Comparative & Competitive Books Matter
It's important for authors to hold themselves in high esteem, by making comparisons of their writing to success stories. That is why I like to sit down with the writers I work with and nail down what the comparative or competitive book titles to their manuscript might be, before making a submission to editors at publishing houses. We in the industry casually refer to this as asking what the "comps" are (short for comparative or competitive book titles). These are books in the current publishing marketplace that are similar and successful. It's not just about simply saying that a book or author is not unique—it's about celebrating how great a potential publication could be...
Why are comp titles important?
A literary agency receiving a query letter or submission from an author, or an editor at a publishing house receiving a pitch and manuscript from a literary agent, will need to know what the comps are. The literary agent and the editor will be trying to figure out where that particular book/author would fit within their list of authors: is it commercial fiction, literary fiction, or upmarket fiction? If it's nonfiction, then which category of nonfiction? A literary agent or book editor will ask themselves where the book/author would be shelved in a bookstore: is it mystery/crime, romance, science fiction & fantasy, or something else? Most important of all, an agent or editor will be asking themselves how well that book/author would perform in the marketplace: will this book go on the become a mega bestseller or garner highly prestigious awards?
In fully comparing apples to apples, a book editor at a publishing house will try to base their potential offer to publish, on the sales performance of the comp titles. They do this by running a profit & loss statement, or what we in the publishing industry call a "P&L" or "P&L sheet." Plugged into the P&L, which also accounts for the costs associated with printing and publishing a book, will be the sales numbers on the comp titles. A publisher can look up the sales numbers of a given comp title on Nielsen BookScan, where some of the most accurate reporting of sales numbers are given, so there's no lack of transparency there. That's why an author is a in a far better position by having their literary agent offer the author's successful comps to the publisher, over allowing the book publisher to come up with accurate comps of their own. This is especially the case if the publisher's comps haven't been all that successful. Then the publisher might not want to publish the book, or they might make a smaller offer.
An author that has assembled a good list of two to three comp titles will be miles ahead in the publishing process. When a book publisher is in the stage of getting their salesforce to place copies of the book among retailers, guess what question the publisher will be asked by the retailer: What are the similar books to this one? Having the comps handy can therefore help the book publisher in the actual publication process, by raising a book retailer's expectations. Maybe the book retailer decides to order more copies of a book for their stores, or they decide to recommend and prominently display the book, if they think the book will be a success.
What's a good comp title?
As much as possible, an author should make literary agents and editors think that their book has a good-looking, smart and athletic "twin" in each of its comps. A good comp title is a bestselling or major award-winning book. It's easy to know if the comp title is one of those two things by simply looking at the cover of a comp. If the cover states, "New York Times bestseller" or "National bestseller" then you know you probably have a bestseller on your hands. The same goes for major awards featured on the cover. If it says, "National Book Award-winner" or "Man Booker Prize-winner," then the same would be true. Looking at the number of reviews on Amazon (hundreds or thousands is impressive), and the overall Amazon sales ranking (the closer to the Top 100 the better), are other ways to know how well the comp title has been performing.
The comps should have been published within the last five years. Outside of five years, book publishing will have been a different industry, with books written and published in different ways. What is popular reading among book lovers also changes quite a bit over the years. Those are a few of the reasons why classic novel comps are not good comparisons, and will often garner eye rolls from editors. When a fantasy author tries to comp to J.R.R. Tolkien, or a mystery/crime writer tries to comp to Edgar Allen Poe, it also begins to look self-aggrandizing.
It's important to keep the comps accurate. We are comparing apples to apples here, rather than apples to oranges. So a comp title should also be of the reading age range and of the book genre. If an author wrote a young adult novel, then they shouldn't go and compare it to an adult romance novel; or if an author of wrote a nonfiction work of history/politics/current affairs then they obviously shouldn't refer to it a science/technology book. At the same time, only books make for good comparisons, since we're trying to figure out where a book belongs in a bookstore, rather than where a movie or a TV show fits on the shelf.
The process of assembling comp titles may seem small or insignificant at first glance, but it is actually a huge part of the publishing process and a key player in a book's success. The comp process ultimately helps readers find their way to an author's book.