Comparable Titles: Knowing Your Place on the Bookshelf

Comparable Titles: Knowing Your Place on the Bookshelf

Whether you’re talking to agents, editors, or publicists, one of the critical elements in any promo plan is “comparable titles” also known as comps or comp titles. At some point in your publishing career, you will face this dreaded challenge. Traditional publishing leans heavily on them to minimize their exposure and shorten lead times, but even self-publishing uses them for publicity and market expansion.

Whatever your path to readers, it’s critical that you develop a sense of shelf….where you fit in your genre market. Comp titles are one of the swiftest ways to answer the essential questions: What have you written? Who’s going to care? Why should anyone buy it?

Why You Should Know Your Comps

When working with a new author, publishing professionals need to determine where their fresh title would be shelved in the current marketplace and what kinds of readers are likely to respond best to that work. Finding new fans for an author/genre/media takes far more effort than cultivating loyal repeat customers.

When cultivating relationships in publishing anywhere on the spectrum between traditional and indie distribution, comp titles act as a kind of universal skeleton key for interest, engagement, and viability. By knowing your comps before you enter any discussions, you signal your savvy and professionalism to colleagues who might want to work with you. Likewise, comps help you put the right book in the hands of the right readers at every stage of the process from pros to fans

Ideally, you’ve made their jobs easier and also proved you understand how the market works. The more you know the less work everyone else has to do.

Of course, pinpointing comp titles presents a challenge in itself. What you want is a selection of titles for books published within the last two years which will draw a straight line between the most likely fan and the work you’ve produced. All you need is an encyclopedic knowledge of the industry, your genre, the marketplace, readers around the world and your own capacities as an author and a professional. No big.

Comp Titles Drive Book Recommendations

Every time some helpful soul compares one book to another or a website cheerfully assures you that “if you liked this title you’ll also enjoy…,” the gravitational pull of comp titles has dragged you along for the ride. Comps drive all recommendations and most word of mouth, because consumers can only know something after they’ve experienced it.

For our purposes, comp titles represent a quick shortcut, the straightest line between two analogous points on the checkout line: also-boughts, “for fans of…,” and “You might also like…”.

As Janet Reid, the inestimable Query Shark, has said repeatedly, comp titles are shorthand for where your book belongs on the shelf and what kind of reader will love it. If you were sitting at a hotel bar with a publishing pro who’d asked about your book, it might land something like:

  • “My book explores the same themes/tropes seen in…”
  • “My book will appeal to readers of…”
  • “The plot/voice/tone of my book resembles…”
  • “My book’s characters face many of the issues/challenges that turned up in…”
  • “My book offers the kind of [emotional adjective] ride seen in…”

By offering comp titles, you invite the right guests to the party you’re throwing. With industry professionals, you’re helping them do their job more efficiently and effectively, even before they’ve had a chance to read the book for themselves.

Reality check: nothing is identical to anything else. We make comparisons to try and organize a world that resists all such attempts. “Comparisons are odious,” as Cervantes, Marlowe and Donne all pointed out. Shakespeare went one better and said, “comparisons are odorous.” But as pattern-addicted primates, humans look for logic wherever they can conjure it up.

Comp Titles Strengthen Your Author Brand

To be fair, comps are also a cornerstone of all branding efforts. By gathering comparable, associated, and consonant offerings under a single aegis, content providers train customers to expect similar offerings repeatedly from the same source. “We have exactly what you want” only works if a business compares what came before to future cravings and impulses of the customers they want to acquire and keep. Like lions who hunt wildebeests the same watering hole, customers learn to go back where the pickings are good and satisfaction is guaranteed.

Most of Amazon’s success as an empire comes down to tracking and leveraging comp titles. Because they are literally a digital marketplace, Amazon can compile decades of atomic-level details about comps and their power to compel purchases from steady customers. Goodbye risk, hello profit.

Success in publishing is a risky bet. Having an accurate sense of where you fit on the genre shelf and who’s interested in same minimizes the risks and boosts your odds of reaching readers. If you want to sell books with any degree of success, you’re going to need customers and vendors willing to participate.

  • What other titles resemble yours?
  • Where do you fit in your genre as a whole?
  • What market forces can you tap and exploit?
  • What other authors have cleared a path to potential fans?
  • What kinds of overlap and synergy exists between you and your colleagues?

Such calculations may seem bloodless and venal, but if you write for a living then someone, somewhere has to pay for your work. There is no inherent artistic merit in a flop. That is to say, capital-A Art is nice and all, but publishing is a business and its pros get paid to maximize profits. Anyone in business must find people willing to pony up and locate places they’ll do it on the regular.

Identifying Your Comps Accurately

Comps serve a function, but the result is inevitably imperfect. So before you make any comparison, you must accept (and even embrace) the wiggle room of inexactitude. Identifying comp titles is an ongoing task, one that will evolve and unfold as long as you put pen to proverbial paper. Commitment and diligence will serve you well.

Which begs the question: how can you identify your own comp titles? A couple suggestions…

Get ready. Whatever your situation, you need to enter the market with at least one appropriate comp title to help other professionals contextualize you and your work. Before they read this story, a new reader has no idea where you fit. Your job is to put your book on the right shelf and your work in the right market. Help them help you. Set the stage so that they enter the world of the book in the right frame of mind. Position your own voice so that they can receive it with a willing ear and an eager eye.

Get situated. Know where you belong on the shelves, not just by genre, but within the tropes of that genre. Modern readers are educated, picky, and fickle. It’s not enough to simply say “mystery” or “romance” and hope for the best. Customers and vendors drill down deeper than that as a matter of habit. Shape their experience. Where would you be placed in a bookstore dedicated to your specific genre? What books would sit near yours? What authors would appear on panels and at themed events with you? What publishers produce the kinds of stories you tell?

Stay fresh. Traditionally published titles take years to make it to market. Whatever is trendy now was contracted once upon a while ago. Comp titles drawn from the mists of genre history will do you no favors. Moldy (and even golden) oldies imply you’re out of touch or ignorant of the current state of play. Know your place. Caveat: comparing your book to an acknowledged classic looks like hubris or envy; unless that older title is a legit classic, it’s been forgotten by the average reader, so any book older than ten years can make you look ignorant or inane. If you do pick a book that’s more than a few years old, make sure you pair it with something recent.

Ask around. Learn the depth and breadth of your particular swath of the genre woods. Read what’s selling and what’s being praised. Apprise yourself of the current and recent bestsellers you think resemble the story you’ve written. Do your damn homework. Consider also-boughts at Amazon and other vendors, but give more weight to colleagues and other actual humans you respect. Ask for relevant recommendations from local bookstores and buy a couple to make sure they stay open and solvent. Research the lists, awards, and year-end roundups for titles that might have slipped through your net. Map the terrain you’re traversing.

Ask yourself. Know what you read. Comb your own shelves to see the kind of work you admire and the writers who move you. The books you read often resonate with your work because they shape our voices and speak clearly to our muses. Just make sure you keep it current. Look at the titles important to you and authors you respect deeply. Are their themes, tropes, and topics that recur in those titles. Are their any books recent enough that they represent appropriate comps?

Check up.Talk shop with librarians, booksellers, and industry pros you admire who know your work enough to opine. Look past your blind spots. Who do they think sounds similar to you? What resonances and overlaps do they observe? Where do they see you falling on the genre shelf? What makes you stand out form the crowd and what makes you part of the gang? If they were planning a signing, a panel, or a party who would they book to share the stage with you for maximum success and fan satisfaction? Use their imaginations.

Skip stars. Don’t bother with smash hits. The problem with claiming a bestseller as a comp is that your book isn’t one, yet. Once any book sells enough copies, it’s too ubiquitous to separate from the cultural event it represents. Whatever you may imagine, comparing yourself to Agatha Christie or your magical middle-grade series to Harry Potter means exactly nothing. Think outside the blockbuster. If an author has more than ten bestsellers, their brand name has eclipsed the utility of the story itself as a comp. Once a movie or show has been made of a book, ditto. That kind of fame renders these titles non-comps, because the average person can’t distinguish between the story and the overwhelming popularity and whatever trend they represent may already be racing towards its sunset. As Janet Reid puts it, “Is it a success or a phenomenon? If it’s a success, comp it!” But if it’s a phenomenon, look elsewhere.

Be honest. Try to hustle or hornswoggle potential readers and they’ll never trust you again. Be wary of shamelessly hitching your wagon to a “hot” trend or a “big name” out of desperation when it doesn’t apply. A dishonest or irrelevant comp can damage all your efforts materially for a long time. In today’s market, authenticity is everything. Tenuous links and feeble similarities will melt like spun sugar when someone bothers actually open your book and read. Newsflash: if fans decide you’re full of it, they’ll spread the word. And plenty of authors stand ready and waiting to claim their attention in your stead.

Look around. Pay attention to trends in publishing and in the wider reaches of entertainment, including film, TV, comics, and games. The way audiences understand movies/shows/comics/games differs from the ways they absorb fiction. The overlap between readers, watchers, and players is complicated and fragmentary. Trends across various media do not always run in parallel. Audiences don’t always coincide. Demonstrating your savvy about current pop culture is useful, but still differs greatly from navigating the literary landscape. Which leads us to…

Pick wisely. Some publishing pros use titles from other media as successful and compelling comps; others give them a wide berth. Both approaches have validity, and each presents its own problems. You have to decide which outweighs which. By all means there’s great power in the robust and dedicated audiences developed by mass media, but that power comes with significant risk. As in all things, your mileage will vary. Always bear in mind to whom you are pitching via these comp titles and for what purpose. Proceed with prudence.

Dig deeper. No two books or authors are identical. If you cannot identify proper comp titles, you’re probably being too narrow or specific in your expectations. As always you must think laterally, not literally. Instead of obsessing over superficial details, consider voice, theme, emotions, style, POV, and complexity. Obviously, elements like trope, tone, and topic carry enormous weight, but what readers remember is what you make them feel. Comp titles are never the same book, they are books likely to produce the same emotional effect upon their readers. Consider the impact and resonance these titles (and your book will) have upon the readers.

And one final word of warning: expect this comp search to take serious time. Identifying appropriate comps can take almost as long as writing the book, especially if you come to the process ignorant and stubborn. Don’t you want to know more and write better? Once you’ve started, you’ll never stop…but the longer you look, the more you’ll learn about the books you love and the stories you’re telling.

If you don’t know your genre and subgenre, you have work to do. If you haven’t read the twenty authors closest to you on the shelf, time’s wasting. Every step you take in your search will increase, your savvy, your skills, and your odds of success. What are you waiting for?

Comparable Titles: Knowing Your Place on the Bookshelf
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