Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Query question: more on comp titles

My question regards comp titles. You've spoken many times about the need to know what's selling in your genre right now, and to showcase this knowledge in your queries by naming successful comp titles. You've also said that if we can't find appropriate comp titles we're not doing the right research.
I write high concept YA, of which there are many, many on the market right now. My main character is also a lesbian. The number of YA novels featuring f/f romances is on the rise, but everything I've seen is exclusively contemporary or science fiction/fantasy (m/m romances are a different story). I've scoured Goodreads, Absolute Write, and many other forums, but the recommendations I get there tend to be obscure. Titles that receive more than a couple thousand reviews on Goodreads are rare. The most mainstream I've found are Malinda Lo's books, which were published by Little, Brown and have sold reasonably well. They are also fantasy novels. The lack of representation motivates me to finish my novel, but at the same time discourages me from ever hoping to be published by a large company.

My question is: Am I focusing on on the wrong aspects of my work when looking for comp title, i.e., should I list titles that are similar in concept and tone but with straight MCs? 

Yes. What you're missing here is the unique selling point for your novel: your character is a lesbian. AFTER you've done research and found few titles, then you know that you've got something that is probably fresh and new. That's a GOOD thing.

You're on the right side of "there's nothing quite like mine" because you've found books that are similar to yours but without the main character being a lesbian.

Comp titles aren't the same as clone or twin titles.  Lee Child writes very different books than those of John Sanford. I love both authors and their books. Both are generally called crime novels. They appeal to the same readers. They're not similar books in plot, tone or character.  

You've also not mentioned utilizing one of the best resources available to you: your local library. Librarians live for this kind of question.  Give them a shout.

And while we're at it: writers, support your local library. Join Friends of the Library and volunteer to work at the annual book sale. Kick in some money to the fundraiser. Write letters of support to the government body that funds the library.  

Libraries, like writers, are the foundation of democracy and we all need to make sure both stay strong. 


Today's blog post brought to you by The Tao and The Bard by Phillip dePoy.

The Tao Te Ching or Book of the Way of Virtue is a touchstone of Eastern philosophy and mysticism. It has been called the wisest book ever written, and its author, Lao Tzu, is known as the Great Archivist.

Shakespeare, the Bard, was the West’s greatest writer and even invented human nature, according to some.

The Tao and the Bard is the delightful conversation between these two unlikely spokesmen, who take part in a free exchange of views in its pages.


Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Finding a comp title for my memoir has been an ongoing issue. From survivors of illness, to eating and praying and loving to losing your boots while on a life changing trek, there's tons of memoirs out there but NONE (organized)like mine. Either a bad sign or one of writer's-brilliance I continue the quest.

Susan Bonifant said...

Given queries that now arrive with samples built in, is an agent really going to be more inclined to request pages because the writer compares their work to someone else's? I've been on my own nerves plenty of times trying to answer that.

But two things here make complete sense to me: know how similar work has fared in the marketplace, AND your demographic.

If you can't say "my work is like so and so's" I wonder if it might shore up the query to know the stats about the demographic you're reaching for and why your story will draw them in?

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

I'm not a real librarian (I tend to call myself a "paralibrarian". I do not love cataloging enough to get that degree), but Janet is absolutely correct; we (or I) LOVE obscure and kind of difficult questions. Or questions that seem obscure, but we know the answer to. It's like a magic trick.

I say this, and hope to have not gotten anybody's hopes up, because I don't have an instant answer for the letter writer. Meg Wolitzer's Belzhar ishad a f/f relationship in it, but it was faaaaar from being the main focus of the book. And, in the non-YA realm, Richard K. Morgan's fantasy novels Steel Remains, Cold Commands etc books have f/f, m/m, and every which way.

Colin Smith said...

Comp titles comp titles comp titles. I fear these because they show how lacking I am in my fiction reading, which is to do with time (and the fact I didn't give reading fiction the attention it deserves for about 20 years of my life--not that I begrudge the theological study, but... oh, I won't bore you about that here. I wrote a blog article about it if you're interested.). ANYWAY (stay on point, Colin), I too will scour Goodreads and Amazon for possible comp titles, but that's also to see how much my novel is like whatever else is on the market. And if I find something, it's more than likely something I haven't read, so I need to take time out to read it before I say "My novel is like..." For my last novel (the teenage alien one I've mentioned a few times here), I compared it to "Douglas Adams meets Downton Abbey." That's about the best I could do to give an idea of the tone and "big manor house" feel. There may well have been some good novels I could point to as comps, but I couldn't find them. And, as Janet has warned, I didn't want to say "my novel's completely unique" because I don't KNOW that. Sure, I didn't find any good comp titles, but I've already indicated my relative literary ignorance, so that would seem a bit of an arrogant claim on my part.

All that early morning (it's 8:30, that's early for me) rambling to say, I like Janet's point about using "almost-like" titles to help highlight what's unique about your novel, but also to show you know the market and what else is out there.

Good question/answer! :)

Colin Smith said...

Oh, and Janet, I like the idea of featuring your client novels. What I think would be REALLY cool is if you could, from time to time, feature a client debut, along with the original query, and tell us what you loved about the query, and perhaps some of the story behind getting the novel from the author's first submission to you through to publication. Perhaps even have the author chime in with his/her side of the story?

I think this would be great way to illustrate how to write a successful query, and what it takes to get a book to publication.

Just a thought. OK, I hear the Caves calling. I'll pack now... :)

Gabby said...

As a former librarian, thanks for the shout out. People forget that they have an incredible resource that is both local and free. And we'll always be able to tell you what people are currently reading!

Unknown said...

I had another agent express it this way: [Comps] "tell the agent what the experience of reading the book will be like."

Unknown said...

This is driving me bat crap crazy. I keep having people tell me I should include comps in my query. Well, people who like Deeds of Paksenarrion will like it but it was published years ago. Oh, people who like Brandon Sanderson will like it. I'm reading him, and I like him, but I don't see the similarity. People who like Game of Thrones will like Far Rider, yeah probably, but I think agents will think you're a grandiose fool for mentioning the two in the same breath.

What about Harry Potter?


Off to the library as soon as I get the car fixed.

Anonymous said...

I was asked for comp titles, and I really did struggle. I read a lot, but I wasn't reading in the particular genre of the last project until about two years ago. Oh, sure, I'd read a few "hard crime" novels before - or maybe it could be called suspense, or thriller, or mystery b/c they all seem to find themselves classified and/or lumped together in some places like Goodreads and Amazon, etc. Anyway, back then I wasn't reading for writing, I was just reading. Fast forward to today, and I really pay attention. I look to see who won various awards (Edgar, Agatha) b/c Ms. Janet provided a slew of award lists to look at in a past post. So, not only the library, but award categories can cough up some quick tips and quickly show what's selling, and getting attention.

For example, here's a link with a nice compilation of awards for best suspense/mystery/thrillers.

Anonymous said...

That was a good tease, wasn't it?

Drum roll....!

Now, the link:


Dena Pawling said...

The writers says s/he writes “high concept YA”. Like Janet says, I would focus on that. Find titles that are high concept YA. They might have straight MCs, or gay MCs, or MC where nothing is mentioned about that. Don't focus on the fact that the MC in this novel is a lesbian, unless that's a major part of the book [like if it was a lesbian romance]. My understanding of comp titles is you want to tell the agent WHO will be reading your book, your target audience, because that's where the sales come from. If it appeals to folks who read high concept YA, then those are your comps. Altho yes I would mention your MC is a lesbian, because people looking for that type of novel, whether or not high concept YA, will also be your audience.

For example, I read lots of mysteries. I loved Chip Off the Ice Block Murder, by Jessie Chandler. The MC is a lesbian, but she doesn't scream out on every page I AM A LESBIAN. She goes about her life, and tries to solve a murder, and yes occasionally [when it fits into the story] you learn she has a girlfriend/significant other, and how her father felt when she told him she was interested in women, etc. But that trait doesn't define her, it's just a part of the story. If the pitch on the back cover had been LESBIAN WOMAN muses about her LESBIAN LIFE while trying to solve a murder, and oh by the way, she's a LESBIAN, I wouldn't have bothered reading it. I'm not the right demographic for a novel that focuses that much on that one aspect.

My MC has one hand. She goes about her life as a brand new attorney, and when it comes up in the story, you learn about life with one hand. I mention it in my query blurb [you can read that on my blog, NOT that it's a perfect example of a good query, I'll be starting the query journey hopefully this month, so I don't know if it works yet] but it's one unique aspect of my story, not the defining aspect of the story.

My freelance editor said my manuscript reads similar to Debbie Macomber. My critique partners told me my story reads like Jill Mansell meets Janet Evanovich. Those are comp authors, not comp titles, so I'm not sure whether to use it or not, but it makes it sound fun, so maybe I will. What do your editor/CPs/beta readers say it sounds like/?

Tony Clavelli said...

It's so hard to resist the urge to qualify my comp titles with overlong explanations of the overlap, and Venn Diagrams and spectral data. It took a long time for me to settle on some names and I'm still not sure it's totally right. So I just stick to the writers I think fit the same audience and then try not to hear the imagined agent's scoffing response, saying "He thinks that is comparable to Karen Russell?" And I whisper "sometimes."

ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) said...

First of all, let's make sure we all take a moment to re-read Dena's comment. The fact that the protagonist is a lesbian is hopefully not what makes this book unique. And if it IS what makes it unique, that means it must be part of the primary conflict, in which case there are many other kinds of titles to choose from.

The first novel I queried, I dabbled with both comp titles and comp authors, but it never felt right. I read heavily in my genre, so I'd think that would have helped? It did not. I don't even know how to comp other titles with one another let alone with my own work. Mostly I'm just horrible at calling up any book on the spot. It is one of my many failings as an English major and teacher. I do know that it seems like the author of this question is narrowing the idea of "like mine", especially if only looking at sexual orientation of the protagonist. Frankly, when in doubt, I'd leave the whole comp title part out of a query. If we look at the idea of finding comp titles as an exercise in spending more time studying our genre and the market, then that is the better result than whether or not we've come up with specific comps for our own work.

Also, I can't say my book is like Harry Potter (because that's too big of me) nor can I say it's like Bitsy Peanutshell (because the agent has never heard of her). It's a tough balance that I am clearly not talented enough to master.

Jenz said...

"If you can't say "my work is like so and so's" I wonder if it might shore up the query to know the stats about the demographic you're reaching for and why your story will draw them in?"

I'm pretty sure the answer is no. Explanations of how your target demographic likes X and your book has X don't demonstrate marketplace knowledge. Comp titles do.

My guess is that you're better off not having comp titles than trying to give demographic statistics.

LynnRodz said...

Unlike most here, I had no trouble finding comps for my ms. (As a woodland creature, is that good or bad? Good, I hope, but I'm afraid it may be bad. After all, fresh and new is good. Okay, I'll stop.)

I'm only chiming in because of what Colin said in his second comment. I think his idea of featuring clients, their queries, and their road to publication is a great idea.

Kitty said...

Colin wrote: feature a client debut, along with the original query, and tell us what you loved about the query

I LOVE that idea!

ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) said...

*joins the growing throng of people pounding on the middle school cafeteria tables*

"Do-it! Do-it! Do-it!"

Christina Seine said...

I second and third and fourth what Colin said about the successful query!

Bah, I despise comps. My MCs are 15 and 24 but my MS isn't YA or NA. My book centers around a natural disaster but is not *about* that. I tend to write (and read) literary fiction but most people tell me this MS is right in between literary and commercial. I don't know if comps should address plot, characters, tone or setting (Alaska in the 1960s).

Honestly, I'd planned to take the coward's route and just omit comps from my query. But I imagine at some point I'm going to be called on the carpet about them. I do try to read widely, I really do. But no one can read everything. And from what I’ve heard, it’s better not to use comps at all than to use comps that don’t apply. The whole thing makes me want to go stress eat a pound of chocolate.

Karen McCoy said...

Preach it, Jennifer and Gabby! Though I must argue that all people who work in libraries are "real," degreed or not.

Cataloging was one of the most challenging classes I took, mostly because some catalogers are rule-oriented to a fault (hence this sticker error I posted a few weeks back)

That being said, Janet is absolutely right. Libraries advocate information and discourage censorship. They offer free computer classes, resume help, and storytimes for children. And so much more.

Plus, librarians are a great resource for getting the word out on books. (A quick check in WorldCat shows that "We Are Not Good People" is currently housed in 83 libraries across the country.)

I highly suggest that the questioner talk to his/her local teen/YA librarian to find out more. I might have been a YA librarian had I not gone into higher ed--maybe someday, though.

Andrea said...

I recently described my novel to a relative stranger and he said, oh, it sounds a little like Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. Uhm... well, yes, but mine is not steampunk and I can only hope to ever achieve Pullman's level. But yes, sort of. Can't possibly write that in a query, though.
One of my beta readers said the story reminded her a bit of Mists of Avalon but that's a bit of a problematic comp title as well, to put it mildly.
My own comp title, which I used in queries, is the Pellinor series by Alison Croggon. Her work feels closest to my own. Still, I deleted that comp title from my query because I wasn't sure how relevant it still was. The Pellinor books were published about ten years ago I think, although they're still popular, and the author has written a prequel that should be published soon. Maybe that prequel can be my comp title once it's out. I'm getting desperate for some good fantasy a la Pullman and Croggon myself, so it's not just for comp title-sake.

Anonymous said...

The one thing I read once about being able to spew a couple comp titles in relation to your work is that agents/editors love them. And that's b/c it's like a quick snapshot of your book's premise/plot/or gives an idea of the grade/style of writing. I wish I'd been more successful at it (Janet Rundquist, I can so relate to your dilemma of choosing) because if I could have said "Think MYSTIC RIVER and an IN THE WOODS mashup," I'd imagine that would send agents to their emails asking for fulls.

I can see the value, even if we HATE having to provide them.

As to the suggestion everyone's banging the drum for..., all I could think was, gah, The Shark does SO MUCH for us already!

Colin Smith said...

Donna: Yes, she does do so much for us, which is why I'll gladly take my belongings back to the Cave if she says no. I just thought it would be a great way to illustrate the things she's been saying about querying and the publishing process.

Unknown said...


"Bah, I despise comps. My MCs are 15 and 24 but my MS isn't YA or NA."

Yep. My MC is 15 when the story starts and 16 at the end of the first book. I've been told by more than one person I have a voice that would lend well to YA. Well, yes, but at 150,000 words, I think this may be a problem. No, I can't cut 50,000 words, been there done that, ruined the story and had to rewrite it.

The debate is going on B&W now. "Can you cut it in half?"

"Can you cut out a bunch of other characters?"

Can I just start a new story?

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Why don't we just lock Janet in a cage, throw her an occasional nasty bean, which will remain nameless, and demand everything she's got to give. She doesn't need a life, fame, fortune, adoration and...why the hell don't we just make her the head of our cult.
Poor baby.
We need to give that girl a day off.
No...she is not the agent I hold captive in my basement.

Colin Smith said...

It was just an idea, 2Ns! I'm not saying she hasn't done enough and she needs to do this or we'll withhold her chum for the rest of the week (as if that would work--she'd have my arm!). Do I come across as that demanding...? :)

Colin Smith said...

Julie-with-1-L: My first thought was "cut it in half: part one and part two"! But then I thought, no. Just write a regular-sized YA, hit the NYT Bestseller list, and then you can get away with a 150K word YA novel. Make it the *second* novel you publish. THE DIVINERS by Libba Bray is one of a couple of YA books I can think of that, I think, exceed the usual word limit (not to mention every Harry Potter book from GOBLET OF FIRE on).

Christina Seine said...


Yes! I'm so glad someone else understands. Mine clocked in around 120k, and when I started cutting things, I started floundering. I've spent the last year revising, and while some things have improved, I do feel like the initial focus has been lost. I have gone back to the original and I still like it best.

I've had people tell me my story doesn't "read" like YA, whatever that means. I love YA, and actually read a lot of it. It's hard when your MS doesn't fall neatly into categories. But you just gotta write the story that calls your name. That's the only simple thing about writing, I think.

Christina Seine said...

I bet Janet would do it if she could spend a week at Amy's. That seems fair.

ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) said...

YES, Colin, when you talk about making the longer book the 2nd novel you publish. My first is long, but I've tried and I tried to cut it and just can't cut enough w/o destroying the story. I hope to resurrect it again after getting a different book pub'd. If there's one thing I learned, your book has to be even more AHmazing than amazing to be a higher-than-average word count debut. (And don't get me started on all the debuts that have broken this barrier...). Thanks for helping me with possibly hijacking this comment thread to talk about that dastardly word count.

And Christina - yes, I think that week exchange seems very fair.

Anonymous said...

Colin, IDK about being demanding. It's an idea is all, as you say. It's just I think about clients and the list of things we know she does for them, then with Query Shark, Chum Bucket, daily blog posts, and now the WIR, it's a load. Of course, it would be just another blog post, and as organized as she seems to be, it's likely not an issue. There is one possibility of a bit of a twist, and that's gaining "permission" from clients before she reveals a query to us, and maybe they wouldn't want that, or maybe they wouldn't care..., and IDK, maybe there's some aspects to a client's publishing journey they feel is there's to tell, and not anyone else.

Just thoughts, of course. I like the nitty gritty of details like that too, only I'm not sure if it's doable.

Anywho - how's Carkoon these days?

Anonymous said...

"theirs" not "there's...," ARGH.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Colin, you demanding? Hell no. I think it's a great idea. I LOVE IT !
I just wanted to get on Janet's good side and have her like me more. Don't tell her I said that.

DLM said...

Jennifer R. D., I'm having mental images of a librarian parasailing - and I love it. :D

Susan B. - on the built-ins: YES. I gave up even contemplating comps years ago. It may be easier as I write straightforward histfic, so it's not really necessary to "place it on the shelf" as it were.

2Ns - is it ... the bean that dare not speak its name? Hee.

Christina Seine said...

If only there was a like button for all these great comments.

Colin Smith said...

2Ns: I don't think she could like you more. She's a shark with taste, after all. :)

Colin Smith said...

Donna: If Janet were to do the client's query thing, I would assume she would get their permission to post the queries first. She's a shark of integrity, after all. Did you see the space heater she got for my cave on Carkoon. Just in time for spring. Now that's compassion, I tell you. :)

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Ha, Colin, you only got a space heater, I got a plane ticket and 7 days, 6 nights at Amy's under the palms. Sleek-skinned-beady eye likes me more.
Sticking tongue out,"Raspberries" to you.

Tamlyn said...

Julie - a little late so you probably won't see this, but if Deeds of Paksenarrion are similar, Elizabeth Moon is still writing (and writing books set in Paks' world) so maybe the more recent ones would be a good comp title?

JulieWeathers said...


Just noticed your remark. Yes, I noticed she just wrapped up the Paks world so I am going to use it for a comp title.

Thanks so much,