Yah, about those comparative titles…did you read them?

I watched an author interview the other day, and it’s a tossup as to who winced harder – the author or me. All went well with the interview clear up until Ms. Hairdo asked, “I loved your book! It picks up where ‘Comparative Title’ left off. Did you write your book with ‘Comparative Title’ in mind?”

Blink blink.

Deer in headlights look.

I could almost hear the author’s sphincter puckering.

He had no idea what Ms. Hairdo was talking about. Why? He hadn’t read the book. And now he was looking like an aarvark that had slipped on jello. On national TV. It was an awkward moment as Mr. Author tried to extricate himself from the sticky wicket. Ms. Hairdo – a bit slow on the uptake – tried to help him out by asking another question, but the pace and flow of the interview had left the building.

It’s so easy to make yourself look wonderful and knowledgeable if you simply know how to prepare. Most of us ask for comparative titles when you query, which in a perfect world shouldn’t be a big deal because all authors are well read in their genre, right? We ask for those comps because our sales teams need that information when they go a-calling on libraries and genre buyers. It’s one thing for a sales team to pitch a title and quite another to say, “in the field of Catholic abuse, there is no book like The Unbreakable Child, and readers of A Child Called It will find Kim Michele Richardson’s book a vital addition to their library for her uplifting message of forgiving the unforgiveable.”

Additionally, I’m confident that Kim Petersen would give a very glib answer to how Charting the Unknown compares to Eat, Pray, Love…besides saying Kim’s book is much better, that is.

Why is this so important? Because a comparative title gives a reader – or genre buyer – a frame of reference. The comp titles you provide to an editor is an integral part of selling the book because they know which marketplace and audience to target.

And I check these out like the beagle hot on the trail of a bacon sandwich. The better comp titles I have, the better we all can key in on the marketplace. Now, if you just wandered through Amazon and swiped three titles that appear to be in your particular genre and you didn’t read them, you could be doing yourself a huge disservice, like Mr. Author HolycowI’manidiot.

This happened to me not too long ago. I was uploading a title to our distributor’s database and came across the title comps the agent and author had sent to me. They sucked stale Twinkie cream because they had only the loosest association with our book. Iwas a bit cranky on two fronts:  not only did I know full well the author hadn’t read the books, but now I had to go back and get new title comps that actually fit the content of our book. So off to Amazon I went…nabbing titles I felt would work. The day was saved, I drank some wine, and the earth continued to spin on its axis.

Now, if the author ever happens to be asked about those comp titles, I daresay she’d be able to pull off a fabulous answer because she knows her stuff like she knows the color of her car. And she’s unflappable.

But how ’bout you? Are you unflappable and could muddle through with something brilliant and witty while on national TV? My point is that you must know your competition…not just to satisfy cranky editors and shark-toothed sales teams, but also to prevent you from looking like a doofus on TV.

Like I said, it’s so easy to look fabulous and prepared, but in order to look that way, you gotta be that way. Title comps. Read ’em. Look brilliant.

10 Responses to Yah, about those comparative titles…did you read them?

  1. NinjaFingers says:

    Yeah. I’m about to have to go out and get a copy of a book because one of my beta readers compared the novel I just finished to it. Favorably.

    Ack! No, I hadn’t read that particular book. Besides, it’s YA and I write for adults, but…yeah. So, now I have to read it because if one person said it, others are likely to. And…

    *eyes the four SHELVES of books on her to be read list*

  2. danholloway says:

    I remember you saying you didn’t like “comps” in a query letter a few posts back – but yes, it’s important to be aware of them – surely most authors are, and have spent half an age differentiating their book in their head?

    The more cringeworthy type of thing comes whe the interviewer has a brain fart. I had the pleasure of taking part as a reader in Literary Death Match late last year. it was an absolute blast,and I had a fantastic time with the judges offering their, er, “opinions” to the crowd. One of my poor fellow readers had one of the judges tell him direct she’d really loved his reading because it had so many of the same themes and stylistic markers as a TV show that’s about as diametrically opposed to his book as it is possible to get. Yes, he did have to scrabble around for something to say – but he wasn’t the one who looked like a dufus.

  3. Brian Clegg says:

    I think I would have resorted to the classic interview response re ‘Comparitive Title.’

    “Well [look of deep insight], I guess my answer is yes and no. It’s certainly true that Comparative Title makes some useful points, but this is really just the beginning. You might say Comparative Title is Star Trek the original series to my book’s Next Generation.”

    That should do it.

    Seriously, though, good point, Lynn. It’s easy with the kind of non-fiction I write, because you would be stupid not to read Comparative Title as part of your research, but with different genres it’s something that’s going to take more effort.

  4. authorguy says:

    My big problem with comp titles is that I write my fantasy novels to be different from anything I’ve already seen, so there are no titles I would ever compare my books to. I wouldn’t mind if someone suggested a title I’d never heard of, or if I came across a title that was similar after I’d written the book. But if I read a book like mine while I was writing it I’d change my story to not be like that.

    Marc Vun Kannon
    http://authorguy.wordpress.com

  5. Dan, a query letter shouldn’t have title comps. But a full book proposal does. And even if no one asks for title comps, writers should always be well read in their genre.

    Brian, you ol’ smooth-talker. I’d never worry about you fuddling through anything.

    Mark, I hear this a lot – “there is nothing that compares to my book” – and I (and most editors) will raise an eyebrow. There is always something – some element – that’s reminiscent to something else. Try asking your beta readers. They are always great at seeing things we don’t see.

  6. authorguy says:

    I’ve never had a beta reader. I’ve never even done a second draft(except for my first novel, but only because the computer the first version was on crashed). I admit my stories do remind me strongly of The Hero’s Journey, but I’d be hard pressed to imagine any story that didn’t.

  7. Meghan says:

    Can you recommend some good ways to come up with “comparable titles?” (Keyword searches on amazon.com maybe? Or book review sites?)

  8. Look on Amazon under key words that best fit your book. Though I do hope you’re looking at them in order to read them. I know very few successful authors who aren’t very well read in the genre they write.

  9. I’d just smile broadly and say ‘that’s a lovely compliment’ and then completely ignore the rest of the question and bang on about my book and what fun it was to write.

    There are no rules to say you have to answer the question. A bit like what I’m doing now? Have you heard about my book?

    *large hook enters stage right, yanks author away*

  10. Frank Mazur says:

    Would it be acceptable to answer the question with “I’ll have to get back to you on that”?

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