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4 Tips for Choosing the Right Comparative Titles

The West Wing meets The Princess Diaries--

Cinderella in space--

28 Days Later meets All the President’s Men

Choosing your comp titles (“comparative” or “competing” titles, depending on who you ask) is a fun and vital part of selling your book. When pitching your project to a prospective agent, acquiring editor, or even directly to a reader, it helps to be able to compare it to existing books. They are not just a shorthand which communicates the tone and plot of a book: comp titles are also something used to identify its target readership — something that any publisher (or self-publisher) needs to know.

In a recent webinar, Sam Brady, an editor with years of experience at a number of New York literary agencies, revealed her top tips for choosing comp titles that best serve your book. In this post, we’ll share four of the most important.

1. Tailor your comp titles to your audience

By audience, we mean the people with whom you’re going to share these comp titles. After all, you may want to choose a different frame of reference, depending on whether you’re writing the book description on an Amazon page or talking to industry insiders.

For example, if you have a YA book that you’re explaining to a casual reader, you might use Twilight as a comp title. It is, after all, a book that got a lot of people into Young Adult fiction.

“On the other hand,” says Brady, “when talking to an agent or an editor, you want to be more genre-specific because they're looking for comp titles that show you know the [YA] market and you know the genre you're talking about. So that's a good time to use titles like Six of Crows or Hazel Wood.”

2. Don’t use titles that are mega-popular

Especially when you’re pitching to agents and editors, you don’t want to use the single bestselling book in the world as a comp title. Remember that you’re trying to show that you understand your market and genre, so comparing your book to the most popular title in the world won’t do you any favours.

When picking a comp title, Brady applies what she calls the inverse graph of popularity. “The more popular something is, the smaller your margin can be in terms of how different your book is. So for example, when pitching to agents and editors, a "big no" comp title that no one wants to see is Harry Potter.”

3. Don’t use two titles that are too similar

For many books, the author will choose two comp titles for their book: “X meets Y.” The temptation can often be to choose two books that are too similar. By cross-pollinating in such a shallow gene pool, you might show how your book is similar to those existing titles, but miss out on demonstrating what’s unique about it.

Brady: "'Breakfast Club meets Pretty Little Liars' is a comp that gives you a really good idea of what the book is about. That's actually the comp used for One of Us is Lying by Karen McManus — a New York Times bestseller.

“The comparison conveys the plot — with Breakfast Club, about teenagers, detention, and teen drama — mixed in with Pretty Little Liars which suggests a darker tone and a ‘who killed who?’ aspect.”

So, if you’re looking to use two comps, a good practice would be to choose one title that sets the plot, and another one to set the tone.

4. Your book must deliver on the promise of the comp

This is especially important when you use comps to pitch your book to readers. When hunting for new reads, most people have an idea of the sort of thing they like based on the books they’ve read before. If they’re a fan of Gone Girl and they see that you’ve comped your book to Gillian Flynn’s bestseller (as was the case with The Woman in the Window), they will be expecting certain things: severe plot twists, massive revelations, and menace in a suburban setting. 

If your book doesn’t deliver on what the reader perceives to be the promise of the comp, then they might be in for a disappointment. To make this point, Brady uses the example of Lev Grossman’s The Magician which breaks one of her cardinal rules:

“Magicians is often described as ‘grown-up Harry Potter,’ ‘Harry Potter for millennials,’ or ‘Harry Potter set in grad school.’ In this case, it works really well because The Magicians is about a group of college students who are attending a magical school. The protagonist is a lonely boy who meets friends for the first time. They encounter a battle of good vs. evil where they must conquer a villain.”

The Potter comparison only works because it does scratch every itch that a Rowling fan might harbour — within a context that’s just different enough to give the reader a sense of something new.

Even if you’re only at the start of the writing process, choosing comp titles can be an interesting exercise. By crystalising the tone and ‘promise’ of your book this way, a writer may find it focuses their work towards a particular reader and serve as a compass throughout the writing and editing stages.

Martin Cavannagh is a writer for Reedsy, an online marketplace connecting authors with editors, book designers, and ghostwriters. He also curates a series of free webinars and online courses designed to teach writers how to create and publish better books.