Title Comps – What’s the Big Deal?

apples for apples

At some point in your query process, someone may ask you for a list of comparative titles (preferably three). You eyes will roll back in your head, and you’ll scream to the heavens. “Argh, I just wanna write. I don’t wanna be hassled with the business end.” There are few who have that luxury, so sticking your heels into quicksand isn’t going to help your writing career. It would be better to be ready, right?

The big question is this: Why do I need title comps?

A Frame of Reference

Sales teams and genre buyers need a frame of reference so they know how and where a book fits on store shelves, and how to appeal to readers. Sales teams can tell genre buyers, “Readers of that 2011 literary phenom, Invert Your Colon, will be attracted to this title, Eating Lawn Clippings: Live Healthy and Moo Like a Cow because it delves further into the health benefits of eating a freshly mowed lawn.”

Instantly, the genre buyers understand the book’s classification of where to shelve the book, and whether they want to issue an invoice for purchase. Now, of course, your publisher’s sales guys will do all the heavy lifting in terms of knowing how to pitch your book, but it’s really helpful if you, the author, are in touch with books that are comparable to yours. It’s a building block for us.

Just yesterday, I contacted one of our authors for title comps. Sure, I can get them myself – and I have – but his subject matter breaks new ground, so I’m naturally interested to get his feedback on the books he feels somewhat resemble his book, as a way of helping our sales and marketing folks.

Additionally, having a comparative title on the tip of your tongue helps when talking to readers. Imagine you’re sitting in a bar (easy if you’re the beagle). Someone asks about your book, so you give the general quickie synopsis because you’re a caring person and don’t want to put anyone to sleep. You can see the person looking a bit puzzled, as if he still doesn’t quite get what your book is about. But if you say, “My book has a similar theme to Gone Girl,” then a light bulb will turn on, and he’ll ask for more details and probably buy you a drink because you’re so fabulous. And that’s what you want; an invitation to talk more about your book.

Attracting an Audience

Title comps are a good way of attracting an audience, just like the bar example I gave above. Most writers read the genre they write, so they should have a strong idea of the titles that closely compare to their own.

It’s helpful when an author writes in their query letter, “Readers of Dancing With Sexy Toes will be attracted to my book, My Three Left Feet, because it deals with the same issues of foot fetishes, which was all the talk in America in 2012. Where My Three Left Feet changes course is when Merry, the main character, challenges today’s zeitgeist that dictates foot fetishes are abnormal and strange, by pursuing a high-fashion life of modeling foot apparel, thus bringing foot fetishes into the mainstream. “

This sort of thing is helpful to me because the author identifies a popular storyline, then tells me how she added her own twist. This tells me a couple things:

  1. She knows her competition
  2. She understands that she has something unique, and not cookie-cutter. This helps me decide whether I think this particular storyline will sell. And if I want to buy it, she’s helped me out by highlighting the selling points…which will attract an audience.

But I don’t wanna be pigeonholed!”

Yes, it’s true; by committing to comparative titles, you’re staking a claim as to what your book is, which can be tough if you’ve written something that’s a bit of a crossover. My suggestion would be to pick a couple title comps in both genres and give the same short comparison as I did in the above example.

Another reason writers don’t want to be pigeonholed is because they want to believe their books are for everyone. In truth, there are very few books that appeal to everyone. Furthermore, I don’t have “everyone” in my Rolodex, and our sales guys don’t, either. If you fit this description, then you need to tell yourself the truth; your book has a particular audience…who are they; and what books inspired you to write yours? How do they compare and contrast?

Don’t Get Caught With Your Vickie Secrets Down Around Your Ankles

I listened to a radio host interview a new author about her book. The radio host brought up a well-known title that ran along the same line as hers, and he wanted to talk about those elements. To my horror, the author coughed and hemmed, and finally said, “I didn’t read that book.” BoOm. End of interview. The radio host was caught flat-footed, and the whole thing went downhill from there. I nearly drove off the road because this was such a noob mistake.

You gotta, gotta, gotta know your competition and be able to speak intelligently to the contrasts and comparisons. Being caught with your Victoria Secrets down during an interview is a sure-fire way to never be invited back.

What Comps Do I Use?

They need to be current – preferably nothing older than three years. I’ve seen title comps that were written back in the 60s and were classics. Do you really believe your book can hold a candle to a classic? It may be that it can, but I advise letting others (like book reviewers) make that comparison…it’ll have far more weight.

Since you are well-read (or you better be!), it should be easy to figure out which books relate to yours. I groan loudly when authors tell me nothing compares to their book. Oh puhleeze…yes it does. Even if you’ve combined two genres, like Twilight, you still have comparisons. It’s a cop-out to use this lame excuse, and it makes me think that you’re not well-read. And if you’re not well-read in your genre, then chances are that you won’t be very affective at promoting your book…at least that’s been my experience with nonfiction.

So if you’re not up to date on books in your genre, get thee to a library post haste, and get cracking.

“Yabut, why???”

Ok, I hear you simpering out there. You’re busy writing and don’t have time to read. That’s like a surgeon saying he’s too busy operating to bone up on current techniques. You read because this is your art, and it behooves you to be an expert in your art. You read because it’s how you figure out if you have a story.

Case in point, an author queried me years ago about a book on cancer. Her query didn’t offer any earth-shattering stuff that hadn’t been written about many times before. I asked her what kind of reading she had done to know whether she had something new to say. Come to find out, she had done exactly zero reading on the subject. I sent her the Amazon link to the cancer books page and suggested she start doing her research.

Two months later, she wrote back to say that after all her reading, she realized she didn’t have anything unique to say. It broke my heart because I know she was sad to come to this conclusion. But it would have been far crueler to let her wander around thinking she had a marketable story. Better to know she has nothing new to say and give her the option of growing as a writer and delving into topics that aren’t covered in other cancer books.

If you write, you must read. If you write, you must know your competition. If you query, you must be able to speak intelligently about your competition and know how your book compares and contrasts. It’s simply good business. And you know what? This applies even if you plan to self-publish.

3 Responses to Title Comps – What’s the Big Deal?

  1. Thank you for this information. When querying you, would you want an author to list a comp title that has been published by Behler Publications, or if a book could be compared to one of your titles is it already too similar for you to publish anyway?

  2. ericjbaker says:

    What are your thoughts on this:

    It sounds like title comps are for thematic comparisons, not style comparisons. For example, say I wrote a romantic vampire story that bore superficial resemblance to Twilight but was written in a dramatically different way… noirish perhaps (pretending for a moment that Twilight is the only such series out there and no one has ever heard of vampire noir). Is it still OK to make the comparison without feeling like I am misleading someone? I ask that because I tend to mix genres and also see myself as being influenced by writers more than by genre conventions.

    This is an area of frustration for me as an unpublished writer. I read advice from publishers and agents saying they want something new and different. The last thing I want to do is spend a year writing a novel that has been written already by somebody else. But then I have to be able to compare it to something in a specific genre with similar content. Where’s the line? I feel like I have to put myself in a box without actually putting myself in a box.

    Sorry if I sound whiny today. The devil on my shoulder is telling me to start a new manuscript because he enjoys seeing me get pissed off a year and a half later when 100 agents tell me it’s too this and not enough that, “this” and “that” both being moving targets.

    Be blunt. I’m looking for excuse to flick him off.

  3. John Allan says:

    I know Behler publishes non-fiction but you mention, as an example, Twilight. I have had some issues even pigeon-holing my novel’s genre, as I see it as a thriller but, with humour in both narrative and dialogue throughout, a light hearted one.

    Having just bought Mark Giminez’s THE COMMON LAWYER, I see the same style of writing, though I haven’t written a legal thriller. Is it all right to describe a book as being ‘in the same vein as’, or ‘in a similar vein to’? Including, perhaps, in a cover/query letter?

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