Literary agents on comparable titles

The importance of comparable comp titles in a query letter

How important are comp titles in a query letter?

Nothing in a query letter is more important than the pitch. However, other elements like comparable (comp) titles and personalization can elevate your submission and make an agent even more excited to turn to your sample pages.

Many querying authors think comp titles are simply meant to give an agent an idea what their manuscript is like, but that's not quite the point. Agents want to see comps not just for a plot comparison, but as a demonstration that you are actively reading within your market and therefore know your manuscript's place within it. That means mid-list titles that have come out in the last few years.

In other words, imagine your manuscript is being published tomorrow. What other titles will appear alongside yours on the new-release shelf at your local bookstore?

What to avoid with comp titles:

  • Likening your manuscript to classics and household names like the Great Gatsby or the Lord of the Rings 
  • Listing only comps that were published decades ago
  • Listing only movies or shows instead of novels
  • Claiming your manuscript is completely unique (that might be true, but it's very unlikely, and you should still have an idea of what else your audience is reading)

How to find comp titles for your manuscript

You can fudge it by going onto Goodreads and scouring summaries of recently published novels in your genre, and that might be enough, but it's also not the point. Ideally, you should be reading some of these titles to make sure that you actually like the novels you are including as comps, and also to gain a better sense of what else your audience is reading and why.

Literary agents on comp titles

If you've done much research into the "art" of the query letter, you may have noticed many (often conflicting) recommendations about paragraph order, personalization, comp titles, etc. However, if you look at some successful query samples, you’ll find many of them break a “rule” or two.
That being said, here are some more thoughts from agents who have been kind enough to participate in our Book Broker interview series:

"Though you don’t want to oversell yourself, a simple example might be: the edginess of The Kite Runner, the voice of The Catcher in the Rye, and the setting of The Help. From the above examples you get a quick snapshot of what this project might be: an edgy, voice-driven project set in the South." —Elizabeth K. Kracht

"Comparable titles are a huge plus for me. They not only give me a preemptive sense of your work, but they also show that you have that clear vision for how your book fits into the marketplace, while also showing me that you are a reader yourself. Please don’t tell me that your book doesn’t have any comparable titles – of course your work is unique, but it will ultimately attract readers who have read similar books!" —Lauren Scovel

"It’s wonderful if you’ve written something comparable to A Confederacy of Dunces or Rabbit, Run, but those don’t tell me much about how your book fits into today’s market, and while I will say I don’t think I’ve ever passed on a book because of the comp titles, outdated ones serve as something of a red flag." —Kate Garrick

"Take a good hard look at your writing and what titles you use and be honest with yourself. Do your homework and read the books you are comping and not just the summary on Amazon." —Lisa Hagan

"I’d rather hear about a work without comps because, generally, an author is reaching, comparing to a title that has sold enormously well, which makes me feel less confident about the work before I’ve even seen it!" —Laura Gross

"Great comparable titles give a clear picture of where a manuscript fits in the current market. So comps can really make your query stand out above the rest. But again, don’t panic if you can’t figure it out; just try your best. I’ve seen some ridiculous comp titles over the years, but I don’t dismiss the query because of them." —Mary C. Moore

David Griffin Brown (Septimus Brown) is the founder and senior editor at Darling Axe Editing

David Griffin Brown is an award-winning short fiction writer and co-author of Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. He holds a BA in anthropology from UVic and an MFA in creative writing from UBC, and his writing has been published in literary magazines such as the Malahat Review and Grain. In 2022, he was the recipient of a New Artist grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. David founded Darling Axe Editing in 2018, and as part of his Book Broker interview series, he has compiled querying advice from over 100 literary agents. He lives in Victoria, Canada, on the traditional territory of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations.

Immersion & Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling

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