In this Query Guide installment, we’ll take a look at the dreaded comp titles: what they are, how to find them, and how to best leverage them in your query letter!
What are comp titles?
Comp, or comparative/comparison titles are two published books similar to the one you’re querying, and they’re a crucial component to include in your query letter.
Comp titles are books that would sit on the same shelf as yours at a book store, stories with similar aspects that readers will enjoy. In your query letter, you’ll probably identify your comp titles using a template along the lines of:
Comp titles should be books that are:
- Published within the last 3 years (this shows how you fit in the current market!)
- The same age/genre as the book you’re querying
- Traditionally published (not self-published)
- Not mega popular; position yourself for success, but it’s unrealistic to aim too high (if someone’s made a movie or TV show out of it, it’s probably too big of a property)
- Not a sequel – comp to the first book in a series instead
- A debut if possible, though this is more flexible
Why are comp titles important?
There are a couple trains of thought on comp titles: (1) comps that show off the “vibe” or tone of your work, versus (2) comps that show how your book fits into the current book market. For querying, we want to focus on the second one. An agent will get your story vibe from your book summary and sample pages. The main purpose behind comps – the reason they are crucial to your query letter – is because they show an agent how your book fits into the market and how that agent will sell your book to publishers.
At the end of the day (and regardless of your opinion on the matter), traditional publishing is a for-profit industry. Agents are looking for books they can sell. What books will yours sit next to on a shelf once you get published? Those are your comps!
How do I find comp titles?
There are many routes to attack this question, but the biggest one is to read! Read as much as you can in your genre, especially picking up newer releases. This will give you a great pool of potential comps plus the added benefit of improving your writing craft.
To discover new books to use as comps, try browsing lists on Goodreads or Amazon. If you’ve got one solid comp (or a book that nearly fits the bill), search that book on these websites then look for what recommendations pop up for similar books. Another great option would be visiting a library or bookstore for recommendations. Finally, your beta readers might have ideas for good comps after they’ve read your work, so it’s always good to ask their opinion!
One last little trick to keep in mind: while I always advocate reading as much as you can to find comp titles, you don’t necessarily have to have read every comp in its entirety. Reading the book description, reviews, and perhaps a few sample pages can be sufficient to give you a good feel for whether it would be an appropriate comp.
What if I can’t find a comp that perfectly matches my book?
Comp titles aren’t about finding perfect matches! They aren’t necessarily about matching the same storyline as your book, either. Comp titles are all about a similar reader experience. Every individual book has many aspects to it that might draw in a reader, and you can comp to any one of these aspects.
Using this broader definition, we can search for comp titles that have similar:
- Prose or voice
- Character archetypes
Because books are so multifaceted, it’s a great idea to briefly specify in your query letter what aspect you are comping to.
So instead of just comping:
Give us a little more meat with:
What if I can’t find a book recent enough to comp?
Keep searching! There are so, so many books out in the world. If you can’t find the perfect, recent comp for one specific aspect of your book, try digging up a comp for a different aspect (go back to the list of prose/setting/character/etc. above). This is a place where it’s worth doing a little extra research to really set your book within the current market, demonstrating you know your genre and the publishing field.
Where should I put my comps?
Comps usually show up in the metadata paragraph of the query letter, i.e. where you list your title, genre, word count, etc. You can give your comp titles their own sentence after these data, or meld all the info together into a single sentence.
Do my comps need to be books?
Yes! You’re querying a book, so you need to show an agent how your book fits into the book market. Again, query comps go beyond merely capturing the vibe of your story. This is information an agent would use to pitch your book to a bookseller. It really is all about the market.
Can I use non-books as comps?
Also yes! Non-book comps like movies, TV shows, songs, and video games can all add unique flare to your query, but these should be the cherry on top, not the whole cake. You shouldn’t only use non-book comps. Make sure you get your minimum two book comps into the query, then if you want to garnish with a non-book comp, go for it! If you go this route, just keep in mind: the more widely-known the alternate media, the more effective it will be as a comp.
Query comps versus Twitter pitch comps
Are not the same thing. Horrendous and confusing, I know, but this is worth pointing out because Twitter pitch contests are so visible, they might skew our expectations for query comps.
So what’s the difference? In pitch contests, you’ll frequently see the COMP1 x COMP2 format at the start of the pitch, and these comps are all over the place. Books from a decade ago, popular TV shows, Taylor Swift songs – just about everything is fair game for pitch contest comps. This is because these comps serve a different purpose than query comps. Pitches are designed to grab attention very quickly in a very short space. They’re sensational. They bend the rules and no one cares, because if you’re pitching SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN x GODZILLA, I am interested.
But query comps are different. Query comps are specifically to show an agent how your book fits into the market, meaning stricter guidelines to follow. So take note of your crazy cool, out of the box comps for pitch parties, but keep your query comps to books published within the last 3 years.
Can I use different comps for different agents?
Absolutely! Your best strategy will be to identify more than two potential comps for your book, then plug in the two comps that best fit each agent’s wishlist. This isn’t mandatory. If you’ve got two solid comps and that’s it, you’ve done enough! But if you have an auxiliary comp that works on your list, and you see that book named specifically on an agent’s wishlist? Swap it in!
Successful Comp examples
Hands-down, the best way to improve your comps (and query writing in general!) is to read as many examples as you can get your hands on, then adapt these templates to fit your work. Here are several examples of comp sentences taken from real-life query letters that went on to receive agent representation!
As you can see, there’s plenty of variation in the examples above! They follow different templates. Some identify specific aspects of the comps while others merely list titles. Some include author names, some don’t. You don’t have to fixate on finding a perfect formula (because honestly, one probably doesn’t exist). Choosing appropriate books that are recent and topical should be your greatest focus.
More Recommended Resources for Query Writing
Fantastic all-around query writing/revising resource. Agent Janet Reid critiques real query letters, annotating common mistakes and places she’d lose interest.
A collection of query-writing guides from author Laura R. Samotin, including comp titles, examples of real-life query letters, and more.
Another great collection of real-life query letter examples, plus other querying advice topics.
Go forth and prosper, lovely writers!