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Can we discuss comp titles?

Hello Everyone,

Following on from all the wonderful advice I've received here, I've had another crack at my query letter and synopsis, and feel a lot happier about both. However, I am really struggling with comp titles. Is it unwise to leave them out, would it be greatly detrimental to my submission? I note that in the Jericho submission pack, it doesn't really mention them, unless I've just completely missed that.

Honestly, a few beta readers have been really very kind and thrown about a few names like Jasper Fford, Tom Holt and Jodi Taylor, in terms of style. I am deeply flattered, but extremely reluctant to compare my work to such accomplished and popular writers, however I'd be even more reluctant to say my influences are largely Terry Pratchett and Ben Aaronovitch (even MORE prominent and hugely successful writers, and only in my wildest dreams would I hope to be mentioned in the same breath as them!). 

My other concern is recency of the comp titles. I know ideally a comp title should be within the last 3-5 years, however what if they are a series? For example, the tone of my novel is quite similar to Jodi Taylor's Chronicles of St Mary's. Her first book in the series came out well over 5 years ago, so would I just go with the most recent one? Or just reference the series. Same with Tom Holt. My MS is most similar in tone to his earlier work (less surreal, perhaps), therefore using a more recent title may not be entirely useful. 

The closest I've got to anything even remotely approaching useful is: 'This novel will appeal to readers who enjoy humorous fantasy, falling somewhere between Tom Holt and Jodi Taylor.' And it makes me cringe.

Can I ask how you have approached this? Have you gone down the Comp title route? If so, what genre are you in, have you used just books, or films/TV shows too? 

Have you decided 'To hell with comp titles!' and not bothered? How has it worked out for you?

Bonus points if you can give examples. I'd love to hear other views, and hopefully it will be a good learning opportunity for a lot of us.

Thanks for reading.


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Replies (55)
  • Personally, i find comp title harder (and less meaningful) than pitches, blurb and synopsis combined. (How's that for a comp?) They don't tell you half as much as they pretend to. It's like A and B… but which aspects of each of those? Also, how are we supposed to read enough - while concentrating on writing - to provide meaningful comps?

    I asked a friend recently to suggest a comp title for my current fantasy novel; I didin't catch one half, but the other was Hamlet. How's that for not-quite-recent-enough?

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    • Ah hah, so it's not just me that struggles. Thank goodness I'm not alone. I understand the basic concept, that it's meant to give the reader an idea of tone/style, however surely that's what the synopsis, blurb and pitch is for? 

      Hamlet, eh? Not that recent, but certainly a noteworthy title. I am now intrigued to know what the other half was! It was Hamlet crossed with Jurassic Park, for example, that would certainly be an interesting Comp!

      Thanks for your thoughts.

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    • From what I've seen so far, publishing seem to love comp titles. They really help to see where your book would sit on shelves at a book shop, which readership it might appeal to, etc... Good comp titles can help an agent decide how quickly they will read your submission and its potential.

      My agent loves comp titles and like a lot of agents she uses them when pitching to publishers. It's tough to come up with good recent titles. It took a lot of head scratching and searching before I found the right ones. In the end that's what I said in my submission letter: "It will appeal to readers of Lucy Foley’s The Hunting Party for its oppressive atmosphere and vivid setting and to readers of Kate Elizabeth Russell’s My Dark Vanessa and Sarah Henstra's The Red Word." (the reason for My Dark Vanessa & The Red Word was explained in the sentence before that one, hence why it's not in this sentence). 

      You can use books, TV shows or films. When Katie Khan submitted Holding Back the Stars, she used the comp titles: One Day meets Gravity.

      Definitely stay away from massive bestsellers and very successful authors. If you can use titles released in the last 5 years great, also bonus points if any of them are debuts. Good comp titles also show that you know the market you want to publish in and what's around at the time you are submitting.

      I hope this helps.

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      • No problem.

        I hadn't read it by that stage but I knew what the story was about and the themes it covered.

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        • New here, and inexperienced, but I was under the impression comps were required so agents could calculate the intended audience and market appeal of the book, and, ( most importantly) their potential profits if they accept a manuscript for publication. 


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          • Yes, they use them. But how they claim (including to themselves) that they use them, and the real inner psuychological process are unrelated. They claims are pseufo-scientific business, whereas the reality is a gut thing that is - like all gut things - more wrong than random chance.

            Of course, the implied connection given by the comp titles creates a perceptive connection (even when one doesn't truly exist) with the manuscript. And so the snowball rolls on.

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          • I find comp titles really tricky too. I'm now forcing myself away from writing to read for an hour each night before going to bed -- for comp titles and to learn from others.

            For sources I interrogate the lovely and very knowledgable people at my local indy bookshop. I find it tricky to use GoodReads as their genres don't seem to be tight enough to help find titles.

            Have you read Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovich? When I read your blurb the other day (which, by the way, sounds very exciting), I thought to myself, this sounds like Rivers of London with a psychotherapist.

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            • Better, but remember that for her, it's perfectly normal. She's probably wondered why others are so incomplete that they can't see what she does.

              As such, I suspect you need something that ties it together more intimately. For example, it's always been there, and even the loudest noises are fine - though an out-of-tune orchestra would be like the assault of a classroom of toddlers having just discovered paintball - until it's combined with stress. Then, it gets in the way, setting up destructive feedback that drives her from Paris' bustle..

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              • Thanks, that helps :)

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                • Thanks, but of course the readers won't know the backstory, so I'll need to do a bit more!

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                • It took me a while to work out what you all meant by comp titles and I'm still not 100 percent sure I am understanding it correctly so will ask...Do you mean you have to compare your style of writing to other published authors? Sorry if I am being extra dense today.

                  Oh and as I have my dense hat on. In for a penny in for a pound.  What does the YA stand for in YA literature?

                  Off to the stupid corner with my coffee I go.

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                  • Not stupid at all! Honestly, if I tell you that it took me a bit of head scratching to work out the MS = manuscript, will that make you feel any better? It should ;) 

                    YA = young adult, unless there's another YA that I'm not familiar with (that is also a DISTINCT possibility).

                    Comp = comparative. So rather than necessarily comparing yourself to an author, it's more about giving agents a sense of the flavour of you book. So for example, I was chatting to a friend earlier who is writing a YA horror, and without knowing anything other than that, joking suggested her comp titles would be 'IT' meets 'Sweet Valley High'. 

                    And that's kind of why it's tricky, because the advice is 'pick something new'. Although the advice is also along the lines of, if you're writing about a sci-fi monster and it fits, it would be stupid to ignore 'Frankenstein'. So it's a bit of a tough one. Especially since you also shouldn't be using mega-best seller either. 

                    I am VERY happy to be corrected by someone more knowledgeable than me, especially since I'm also rather new to this whole thing and am trying desperately to figure it out. 

                    Hope this helps? If it's confused you even more, I apologise!

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                    • Thank you so much. I admit it took me a while to work out what MS was too. 

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                      • I've worked/studied in a few different sectors, and it always takes me a while to figure out/learn what all the abbreviations mean ;)

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                      • I hate the comp titles thing. Probably mainly because all my reading is terribly out of date. (How do people have time to do real life and write and noodle about on the internet and read?)

                        I always recall an overheard conversation where a grandmother was trying to decide whether a baby looked like his mum or his dad. The other grandmother said “Neither, he’s his dear little self and don’t you forget it”. Just saying 😀

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                        • That was what an agent said during a conference discussion, not to me but to the group.

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                          • Thanks for the insight, Cathy. Which market was it in, if you don't me asking (UK for e.g.)? 

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                            • SE USA, Atlanta area. But I also learned that agents are human and all different so that doesn't mean she spoke for everyone. But publishing IS very expensive, and time is money, so I can understand why an agent would want to streamline their work investment as much as possible and avoid costly mistakes. If a writer shows she knows her market, I guess it gives her an edge. I failed mine. I comped an older book and a movie, and was called out on it in the one-on-one I paid for. But again, by THAT agent. Maybe another would not have objected. That's what they mean by tailoring one's query to the specific agent, I guess. Also, once you've been published, it's a heck of a lot easier to get published again, from what I gather. It's that first time that's the bugger, lol.

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                            • Just to stir the pot a little more, without gainsaying anything posted above by those far more knowledgeable than me, and also fully accepting that the plural of 'anecdote' is not ' data'... 😁 

                              In the Jericho webinar on pitches just before Christmas with two agents on the call (one UK-based and one in the US) the topic of comp titles and their necessity came up in the questions. Both agents stated that for them comp titles were a 'nice to have', but they weren't expected, and their lack wouldn't affect their response to an otherwise well-written query.

                              I confess I was a little surprised by that, as I'd read in a variety of places that not including at least two comps published within your genre and within the last five years was seen as a cardinal sin and would result in instant rejection.

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                              • Absolutely Jon. Plus agents are people and they all place emphasis on different things. I've heard some agents in the past who said that they didn't put much emphasis on the synopsis or don't read them, whereas it's a more important tool for others.

                                My logic when I submitted is that I wanted to put all chances possible on my side to stand out in the sea of submissions. I had heard a few agents saying they like comp titles, some of them who were on my list so I decided to have comp titles on my letter. Never heard anybody who said they hated so it couldn't hurt, just help. But that's just me.

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                                • I love that phrase, Jon! And I think this is very true about them being 'nice to have'. I didn't include comp titles in my covering letter for my debut. I didn't know at the time (2013) that I needed to. When I went on submission to publishers though, my agent used comp titles (Apple Tree Yard, Precious Thing and The Girl on the Train - this was before that was every comp title for every thriller!)

                                  Publishing loves comp titles because they love any shorthand that can sum a book and its market up quickly. But an agent won't put a submission in the bin unread if the pitch didn't include a comparison. 

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                                  • Thanks Holly, this is great insight. The only thing I worry about is getting the comp titles wrong. I worry it will reflect badly, for example if I put 'will appeal to readers of Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London and Mark Hayden's 13th Witch' as a very basic example, that's where I would like to think I am. However, before even reading my submission, I worry that by using such a big name that they wouldn't even consider it, as they'd think I'm a little self-important?

                                    I keep coming back to this, and I think it's a confidence thing. Perhaps I just need to give myself some space from... well, myself!

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                                  • This is a fascinating thread and something I'm really grateful for as comp titles are my Achilles heel (along with elevator pitches, synopses... How many heels do I have? 😂 )

                                    I get why comp titles exist - they're  a short hand, a way to give an agent a flavour of your story and a way for the agent to see how savvy the writer is, if they know their own story and how it sits in the market.

                                    However, from my (granted comparatively limited) experience, it seems comp titles are pretty much compulsory for American agents and not necessarily so for British ones. 

                                    For example, when I took part in a pitching event on Twitter, the feedback I had was generally great but my submission was criticised for not including comp titles, despite not specifically being asked for them (all those involved were American, btw)

                                    But while subbing to UK agents, I haven't come across many agencies that ask for them - some, yes, but they're definitely in the minority.

                                    Has anyone else had experience of this? Is there a heavier emphasis on comp titles with American agents over UK ones? 

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                                    • There's a writing sub-Reddit called r/PubTips which people can post their w.i.p. queries on for feedback (some of which can be absolutely brutal so beware!). I suspect the vast majority of regular responders there are from the US, and queries without comp titles are generally called out quite negatively. It certainly seems to be expected anyway. So it may well be that it's perhaps more of a pressing need in that market (my anecdote above notwithstanding). 😀 

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                                      • Thanks Jon. It certainly appears to be a rather divisive subject, doesn't it? 

                                        I don't think I'm brave enough for Reddit, in all honesty. I think I'll stick with the lovely folk of the Townhouse, who are honest and helpful, whilst considerate enough to limit their brutality :) 

                                        I shall continue to ruminate on the subject, no doubt driving myself mad. If you don't hear from me for a while, I shall be in my wedding dress (if I can get in it), eating cake and gazing mournfully out of the window....

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                                      • Can I ask how do you find out how many of a comp title has sold? Is there a web site?

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                                        • I just did a Google search on the title I was interested in, and it came up. Although, if there is a website, that would be very useful!

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                                          • Debbie have a look at a book or author's page on Amazon. The number of ratings and the average score is a great indicator of success. There are industry sites that give precise sales figures but they're aimed at publishers and agents and the access licence costs a fortune.

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                                          • I’ll ask on main townhouse?

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                                            • Agents & publishers are looking for the next Terry Pratchett, so don't be diffident about saying you'll 'appeal to readers of..'  Similarly, don't worry about referencing old titles if they're icons of what you're doing - just balance them with something new as well. The challenge is not so much to quote or not to quote the giants, but to do so in a way that says, in an appropriately respectful way, that you want to eat their lunch.

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                                              • Thanks Geoffrey, it's difficult to gauge it. Not over-selling it, but at the same time placing it firmly in a genre. If I'm firmly with Ben Aaronovitch, Tom Holt and Mark Hayden in terms of world and tone, I think. I may try going for something like that. 

                                                Do you mind me asking how you pitched your manuscript? I'm very interested to see how other people have worded theirs.

                                                Thank you your input, it's extremely helpful.

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                                                • Hi Rose, as you requested, here's the pitch for Draca. There was a longer synopsis and an author bio that went with it. Hope this helps.


                                                  Jack's an ex-Marine; a war hero, haunted by his past. Or is he just haunted?


                                                  Draca is a crossover novel between literary fiction and subtle horror; more Susan Hill than Stephen King. 

                                                  Jack Ahlquist finds a new purpose in life when he inherits his grandfather’s vintage sailing boat, the Draca. But like his grandfather, Jack soon finds a wild exhilaration in stormy seas, danger, and alcohol. Combat stress, people sigh, as ‘purpose’ becomes ‘obsession’.

                                                  Jack’s sailing friend ‘George’ Fenton disagrees. She senses a malevolence not in Jack, but within Draca itself; she fears obsession has become possession, and the boat owns the man. As George tries to halt Jack’s slide towards self-destruction, his controlling and disinherited father pushes him ever closer to the edge. When the storm of the decade looms over the horizon, a cataclysmic confrontation seems inevitable between Jack, his father, and a boat with a dark and ancient history to fulfil.

                                                  Every instinct tells her there will be no survivors.

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                                                • Nice.

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