are an essential part of the pre-acquisitions reading conducted by decision-makers, along with P&Ls (profit and loss statements) and other relevant background.
Chain-link #4: Publishing sales reps’ pitch to booksellers to order copies
Your editor must provide your publishing house’s sales reps with relevant and compelling information on comp titles to clearly and succinctly grab the attention of the person in the bookstore whose job it is to order copies of books, usually a few months in advance of the publication date.
The basic idea is that publisher’s sales reps talk to account holders — by which I mean bookstores, and also places that sell books that aren’t necessarily bookstores (maybe a department store or a chain store, museums and specialty stores and so forth) — and say, “we’ve got (your) fantastic book coming out and you need to order in many copies because people who bought X and Y (your comp titles) are going to love (your) new book.” The ideal bookseller replies, “Wow, we sold a ton of X and Y. I’ll order 100 copies of this book” (instead of “just a couple”).
Adding up all of those pre-orders helps the publisher get a whiff of the level of bookseller interest in your title nation-wide. (This partly explains the relentless quest for pre-sale orders on Amazon.) Pre-order numbers influence calculations about the first print run, marketing, publicity support, what regions of the country may be particularly interested in this work, and then providing additional resources to certain parts of the country to help with the campaign on pre and post release of your book.
I hope you can begin to see why spending time researching comp titles for your agent submission is worth it.
Four ways of thinking about comp titles
If you’re struggling to find or think of comps for your book project, here are a number of ways to approach your material so that you can look in different places for potential comp titles. There are usually elements of your manuscript that you can leverage to research comparison titles.
In the area of memoir, the theme of your book is often a useful point of departure for thinking about comps. Have you written a memoir about overcoming adversity of some kind? If so, is it emotional, physiological, professional, disadvantage of one kind or another? Adversity is an enduring theme of memoir; your comps must be specific to the challenges you face in your story.
Fiction writers can go wider. Does your story concern a relationship between siblings, or childhood sweethearts, a search for a missing family member, or an estranged parent-child relationship? Use the biggest questions of your novel to prompt your comp research imagination.
Author’s personal/professional background
What is your background as the author of this particular book? Are you a former teacher / racing car driver / bookseller / nun? Look for authors whose role or occupation is/was similar to yours.
Historical time period is useful for both fiction writers and for memoirists because oftentimes in fiction, you’ve got a dual time setting, you’ve got one story taking place in the historical time period, another one taking place closer to the present day, typically.
So look for other works that feature a dual narrative like that, and you will find many and they don’t necessarily have to be set in the same location, but the mere fact that they operate in similar time settings, historical time settings, is a useful comparison for a publishing professional.
For a memoir, look for other works set in similar territory, whether it’s the Himalayas, the Pacific Northwest, Appalachia, or the suburbs of a large city.
This is the easiest point of comparison, your subject itself. Is yours primarily a love story? Is it about sailing? Is it about pottery? Is it about coming out? Is it about overcoming poverty? These are all points for comp title research.
Do you write about an unusual dilemma or obsession? Think laterally — if your work is about a very specific obsession, a comp could be not only an older book on a similar topic, but also a book about an obsession of a radically different kind, but an obsession nonetheless.
Methods of comp title research
You shouldn’t have to travel far and wide to conduct comp research. Here are the main avenues I advise my clients to use:
1. Your own bookshelf
Review the books you read while working on your own manuscript. Look at your bookshelf for works you may have forgotten but were influential in forming your reading taste. Think about the stepping stones you took in books from then to now. Are there any patterns? Are there particular authors who were more of an influence than others? These are all useful channels for pursuing comp title research.
2. Ask your tribe
Whether it’s a Facebook group, a writers’ group, professional colleagues or friends with similar reading taste to yours, you have a lot of readers in your existing circles. Reach out with a simple question: Can you suggest books in which such-and-such happens? Or books about such-and-sjch a topic? Do you know of any works in which such-and-such happens? You will receive excellent leads if not nuggets of gold.
Search Amazon using the ways of thinking about your manuscript I have suggested above. Try to keep them to within the past five years if possible.
Comp titles are most valuable to agents if they are within the past five years, because they indicate current book-buying trends.
However, there is usually a standout title in a category that upon publication several years ago became a perennial bestseller or an enduring backlist title. Those books are worth including as comps … so long as you do not stuff your comp title list with #1 NY Times bestsellers. That is considered both amateurish and, statistically speaking, highly improbable.
4. Bricks and mortar bookstores
Go to your local bookstore and spend time in the section in which you hope to see your book stocked.
Check the cover splashes and back cover blurbs. Often publishers will splash something across the cover to link the book in readers’ minds to something else they know.
Phrases on book jackets such as: “In the tradition of …” and “For fans of …” reflect the commercial power of comp titles.
Similarly, check the author’s acknowledgments page and end-page ads for other books from the publisher for clues as to other authors who you may not have heard of but who are writing stories similar to your own.
Do you need help with your comp title research?
Clearly there’s work involved in coming up with solid comp titles as part of a strong literary agent submission. I provide a range of services to help maximize the strength and appeal of writers’ submissions to literary agents. Having been an agent and an author myself, I know what I’m talking about, but my clients’ testimonials and Google reviews speak loudest.
If you’re interested in learning more, please contact me for a no-obligation discovery call to find out how best I can help you.