Sorry for taking Friday off, it was a three-day weekend AND my anniversary so I wasn’t around most of the time. And we’re back to talking about queries. Today it’s about comps. Comps is short for comparable titles. I saw a tweet just this week that apparently people thought it stood for competition? No. Advice on comps varies, but here’s the basics.
You don’t need them! You really don’t. Comps take a few forms, and you don’t need any of them. Your book should be able to stand on its own regardless of readalikes. Just like having no agent is better than having the wrong agent, not using comps is better than using the wrong comps. The two most common comps suggestions are the elevator pitch and the readalike.
The Elevator Pitch Comp
This works best for high concept: so, “THE ALICE NETWORK meets CAROL” is the comp for my historical novel about a woman who discovers her real parents are a murderer and his victim. These comps work because they tell you that, like TAN, there are two timelines that will intersect somehow, it’s historical, one character sets out to learn the truth about the earlier timeline’s events, and on. CAROL hints at the complicating aspects, the intrigue, violence, and queer content.
This is more common. “For fans of” or “may appeal to readers of” are the keys here. Regardless of elevator pitch or readalike, comps should have the same feel or vibe as your manuscript, not just plot elements. For example, my project in development about an autistic girl who is sexually assaulted could have any number of plot comps. But I chose SK Ali’s SAINTS & MISFITS because this book uses the sexual assault narrative to explore issues of Muslim community and identity, it’s not just “about” what happened, and that’s what I’m going for in my book as well.
Tips For Choosing Comps
- Read widely. WIDELY. Comps don’t have to be in your same genre, “It’s like a YA version of GONE GIRL” can be a comp. One of my favourite trunked manuscripts is “LES MISERABLES set during the American Revolution with magic.”
- If you can’t think of a comp, don’t push it. You want something similar, so the more you have to dig or search to come up with one, the less likely it will fit. Remember, comps set up expectations in the reader, and the wrong comp can cause a reader to be too jarred to appreciate what your book really is.
- This is from my post about query mistakes, but don’t use mega-bestsellers. This advice in controversial, but I stand by it. Most MBS used as comps are stand-ins for plot elements lately, not an overall similar vibe, and saying you know you’ve got the next big thing can be… egotistical? It also means you might not be widely read enough to name books that aren’t MBS. Conversely, don’t pick titles that couldn’t be described as having done solidly in their sales or reception–you want a comp that the agent will know and associate positively.
- Ask your readers. Presumably you have a beta reader or CP or two who read your MS before you query (if not, please to find some!) Ask them what your book reminded them of! You may be surprised, or at least get some good book recs out of it.
The thing about comps, and really about queries entirely, are that they are a holistic opportunity to show you know what you’re doing. When I do query crits, I always want the WHOLE query, not just your blurb, because everything hints at whether or not your book will be any good and if you know what you’re doing. Don’t believe me? If your blurb is quiet and introspective, but your comps are high concept, it could indicate you have a great idea that’s not executed to its potential. Or vice versa!
With comps, being able to show you know your market is important because writers who don’t read (enough at all or within their markets) are more likely to write something unpublishable, either because it’s been done before or it’s too far outside the genre to work. It’s easy to say, I just write the book, let an agent figure out all that market stuff, but again, this matters to your writing. Conversely, not having comps doesn’t signal that you don’t read or know your genre, but getting your comps wrong might.
Comp Q & A
And, for the nitty-gritty to comps, here is a Q&A, for which I thank my Magic Sprinting Squad friends, especially Alisha Erin Hillam.
How many comps should you have?
I recommend only one or two. Three only works if your blurb is sufficiently complex and your word count supports it, otherwise it’s muddy.
What makes a good comp: plot, characterization, or voice?
I suggest books that have the same overall vibe as yours, but definitely not plot. The agent can see what’s in your plot in your blurb, right? The comps can help flesh out the “feel” of the book. So voice and character. Don’t ignore plot, of course, but plots are a dime a dozen anyway, right? So if you pick a comp that has similar plot basics, hone in on the vibe through voice, approach, atmosphere, and character. This is especially important for, say, retellings.
OH GOD RETELLINGS HELP: Can a comp be TOO similar? If you’re writing a retelling, comp other retellings too, or avoid? What if your retelling is of a little less well-known story?
This is where the answer to the last question comes in. I would caution against using retellings of the SAME tale for your comps, because in this case you want to present how you stand out from those other retellings, right? Maybe you wrote about Snow White, but you comp a Little Mermaid retelling because it has the same approach to the original, you both turn the princesses into antiheroes or whatever. I think if you focus on finding books that have the same FEEL as yours you’ll do better.
Retellings are their own comp arena because there’s so many of them, and because of what they are, and definitely an area where plot is going to take a back burner to how you approach it. Otherwise, why wouldn’t we just read the original or one of the other retellings available? So in this sense, comps are still about giving us a better idea of how you approached your story and what it feels like, but for retellings it’s also about contrasting it from other retellings of the same story, by focusing on the former.
The exception to this is using an elevator pitch style comp. So if you wrote a story about Sleeping Beauty but it’s set in Persia, you could say something like, “It’s SPINDLE in Persia,” because the point is how your approach is different and this would show that, or something like, I don’t know, “ENTWINED meets AND THEN THERE WERE NONE when the twelve daughters of the local lord start dying tragically and they must figure out which one of them is the killer.” (I think I did just see a deal like this, actually, and I cannot wait because I LOVE 12DP but I digress.)
Generally speaking, can a comp be too similar? … yes, but this is more about your book than the comp. Make sure your book isn’t too derivative, and then your comps won’t be.
What if there’s a comp that could work, but had sort of a love/hate reception, but did well commercially? Risky or no?
Someone recently tweeted how Amazon’s algorithms favour books with at least a 3.5 rating and 15 reviews. You should too. That is, the book doesn’t need to be a bestseller, no, but it does need to have performed “solidly.” Love/hate controversy isn’t the same thing, if people are buzzing about the book, that’s great. It would depend on the book, specifically, but this is my general take.
What if you query an agent who sold your comp? Then what?
Then don’t write it like a readalike or an elevator pitch. I mentioned there were other ways to list comps, and this is one of those times. In this case, you put it in the personalization, “Because you represent THE ALICE NETWORK, I hope you might enjoy my historical fiction with strong female characters and an interwoven dual timeline, melded with the darker elements and queer aspects of CAROL,” for instance.
So! What have I missed? Ask your burning comp questions in the comments!