One of the best things you can do in your query letter is to list some solid comp titles for your book. In the library world, we call these readalikes: books that resemble your book, or that fill in the blanks in the sentence “Readers of _______ and _______ will like my book.” It’s not enough to compare your book to whatever is a huge seller. Your agent wants your book to become a huge seller, absolutely, but that doesn’t mean those books compare well to yours. Here are some tips to help you pick the perfect comp title:
- Always compare apples to apples. If you’re a mystery writer, it doesn’t make any sense for you to compare your books to romance or women’s fiction. If you write for children, pick titles that are written and published for the same age group. More than once, I’ve had authors tell me that they’ve written a YA novel and proceed to compare it to two adult novels, and not adult novels with teen protagonists that could potentially cross over.
- Avoid the outliers… Don’t compare your books to the one percent that sell a million copies or get made into successful major motion picture franchises. I don’t want to see any more YA comparisons to The Hunger Games, Divergent, or Twilight. I don’t want to see any more thriller comparisons to Gone Girl or even Girl on the Train. When comparing yourself to other authors, pick someone other than the likes of Stephen King, Nora Roberts, or James Patterson. Someday you could be just as big as they are (and your agent hopes you will be!), but that day is not today.
- ...and the classics. Classics get their own bullet point here because while they’re definitely outliers, the argument could be made that people are still reading them and reprints of the books are still making money. I prefer to see comparisons to modern titles because classics aren’t classics when they’re first written and published. They become classics over time. They weren’t written for today’s marketplace or the wants of today’s editors. There may be an exception if you’ve written a fresh take on a classic story, but even then the classic novel is source material rather than comp title.
- Pick something published in the last three to five years. If you’ve ever pitched to me at a conference, you’ve been asked about this. I (and other agents) ask you to compare your book to recent titles for a few reasons. First, it shows that your book has somewhere to go in the current marketplace. If your book is like other books that are making money, your book might make money as well. Second, it shows that you know your place in the market. Since you are the writer, you should know better than anyone where your book belongs in the marketplace. If you only compare your book to books that were published ten years ago or more, I can’t be sure that you know what today’s readers want. Third, it helps your potential agent start to get an idea of the kind of author brand you want to build.
What about mashups with old books and new books, or major titles and not-as-major titles? These can be done, but thoughtfully. The mashups I’ve seen that work really well usually compare two books/movies/genres that are on such opposite ends of the reading spectrum that the idea of those two things coming together is something I would never think of. One of my favorite examples is the blurb from author Cat Winters for Daughters Unto Devils by Amy Lukavics. It says, “Imagine if Stephen King wrote Little House on the Prairie.” This comp works even though it includes a comparison of two outliers because they’re so different no one would normally think to compare the two. The comparison is unexpected and therefore feels original.