Monday, January 22, 2018

Comps vs influences

After the blog post on influences, this comment was made:

Great question OP. Does this ("my seminal influence turns out to be a douchecanoe") apply to comps too? I read a tweet by an agent claiming they will not look at anything comped to Ender's Game, since (according to the article listed in the tweet, anyway) Orson Scott Card is an avowed homophobe.

Are we torturing ourselves? Sure. But we're also trying to be sensitive.

And, by the way, does this apply to pitches made to editors? Aren't they looking for comps and influences? I was under the impression that that was an important piece of the pitch.

Any information anyone can provide on this will be very helpful to me - all this stuff is swimming in my head and I'm trying to quickly make sense of it.

The purpose of comparing your book to another is to give the editor or agent (or reader) a sense of where your book belongs on the shelf.

You can be influenced by books that are completely unlike your book in tone, style, plot and category.  An example of this is that I often say one of the best books I read about writing is in fact a book about music.

That book is an influence but unless you're writing essays about music, it's NOT a comp.

If you are writing a crime novel about a man who encounters people doing bad things to folks for money, well, you might use Lee Child as a comp even if you've never read a Jack Reacher novel, let alone been influenced by one.

Influences are more about how you got to be the writer you are today.
Comps are where a book store is going to shelve the book you wrote.

As to agents saying "don't comp to Orson Scott Card" they're telling you something about their political beliefs.

A savvy writer would NEVER use Ender's Game as a comp. It's old, and it's an outlier. It's the same reason you don't comp to Stephen King, JK Rowling, and Dan Brown.  Your comp books should be recent (within two years) and by writers who haven't published one gazillion books.  In other words, fight in your weight class, don't assume you're a heavyweight quite yet.

As to your question: comps are relevant, influences are not. And both are secondary to the story of the book you're writing. That's all I care about. And it's all readers care about.


Carolynnwith2Ns said...

"...fight in your weight class."

I'm screwed.
"I stand in the corner of the ring within a class of my own." That either makes me a winner or a pathetic loser. Time to rope-a-dope.

Timothy Lowe said...

Thanks for the clarification! I used the Ender's Comp lightyears ago (I actually used Ender's Shadow - the lesser known sequel) No, that book never happened. I did get a few requests despite it. One agent who rejected said it reminded her of Ender. Not sure if it was because that was in the initial pitch.

I've avoided using comps since then, unless the sub guidelines demand them (one of my most dreaded agency submission form requires the author to list competing/similar books. Some even require you to answer 'who will be the audience for this book?' - I've never filled that one out. I think I might succumb to the urge to be a wiseass and write "hopefully, everybody.")

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Comps make me a bit uneasy as they never seem too be taken as where my book goes on the bookshelves. Unless an agent specifically asks for them, I am no longer offering comps in my query letter. I have enough dysfunction to work through in my query letter as it is. This is just one more headache.

Colin Smith said...

It grieves me that an agent would respond that way. Are we so consumed with politics that an agent takes a comp to ENDER'S GAME as an approval of OSC and everything he believes? I thought the point of a comp was to say "My book is this style of book." How on earth you make the jump from "My book is a space adventure with a young MC in the vein of ENDER'S GAME" to "My views on homosexuality are in line with OSC" I don't know. I don't mean to sound harsh, but it says more about the agent's lack of balance and objectivity than anything else. I thought a comp title didn't have to reflect the ideology or convictions of the author, or even be a book that either the author or agent like? Indeed you don't even have to have read the book, as Janet points out. Its all about giving the agent an idea of the kind of story it is, and, perhaps, the tone of the narrative. The beliefs of the author are irrelevant.

I tend to use comps only if a helpful comp jumps out at me. I described the last novel I queried as Downton Abbey meets Douglas Adams. It was an obvious comp, all the good it did me *grumblegrumblegrumble*.... 😉

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I agree with Colin. It is beyond aggrevating how everything has become so polarized. Some of my characters have beliefs I despise and they are not villains. They are complex people reacting to their individual circumstances. Will my fiction damn me? Will an agent reject me because my fictional characters in my epic fantasy don’t tow today’s politically correct line?

Sorry for the rant. Back to regular scheduled program.

Unknown said...

The closest I get to reading multiple queries is paging through entries for twitter pitch contests. It's struck me how many of those use only comps as the pitch, (e.g., Cinderella meets Forty Shades of Grey on Carkoon). Given space limitations, that's understandable. But, I sometimes wonder if people write to the comps, versus just telling their story.

In the consulting world, we talk about organizations "managing to what they measure." That's not a good thing, as measures are always a reduction of the goal. (The examples of agents deciding whether to like your work based on the comps is surely reductionist.) By requiring comps, does publishing stifle creativity?

Lennon Faris said...

Oh man, I couldn't imagine using a comp that I'd never read before. That seems all kinds of risky. And to my (clearly naive!) eyes, borderline deceitful (i.e. trying to sound more well-read than you really are).

I don't pay attention to 'comps' for books I want to read, either. ("If you liked HUNGER GAMES, you'll love this!")

They're NEVER right.

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

Colin, I agree. Completely.

Last year, when I was researching various agencies and specific agents and studying their submission guidelines, I rarely saw a request for comps. Reading dozens and dozens of guidelines, comps didn't even register as a blip on my radar as something to be concerned about.

There are bigger fish to fry when you're querying, y'all... Like getting the story on the page in 250 words or less.

Unknown said...

I know I'm preaching to the choir here, but Lennon's "They're NEVER right," reminded me of why comps are difficult for me. They're like facial recognition and DNA matching. You compare multiple discrete data points until you get enough to consider something matched. But, unlike facial recognition and DNA, there is no agreement behind what to compare. Is it a comp if both stories have teenaged blonde cheerleader MCs struggling with love, even if one is a vampire in New Orleans and the other is coming of age in Duluth? One would get shelved in YA fiction and the other in YA SFF. We'd know that by the story, not the comp.

I'm with Melanie. Write the query and forget the comp. Thank you. Another worry crossed off my list.

Cecilia Ortiz Luna said...


Yes! For me, it's "The Next Gone Girl" comp that drives me nuts.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

I once bought a book because the cover copy said "the greatest apocalyptic thriller since Stephen King's THE STAND". It was in a used bookstore, the book was two dollars, and there was a cut away cover with a bald eager (and when you opened it, a triceratops).

It, uh, was not quite the greatest apocalyptic thriller since Stephen King's THE STAND and it is solely responsible for why I no longer finish books I'm not enjoying.

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

I have to comment on something from yesterday:

Cecilia...! I haven't read or heard "hoi polloi" in what seems like decades. HA! Love it. I'm gonna start tossing it around in random conversations.

Casey Karp said...

I gotta say, I'm with Timothy, Melanie, and Kathy. I've developed selective blindness to submission guidelines that demand comps. If that gets me an immediate "no," then so be it--on to the next agent.

For what it's worth, I've never gotten a rejection that says "You didn't give me a comp, you're impossible to work with, so buzz off." Unless that's what "I just didn't connect with your writing" means.

And, yeah, "who will be the audience" makes my brain hurt. How about "Anybody we convince to part with $15.95" as less arrogant than "everybody"?

Steve Stubbs said...

Off topic: There was an interview with David Cornwell on the 60 Minutes TV program Sunday that someone might find interesting.

Some of the readers of this blog may not have heard of David Cornwell, but he is a bestselling author of spy thrillers who just released his twenty-fourth book. He knows something about spies because he is a spy - or was, until the British media blew his cover and forced him into retirement. If you do not know the name David Cornwell, you may have heard of his nom de plume, John Le Carrre.

Some of his books have been made into movies. Amusingly, the star of THE RUSSIA HOUSE is the actor who played the original James Bond - wearing a wig, of course. Sean Connery swept himself under the rug in a manner of speaking, or the producers did. According to the Netflix description the movie is about a Russian publisher - thus the title.

CBS keeps re-designing their web site and I had trouble with this on my machine, but the interview is online. There are three segments. The Le Carre interview comes right after a segment about San Francisco:

gypsyharper said...

I'm terrified of choosing comps. I think I'd probably come down on the side of not giving them unless specifically asked (although I suppose that means I would have to think of them ahead of time anyway). I guess it's a good thing I'm a long way from querying. :)

Colin - "I described the last novel I queried as Downton Abbey meets Douglas Adams." That sounds like something I'd like to read!

Megan V said...

Comps are great when they work, but they're secondary. If they don't help explain anything about your story AND encourage interest, then they aren't working.

As for the secondary discussion that seems to be threading through the comments:

An agent has every right to choose not to want to read certain material for their own personal reasons. If they lose out on a good book because of it, they lose out. That's it. That's the consequence. We choose who we send our material just as much as an agent chooses to read it.

Now I have not seen alleged tweet at issue. But if the agent is putting it out there that they don't want to see comps to OSC because OSC is an avowed homophobe, then a savvy writer following said agents now posted guidelines knows better. Perhaps it is the agents way of taking a stand against OSC, by withdrawing their support for a writer whose apparent beliefs are repugnant to them. As in--hey I don't want this guy to receive any kind of kudos from me so, nope--automatic pass.

I have seen a tweets indicating that an agent was sick of seeing comps to OSC because they are not the right agents for that kind of material (SFF with white cis-het boy main protag).

The lesson here is always know who you're querying.

Unknown said...

I feel like you guys have given me reason enough to blow off comps, and it's the greatest gift of all.

John Davis Frain said...

As a writer, it intrigues me to hear an agent make a statement such as the OSC comp. There's a lot of story behind a statement like that, and it can inform us in our writing.

Here's a person, taking a stand that is essentially in conflict with their income source. So forget whether you agree with them or not. We have to write characters that we vehemently disagree with. This is a learning opportunity. Explore what is behind this person's decision, what might be in their background, that they're knowingly passing up a potential opportunity in their field.

Steve mentioned the John le Carre interview last night, and it's actually on topic. My favorite remark in that interview is when he responds to a question about what he learned from growing up with his father, a con man who lived by his wits.

le Carre: "I learned the width of the spectrum of human behavior." (God, he's good.) The agent discussed here, at least in this aspect of their life, is at the far end of that spectrum. That's where fascinating characters live. They're both difficult and necessary to write.

Sam Hawke said...

Comps were my nightmare as well, since I was writing a very odd little book that didn't seem to have an obvious comparison. Mostly I think I just left comps out of my query entirely unless an agent had indicated they always want to see one.

Craig F said...

Maybe the problem is in the way I write. I like plots that unfolds and develops in a story. That does, however, make writing a query tougher. I didn't even try to think of finding a space in my query for comps.

I'm glad that influences don't count because mine are mostly dead. There were several writers who sucked me in the addiction of writing, some are those that trolls are trying to discredit because of the time they lived, such as Heinlein.

OT: Sam Hawke's book is on the B&N SFF list of debut writers to look for in 2018. Congratulations

Sam Mills said...

I have to agree with Megan V. I've heard repeatedly on this blog (and elsewhere): you want an agent who is passionate about your work, and most agents won't go to bat for a project they don't love. This is what that looks like in action. Folks' tastes in books vary wildly. What one agent will adore about your characters and themes, another will hate (and if you think it is possible to write a purely apolitical book in SFF, you don't read SFF). If you disagree with this agent, submit to a different agent.

(Side note: it's something to get used to, since you'll get the same wildly different reactions from readers, for the same intensely personal reasons! One example: there's a rather loud segment of the scifi community who won't buy books by women. Are they missing out on some great stuff? I certainly think so! But you can't force them to buy something they don't want, no matter how arbitrary the reason.)

Cecilia Ortiz Luna said...

Melanie: HA!

Sam Hawke: Congrats for the B&N nod. Wow!

Colin Smith said...

Megan: Absolutely. Agents have the right to accept or reject any project for any reason. And if they want to turn away good work and good money on an irrational premise, then they can do that. As has been said, a comp is not an endorsement. No credit is given to the comp's author for the comp. It's merely saying "this book is kinda like that one." If an agent is willing to say "I reject your work because it is kinda like a book whose author I think is a jerk," then fine. I guess they don't want to listen to music that's kinda like Wagner's since he was Hitler's favorite composer, or kinda like Debussy's because he was a reprobate and womanizer... need I go on?

To sum up: I fully stand by an agent's right to take on or turn away projects for any reason. It gives me pause, however, when that reason could be because I happen to comp the wrong book. Maybe this puts the nail in the coffin of comp titles. :)

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

I've got two important things to say, the first being most important:

This post makes me feel better about using Emma Hamm as a comp author. (Who's Emma Hamm, you say? A midlist indie author whose works ring with the same song as my fantasy series. I believe her audience would love my novels as well). I've balked over using a somewhat obscure indie author, but this post gave me courage to continue using her.

Courage, for me, has been a little in short supply this week, especially after the post that inspired this post.

See, I'm Mormon. I don't keep it a secret, but sometimes it's not to my advantage to shout it from rooftops, especially online, as I run the risk of being negatively comped with other authors like OSC as someone who promotes a particular hatred. His open attitude (which is one I emphatically do NOT share) spreads its taint over me simply because we share the same flavour of religion. (FYI, Colin and I share the same brand, different flavour.) That automatically puts me at a distinct disadvantage.

I really wanted to say something the other day. Even now, I run the risk of being unfairly tarred by that brush. I'm sure my many LGBT friends will vouch for me, but it's not like the Internet will stop to ask their opinion. Also, I don't have the power and advantage of being a wealthy white male to defend myself.

I can only hope that my history the words I've said show me for the person I am and that the query letters I write show books people want to read.

Meanwhile, I saw Emma Hamm has a new series out, highly rated on Amazon. Soon as my next royalty cheque comes in, I shall have to buy it.

Unknown said...

Sam, congrats! How did I miss that you have a book out? Such talent on this blog. And congrats to Colin on making the header, and to the unnamed writer with new representation. Such talent on this blog!

Colin Smith said...

Heidi: For honesty and clarity's sake, I have to say that our brands are actually quite different (starting with monotheism vs. polytheism), but a) that's a discussion for another blog another day, and b) that doesn't take away from what you said. We both hold to distinct theological positions, and we both have people in our own camps who hold views that we don't share, and would rather not be credited with by association.

I say, if you have a useful comp, use it. If you don't, skip it. Hopefully, the query's compelling enough not to need it. :)

And... wow! The header... I'm... well... what can I say? To the writer with the offer in hand, first, ACCEPT THE OFFER!! And second, you're very welcome. I'm deeply humbled and gratified that the Treasure Chest was useful to you. :D