Pitching 101: Finding Perfect Book Comps

Pitching 101(2)The cornerstone of all marketing is the pitch. It is used to sell everything from political candidates to dish soap. I think every writer should know how to pitch, even if they have no interest in working with agents or publishers. Don’t you want to pitch your books to readers? And should you want to grow your self publishing empire, maybe you will want to pitch to reviewers, small bookstore owners, librarians and movie companies.

Regardless of who you plan to pitch, the foundation of book pitching is made up of the same basic parts. That’s why WriteOnSisters is running this Pitching 101 series all month. We are trying to help demystify the many stages and moving parts of the pitch. I’d originally planned to talk about the query letter today, but I realized it was still too soon. There is one more critical step in the process I wanted to talk about first: The Comp!

Pitching 101_ Finding Perfect Book CompsThe comp, or comparable title, is a term the publishing industry uses to help sort books beyond the typical ranges of genres and sub genres. It’s a valuable marketing tool for every stage of a novel. It demonstrates the author understands their novel, their writing style and the marketplace they hope to dominate. When authors find the right comps, everyone benefits. Good comps not only help sell books to agents, but agents use them to sell books to publishers. They are so critical to the traditional publishing process that the comps often follows a manuscript all the way to the final book jacket blurb.

Including two to three comp titles is typical for a standard query letter, but narrowing down your list to the right titles is not as easy as it sounds. Here are 7 tricks I use to find comps:

Read your genre:
I love to read in my writing genre, but I know lots of writers don’t because they worry it will influence their writing. I respect that. You have to understand your writing process and do what works best for you. However, once the book is done, it’s time to read the popular titles. Reading is not just the best way to find comps; it also helps us understand what is on trope and what is unique about our stories. It’s always useful to know the difference. One helps the story fit in and gives readers what they expect, while the other makes sure the story breaks new ground. The balance and contrast of these two forces is what makes each book feel special, or too reminiscent of another book. When I’m looking for comps I never expect to find a perfect match, so I strive to find titles that invoke a sense of the manuscript in at least two to three different aspects.

Research your short list:
Once I’ve pulled together a small group of titles, I do research on them. I want to get a feel for each book’s popularity. Is the book still selling? Does it have a lot of reviews? What do readers on Goodreads and at book blogs have to say about the book? I’m looking for books that have done well, and would be recognized by someone who keeps track of the genre. I avoid self-published books unless it’s an exceptionally well-known title, and/or it’s by a successful hybrid author. Researching the market is also a great way to get a feel for the current landscape of any genre and it provides clues about where the genre is heading in the future.

Weed out the genre’s top 1%:
Using the names of the stellar standout authors will just get the comp titles dismissed. I try to pick comps written by the new rising stars of the genre, or mid-list writers with a solid track record of sales. I also try to pick books that have been published in the last two to three years. The one exception to the 1% rule is the mash-up. You often can’t pitch a genre bending project without poking a stick at the literary canon. In those cases it’s best to take the biggest name you can think of and make it work.

Create a contrast comp or mash-up:
When working with a genre-bending book, it’s often necessary to create a mash-up comp. The way you do this is select a title that shares some critical elements (most likely it uses the same masterplot as your story) and you team that title with something that reflects the other half of your book’s style. This type of comp shows up a lot in retellings and in books that cross genre lines. These crazy what-if creations are often strangely compelling and can make fantastic taglines. For example:
If SLEEPING BEAUTY was told by Stephen King and set in a time-traveling alien universe.
(BTW I would totally read that book.)

Look for other sources:
Novel titles are the most common source of comps, but they are not the only source available to you. Consider using movies, comic books, music videos or TV shows. If you decide to research other sources you can use older titles. With DVDs and other types of on-demand media content, there is a much longer shelf life for these examples. When using media, make sure you clarify your source. After all, there might be a book with the same name and you don’t want to confuse people.

If you get stuck:
This is not supposed to be easy, but it should be possible. If I can’t find any comps, I go back to  the bookstore, or jump back into Goodreads and Amazon to start over. Goodreads is a solid source of book topic lists. Amazon works best for me after I’ve already pinned down one perfect title, then I can use their book suggestion algorithm to find a second book. I also ask people who have read my manuscript for some suggestions.

Important tip:
Avoid saying your book is a better version of some other classic or popular title. Even if it is better, you don’t want to be the one saying it. Publishing is a small world; a negative comp will stomp on someone’s toes. Reading is subjective, what you hated, others loved. You don’t want to use your comp to attack another author, instead compare your project with titles you respect and admire.

Knowing your comparable titles shows people in the publishing industry you did your homework. For self-published writers, it helps defines who and where the likely readers are, and that makes focusing any marketing efforts easier. When we understand our readers better, I think we write better books. Personally I’m swayed by comps as a reader; I just pre-ordered something mostly on the basis of the comps. However, I’m interested in hearing what you think. Do you worry about finding good comps as writers? And do comps influence your book selections as readers?

Author: Robin Rivera

Robin trained as a professional historian and worked as a museum curator, an educator and historical consultant. She writes dark young adult fiction, with diverse characters. She's currently querying a novel, and working on two new manuscripts that started off as NaNoWriMo projects. You can follow her on Facebook(https://www.facebook.com/robin.rivera.90813) or on Twitter @robinrwrites. However, Pinterest (https://www.pinterest.com/RRWrites/) is where her inner magpie is happiest of all.

13 thoughts on “Pitching 101: Finding Perfect Book Comps”

  1. My historical novel (African-American / WWII era) bears resemblance to a recent, highly readable and successful creative nonfiction book by C, and to an older novel by K that was reprinted as a classic, despite being overwritten, because of its theme. I’m thinking of saying my novel is what would have been produced “If nf writer C had written the novel by K”. What do you think?

    1. Hi Daisy,
      It seems like a method that could work, however be alert to any feedback. Drawing a comparison to a novel you don’t consider first rate may backfire.
      Good luck!

  2. I think one of the things that helps in comps is looking at who influenced your writing. Who did you read that got you going? Who’s style do you aspire to emulate? It can help you find those comparable title when you know where you’re coming from.

    1. Hi Andrea,
      I think that could work if you write in the same genre as the writer who influenced you. And their book is a good match in at least two or three ways with your book. Interesting idea, thanks for sharing.

  3. Great post and thanks so much for sharing. I find it surprisingly difficult to find comp titles for my stories, but I think that’s becuase I went about it in the wrong way. I like your suggestion to choose one title for an aspect of your book and a title for another aspect. This is what I’m after at the moment. And I have pinned dow a few itles… let’s see 🙂

    Do you think it’s a good idea to use a title and an author? For “Ghost Trilogy” I was thinking something like “The Wolf in the Attic” rewritten by Walter Mosley… something similar, I know this is awfully worded. “The Wolf in the Attic” is a very new title and it has a lot of elements that echo my stories: historical setting, spirit world filtering into the real world, legend and mystic beings mingling with the real world. Walter Mosley is maybe a bit ‘niche-y’ but his storie’s noir atmosphere are perfect for my stories (it was actually one of my beta readers’ suggestions 🙂 )

    I’m very excited for this series. Can’t wait to read the rest 🙂

    1. Hi Sarah,
      I think you should always use the author’s name. If the book was a household name the chances it would be too big a book to use as your comp. Also, there are limited copyright protection on book titles, so books from two different writers can have the same title.

      I don’t think you should worry too much about picking one niche author to comp, not if the book perfectly reflects your story. You can always team the first comp with one from a more popular writer.

      I’m glad you’re enjoying the series. Heather and I are having fun doing them.

  4. Great post, Robin. I have a practice pitch for my WIP (since the WIP isn’t close enough to “done” for me to feel comfortable pitching it for real yet), and the comp is the only part that’s given me trouble. I’m trying to keep up with YA fantasy (the WIP’s genre), but the only comp titles I can think of are the current big sellers as well as Kristen Cashore’s Graceling, which is might be too old to use now. That’s one of the reasons why I’m planning to ask my beta-readers for help once they’ve read the manuscript. But maybe your post will help, too.

    Also, is it best to pick comp titles that are not only successful and reflective of your story’s genre, but also books you like? Or should we try to keep personal tastes out of that decision?

    1. Hey Sara,
      You have the perfect situation with Graceling to use Amazon to your advantage.
      From the Graceling home page scroll through the “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought:” area. You will find all the titles you can’t use (because they’re too old or too popular) but hopefully one or two you can use.

      Also check the places Graceling is ranked under:
      #32 in Books > Teens > Literature & Fiction > Girls & Women
      #78 in Books > Teens > Literature & Fiction > Action & Adventure > Fantasy
      #226 in Books > Teens > Literature & Fiction > Social & Family Issues

      Since these books are popular in the same subcategories as Graceling they might yield a hit. Or maybe two. There is also a books like Graceling list on Goodreader. You should check that as well. https://www.goodreads.com/book/similar/3270810-graceling

      In my opinion you should like the books you pick as comps. They don’t have to be your favorite books of all time, but you shouldn’t dislike them or think they’re badly written books. However, I think this topic could make for an interesting discussion, and spark some spirited debate. Email me and let’s talk! I have the feeling we could make something really good out of this idea. Maybe we could run a Pro and Con hop between our two blogs.

      1. *facepalm* Of course. Why didn’t I think of Amazon? *lol*

        Thanks! I’ll keep these lists in mind. I’ve read some of the books on both, but haven’t gotten to others yet. I might have to prioritize renting some from the library soon.

        I might have to hold off on the email, though. Things are going to be super-busy the next few weeks between Writer’s Digest Conference and my friend’s wedding, so my brain is already spinning out of control trying to stay on top of things. :S

  5. Robin, this is the series I’ve been waiting for, and I’m glad I found you. I’ve completed three adult novels and have run against the query process. You’ve already given me a strategy for the next part of my book publishing plan – find the comps. And I have at least one title, two possible other authors to consider. Thank you for your assistance.

    1. Hi Sharon,
      That’s wonderful to hear! I’m so glad the series is helping you. Pitching is never easy, but doing your prep work should help improve your results. Good luck tacking down those comps.

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