Best of Ask the Agent: All About Comps

Plus a new picture book from a dynamic duo...

Welcome to Best of Ask the Agent, where each week, I puzzle my way through the labyrinth that is my Ask the Agent Tumblr and emerge with a Minotaur tooth of advice for you. If you’d like to ask your own question, you can do so right in the #AskAgent question box. And stay tuned after the advice for a look at my Book of the Week!

To understand these questions, you’ll need to know the phrase “comp title.” Comps (or ‘comparative’ titles) are usually two or three books LIKE yours that you might mention in a query letter to give the agent reading it a general idea of the tone of your book, where it might go in the bookstore, and who might enjoy it. Comps are also useful when agents are submitting to editors. People ask about them quite a lot. Know your comps! Now on to the advice:

What do you think about comp titles? Do you think they are useful/necessary? Thank you!

Are comp titles USEFUL? Yes. A shopper browsing a bookshop has a lot of clues about what kind of book they might be about to pick up. It’s in a specific section, it has art and a title treatment that give hints about the tone of the story, there is jacket copy to describe the book, there may be blurbs… But as an agent, I’m just looking at a black and white document. I’ve got no book jacket, no publisher logo, literally nothing to go on but what you tell me in the query letter. Comp titles can be helpful, in that they give me a sense of where you see your own book fitting in to the bookstore, and what kind of audience you imagine reading your book. The best comp titles give me information, and also make me excited about reading your book.

Are they NECESSARY? Well. Maybe not. It’s like difference between a restaurant patron getting a menu a language they can barely understand vs getting a menu that has tasty descriptions their own language. In the first instance, they might be a bit cautious, confused or just not have any clue what to expect but HOPE that the food will be good. In the second, they are more likely to be happily anticipating the delight of what they’ve ordered. In neither instance will they run away from the restaurant if what they actually get served turns out to be delicious.

Can I use a movie or TV show as a comp title?

You can use absolutely use a TV show or a movie as a shorthand way to describe your work, as in an elevator pitch — particularly if you are juxtaposing surprising ideas that will entice the reader and immediately put an image in their minds. A great example is one that an editor told me many years ago when she wanted me to read a historical romance with a sci-fi twist that she was hot on: “Jane Austen meets Terminator.” Uh… what does that mean, and YES PLEASE???!

I really don’t mind this kind of thing at all, when done well. However, it’s not the same thing as a comp title. Comp titles, IMO, should be books.

I've read that in a query, it's best to avoid naming comp titles that are extremely successful. I realize that for me as a picture book writer, it would be ridiculous and unrealistic to claim I'm going to be the next Dr. Seuss. But how big is too big? Is it okay to compare my manuscript to a book by a well-known contemporary author like Jane Yolen or Kevin Henkes?

When it comes to comps, think R.A.T.S.: RECENT, ACCURATE, TASTEFUL and SPECIFIC.

RECENT: Recent comps are useful because they show you know the market as it stands today, not what it looked like when you were in grade school, or even when your teenagers were little. You can comp to a classic in addition to a modern book or two if you absolutely must - but stick to ONE classic. No, you aren’t Dr Seuss, but that’s OK, because this isn’t 1955. I’d consider the greatest hits of Henkes and Yolen to be in the category of “classics” at this point. Again, ONE is fine, more than that and it looks like you are stuck in a time warp. And when it comes to how to invoke the classic, Specificity (see the S in RATS) will really help you here.

ACCURATE: This should go without saying but… Make sure your comp is TRUE. Don’t slot in an author or book title just because it is popular. If you’re asked to put comps in a query and you feel yourself listing random big books (especially ones you haven’t read!), it’d be better to leave them off. Your chapter book about silly li’l zoo animals having a birthday party is probably nothing like THE HATE U GIVE, my friend! (And if it is, you better be ready to explain in what way it is!)

When people name ginormously popular books that are not accurate comps, it makes them look, at best, like they don’t read very much; at worst, it makes them seem like an egotistical ding-dong. (And no, Sir, I do not believe that your memoir about ice-fishing is going to be “bigger than the Bible and Harry Potter combined.”)

While, as I mentioned above, invoking a classic is OK, you definitely do want to avoid those True Phenomenons such as Harry Potter, Twilight, or Hunger Games. Again, it makes you sound like you are out of touch with new books and don’t know much beyond the obvious, and also, it’s just wholly unrealistic. Your book is probably fantastic, but will it shape the cultural conversation for decades and be a touchstone for a generation? Maybe… But let’s not place bets on it. Calm down. The good news is, there are few of those True Phenomenons. I’d say a True Phenom book/series to avoid would be one that has had more than a decade of bestsellerdom, has had multiple movies made of it, and is spoken of regularly as a fixture of general pop culture for non-book nerds. Other than that, you’re OK.

(Sidebar: You could potentially use a title like this as part of an elevator pitch, particularly if you are saying something compelling that puts a spin on what everyone knows of the story as in my “Jane Austen meets Terminator” example. But again: That’s not the same as a comp title.)

TASTEFUL: Not to be a snob, but honestly: Your comps need to be “best in class.” By that I mean, they should be great books published by large publishers, well-reviewed, award winners, bestsellers, cult favorites, or VERY strong debuts. They need to be stand-outs.

Part of what comps are telling me is that you know the modern market, yes… another thing they are telling me is how your book might DO if it were also on the bookstore shelf. You are borrowing a bit of glamor from your comps. Associating your wonderful manuscript with a book that is ugly, unknown, or didn’t sell? That will give people the wrong idea about your work.

You are also borrowing an audience (or at least the POTENTIAL of an audience!) from your comps. There has to be an audience for your book in order for a publisher to want to publish it. (Hint: “everyone aged 0-99 will love my book” is not actually helpful in this regard! Very few books are popular across every demographic that exists.)

I recognize that it’s a fine balance and you don’t want to come off as braggy, but if you comp to a book I’ve never heard of, that’s problematic, because I have heard of LOTS of books. If I look it up and it’s published in somebody’s garage with comic sans typeface and has sold three copies… that’s a problematic comp. Likewise if you are comping to a highly divisive book. If the title of the book is likely to make people scratch their heads or recoil, it is not a great comp.

SPECIFIC: You can get around some of that braggy feeling of comping to a popular title or classic by talking about the SPECIFIC ways in which your title is similar. And also, what sets your book apart!

Bad: “I’m the next Dr Seuss!”  (uh no you aren’t, and thanks, but we already have one)

Better: “Mycharactername has the early-elementary bravado and sass of classic NYC characters like Eloise, but with a sensibility and swagger that is pure 2020 Brooklyn.”

Or: “MyAwesomeTitle is a rhymer that will appeal to fans of the rhythm and wordplay of LLAMA LLAMA, but it has a hip-hop beat that is all its own.”

Hope that helps!

Book of the Week: ONE MEAN ANT by Arthur Yorinks and Sergio Ruzzier

An astonishingly disagreeable ant meets his match in this pitch-perfect picture book comedy from Arthur Yorinks and Sergio Ruzzier.

Was there ever an ant as mean as this mean ant? Not likely. This ant is so mean that leaves fall off trees when he walks by. This ant is so mean that grapes shrivel when he looks at them. But when this mean ant finds himself lost in the desert and meets a fly that defies explanation . . . well, nothing is the same again. With this first in a planned trilogy, celebrated picture book creators Arthur Yorinks and Sergio Ruzzier team up for a hilariously slapstick tale that will make a raucous read-aloud for any storytime.

“Readers will delight in the silly antics and wacky wordplay of these unlikely companions just as much as they'll enjoy the conversational, tall-tale voice adopted by the narrator. A zany, hilarious first in a planned trilogy.”
--Kirkus Reviews

ONE MEAN ANT is published by Candlewick, and will be available Tuesday, February 11, wherever fine books are sold!

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