I’m a writer who loves a theme, and as you may’ve noticed, my last few posts have focused on final revisions in preparation for tossing a story out in the big, wide world, and the first steps in pitching your newly polished gem through contests or pitch events.
It follows then that the next logical step in our little publishing journey is (hopefully) gonna be replying to the interest your Shiny Book Baby garnered via those pitches. Contests and events are a great shortcut. Unfortunately, they aren’t a free pass. Any requests from events will also include a request for a packet of some sort, including a query letter/one sentence pitch/short blurb/tagline.
Yeah, sorry. Since the anatomy of a successful query letter is a semester-long class unto itself, we aren’t touching that puppy here. My best suggestion is to check out past MW posts, dive into QueryShark, and camp out for a few weeks.
However, once you understand the structure of a query, you can certainly crib from your pitches to shorten the process and make your query memorable. At the moment, the use of comps—comparative titles—seems to be the hot topic down in the query trenches.
Do you need them?
What are they good for?
What even makes a good comp?
Do you have to stick to literature for your comparisons?
My obligatory .02?
No, you don’t always need a comp, and honestly, bad comps are much, much worse than no comps. Watching from the sidelines, a lot of people seem to randomly choose a bestseller, toss it in at the close of their query or pitch, and call it a day. If you can’t muster up the enthusiasm to dig deep, my suggestion would be to simply skip comps all together.
Buuuut…comparisons can come in handy. They often serve as a form of shorthand and are especially eye-catching in pitch events or even as elevator pitches, when you have very limited real estate (240 characters) or time (“What’s your story? You have until we reach the next floor to dazzle me.”) to sell your concept.
At their core, comps are simply meant to help agents or editors visualize your story, and understand where they could place it on a BAM or Amazon shelf. To a lesser degree, they also show agents your familiarity with your genre. Have you read widely? Do you understand what’s out there, and what’s selling? Both of those can play into an agent deciding a writer is professional and savvy enough to go into a business partnership with.
As far as the bones of a successful comp, the general rule is keep it contemporary, something traditionally published within the last 2-3 years, and avoid anything that’s an outlier, either with sales no one but a super-niche reader would recognize, or with mega-sales that aren’t easily repeatable and that may’ve burned out the market. Obviously, the exception would be using a comp regarded as part of the Western Literary Canon—Pride and Prejudice, Romeo and Juliet, Lord of the Flies (ya know, if you want generations of school-age readers to curse your name)—you get the idea.
Whatever books or authors you choose—be sure and hit your genre. Seems like a Duh! statement, but it’s easy to lose sight of your core story when brainstorming. Comparing your High Fantasy quest to Dan Brown because you’re thinking of the mystery/conspiracy elements is usually a misfire. There’s simply too much of a logical leap involved for most agents. Due to the sheer volume of queries they receive, the sad truth is that often they’re looking for a reason to stop reading and move to the next message in the box. Don’t give them that reason.
However, do aim for that hook, that twist that that sets your cyberpunk brainchild apart from every other cyberpunk story. Agents can’t sell another Ready Player One. They can sell a different take on Ready Player One.
Are you limited to only using books? Nope. Media, movies and TV shows are certainly fair game, especially in pop-culture heavy genres. Using Jessica Jones lets an agent know you aren’t just talking broken female protagonist, but a specific version of a broken female protagonist. Big caveat here—since you’re also trying to position your book and show your industry savvy, using all TV/Movie/other media comps without including at least one book title can backfire.
The final consideration when stringing together your carefully chosen comps is format.
Because I learn best by example, you get to as well. I’ve included real, live examples from recent queries that have netted interest, agent offers, and publishing deals. Many thanks to my generous CPs and Pitch Wars peeps for the examples.
First, it’s legit to go with an “X meets Y” or “Will appeal to fans of…” format. Simple, elegant, and to the point.
- For a manuscript that touched on middle grade Latinx identity—“The First Rule of Punk and The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora.”
- For a multicultural YA epic fantasy—“THE WRATH AND THE DAWN meets SABRIEL”
- For a historical romance featuring an outspoken, non-traditional heroine and Bow Street Runners—“Cat Sabastien’s A Soldier’s Scoundrel and Lisa Kleypas’ Someone to Watch Over Me.”
These are all clear references and immediately let an agent know subject, tone, and theme.
Honestly though, not all stories lend themselves to a direct comparison. It’s no reflection on story complexity or quality, but those that include unusual worldbuilding, multiple subplots, or are genre mashups or include elements from outside a genre benefit from a presentation that mentions how your story is similar yet different. You’ll get more bang for your query buck with specifics. Pitching a manuscript as “A steampunk retelling of Beauty and the Beast with the gritty realism of Chuck Wendig’s Miriam Black and set in the courts of an alternate-history Mughal Dynasty,” provides a succinct, vivid image.
- From a post-apocalyptic, contemporary fantasy YA dealing with bigotry and government corruption—“SHADOW AND BONE meets Antifa, for fans of VICIOUS.”
- To highlight a dual-POV contemporary in a genre that is usually single-POV—“Eleanor and Park meets When Dimple Met Rishi for a YA contemporary romance that explores serious issues of….”
- For an autistic girl/woman joining a baseball team as a pitcher—“PITCH (the sadly cancelled TV show with a cult female athlete following) meets THE SOMEDAY BIRDS.”
- For an UF series, with portals to other dimensions and a romantic subplot—“The dual-world-building of The Magicians with the intrigue and heat of Karen Marie Moning.”
Thus concludes our lesson on comp titles and querying. Good luck in the trenches, and I’d love to hear what comps you guys are using, if you feel like dropping the details in the comments.