How to Find Compelling Comps for Your Book

Image: hundreds of paper snowflakes hanging by threads from a ceiling
“paper snowflakes” by miheco is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Today’s post is by writer Star Wuerdemann (@starwuerdemann).

When you start querying agents about your book, very quickly you’ll discover their guidelines ask for “comps.” Comps stands for “comparable titles”: books that might be considered comparable to your own.

For many writers, coming up with comps is a daunting enterprise, but the important thing to remember is their key purpose: to show where your book would be shelved in a store or who your most likely readers are. Everyone from agents to publishing sales people to booksellers will have an easier time understanding what your book is like or who it’s for if a comparison can be made. “If you liked X, then you’ll like Y.” It also shows that you know something about the current marketplace and how your book fits in it.

On my quest to write the perfect query letter, I got stuck on what comps to use. I channeled my frustration into research. Here is what I learned from the experts.

Per Jane Friedman

  • If you can’t find any, you are probably looking for too similar of a comp. Look at aspects of a work that relate to yours: style/voice, themes, plot, or character quality/journey.
  • Focus your search on the last few years. You can go back up to ten years if absolutely necessary but if you do, pair the older comp with something more contemporary.
  • Try to find a comp that will show where you’re positioned in today’s literary landscape. If you were on a panel with other authors at a book festival, who would be seated next to you?

Per Carly Watters, literary agent at P.S. Literary

  • The comp must be perfect: no comp is better than a poor comp.
  • It’s OK to use film/TV as comps, as well as authors and podcasts instead of books.
  • Do your best to find at least one comp.
  • The comp can be a bestseller, but if a book has become ubiquitous, it is too popular to be a comp. 
  • You can use the following formulations to talk about your comps: “This (x) meets that (y)” or “in the tradition of” or “Like Y, my novel.”
  • Consider your category/genre and where your book fits in the publishing world. How would your book be pitched?

Per Janet Reid (aka Query Shark)

  • Comps are a shorthand for where the book belongs on the shelf and/or what kind of reader will like the book.
  • What books, published in the last two years, appealed to readers who will like your book? “[TITLE] will appeal to readers of _______”
  • What books, published in the last two years, are similar in plot or tone to yours? “[TITLE] evokes the story of ______”
  • Describe what aspect of the book is comparable to yours: the tone, the multiple points of view, the style, et cetera.
  • Once there’s a movie, assume the book is not a good comp. Also assume this if the author has 20+ bestsellers. Ask: Is it a success or a phenomenon? If it’s a success, comp it!

What I did to find my comps

  • I looked at my own bookshelves. Maggie Cooper, a literary agent with Aevitas, emphasizes that we often read books that are in the same genre and influence our own writing.
  • I asked librarians. I told them the “dust jacket” version of my book, along with themes and writers I think I’m similar to.
  • I asked other writers, especially those in my writing group and beta readers who know my book.
  • I went to local independent bookstores, asked the booksellers, and browsed the shelves. At each store, I bought a couple of books to read—I considered it payment for the booksellers’ time and input.
  • I used EBSCO NoveList (accessed through my local library). This is especially helpful for similar themes, styles, and characters. It’s a great place to put in older titles and find more recent ones.
  • Goodreads and Amazon; I found these helpful for similar readers and similar genre books. I could also see how popular a title was based on the number of reviews. I found several books that would be excellent comps but the book wasn’t well-known enough so I couldn’t use it (but I did add some great books to my TBR pile).
  • I researched the last three years of “best of” lists. My book is literary fiction, so I looked for articles about “best literary fiction” in 2018, 2019, 2020.
  • I researched debut books of the last three years in my genre.
  • I checked out a ton of books through the library to listen to and read. This was the least painful part—getting to read other books! (Please don’t comp a book you haven’t read. It’s bad form, and it may very well not end up being an appropriate comp.)
  • I considered what books I would expect my readers to be reaching for and thought about why—then applied this to my search.
  • I discovered these websites after my search, but would totally check them out next time: BookBrowse and Literature-Map.

In the end, I used a recent debut novel with similar themes (family secrets) and storytelling methods (multiple POV told in alternating timelines that converge in present day) and paired it with a mystery/thriller that has nuances similar to a sub-plot in my book. As in: “debut X meets mystery Y.” One was super popular (but not ubiquitous) and one performed solidly with laudable reviews.

It took me two months of diligent work to come up with my comps. A lot of it felt like “wasted” time—going down internet rabbit holes only to come up empty. But none of it was actually wasted as I came out far better educated about the marketplace I’m preparing to break into. Engaging in the literary world and discovering what books are out there is always beneficial. Consider the comp hunt both a rite of passage and a learning opportunity—and may the odds be ever in your favor.*

* Don’t comp The Hunger Games. It’s ubiquitous. And too old anyway.

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