Don’t Stress Over Comp Titles
By David G Brown
I often speak to querying authors who hang their hopes and fears on comp titles and the dreaded “market paragraph” of their query letters. In reality, comparable titles aren’t as important as you might think.
Query letters don’t sell books
It’s true—your query letter isn’t going to sell your manuscript. Your manuscript will make that sale on its own. Your query letter has a different job.
The ideal query letter fills an agent with excited interest—with hope—that they’ve found a gem. And the opposite of hope is wariness. Agents see a lot of projects that are still in an early stage of development, so they can’t help but be on the lookout for red flags.
While it’s true that an agent’s level of hope or wariness impacts how eagerly they turn to your sample pages, your writing itself is the true test. A golden query letter won’t save you if agents don’t connect with the voice or if they aren’t quickly immersed in the opening scene.
Comp titles at their worst
Can the comp titles you choose for your query letter make or break your submission? Yes, but it’s unlikely to happen if everything else in your query is doing its job. If you’ve written the next Pride and Prejudice, a savvy agent won’t reject you just because your comps are a decade old.
When it comes to “bad” comp titles, the typical red flags include books that are “out of date” and/or super famous. If you claim to be the next Tolkien or Hemingway, you’ll sound pretty full of yourself, and—just maybe—some writers with inflated egos lack the introspection required for deep revision.
“Out of date” means anything that was published more than three years ago. Keep in mind that comp titles are meant to demonstrate your manuscript’s place in the current market, not just to draw parallels with other narratives.
Even so, agents are aware that there are future bestselling authors out there who may not be nailing their comp titles. So… what comps might be so terrible to make an agent pass on your project?
Depends on the agent. If you claim to be the next Shakespeare of the rom-com novel, they might think you’re amusingly cheeky or that you are insufferable. If your comps are all from TV and movies, they might think you don’t read enough to succeed as an author. If you comp a novelist they despise, whether for content or style or politics, they might well conclude that you aren’t a good match for them personally. Agents are on the hunt for immersive and engaging narratives, but they also want to have a positive relationship with their authors.
Comp titles are important, but not that important
Knowing your comps means knowing what books your future readers are currently buying. From an industry perspective, that translates into a greater chance of success. Strong comps demonstrate that there’s a market awaiting your manuscript. It means your work might be easier to sell.
But agents also ask for comps because publishers want them. They are a typical part of the submission package by agents to acquisitions editors, the reason being that they help publishers with their initial market assessment of your manuscript.
If you were to land representation without the best comps, your agent will help you decide what they could be. Even if your agent likes the comps from your query letter, they may recommend changing them or adding to them when it comes time to approach publishers.
Can’t decide on comps? Here’s some advice
Your comps don’t need to mirror your story’s plot. They don’t need to have the same themes. They don’t even need to be the same genre (although I don’t recommend pushing this one too far). They can be a book that inspired you or gave you an idea for your manuscript. Maybe the protagonist has a similar vibe to yours. Maybe your book features a similar setting. The only underlying requirement is that you can reasonably expect the fans of a comp title to also buy your book.
And now for a confession: when I landed an agent for my YA science fiction manuscript, I hadn’t actually read the comps in my query letter. I just went onto Goodreads and looked at a ton of blurbs from new releases in my genre.
About a year later, my agent asked me something about one of these titles. I’d forgotten it was one of my comps, so I said, “No idea, never read it.” She called me a brat and jokingly demanded I buy it and get back to her. I did, and here’s the worst part—I really disliked the book.
If your queries aren’t netting full requests, look beyond the comps
If you’ve sent out twenty or thirty query submissions and received only rejections (or worse—silence), chances are the issue isn’t just your comparable titles. Agents I’ve interviewed estimate 80-90% of submissions they receive are not ready for representation. In other words, the manuscripts aren’t yet fully cooked. There might be issues with the concept, the pitch, the voice, the POV, the overall plot and/or pacing, or even just the opening chapter.
Rather than crossing your fingers and spamming out ten more identical query submissions, treat each round of querying as a batch test. Send five. Wait. If you don’t hear back, keep revising, keep asking yourself the hard questions—keep holding your toes to the fire! Silence and rejections are a sign that you still have more work to do, and that most likely means work on your manuscript, not merely your query letter.
David G Brown is an award-winning short fiction writer, and his debut novel is represented by the Donaghy Literary Group. He has published poetry, fiction, and nonfiction in magazines and literary journals, and he volunteers for the Malahat Review where he interviews writing judges and screens contest entries. He holds a BA in anthropology (UVic) and an MFA in creative writing (UBC). As an editor, he pays special attention to structure, relationship arcs, and voice. David lives in Victoria, Canada, in the traditional territory of the Esquimalt and Songhees Nations.