Friday, 4 October 2019

Shopping for Comparisons - An Author and Agent Discuss Comp Titles

By Nick Cross and Heather Cashman

Nick says:
Hello! In what may be a dangerous experiment to test the limits of our professional relationship, I am joined for this blog post by my agent, Heather Cashman from Storm Literary Agency.

Heather says:
Thank you for including me in your post, Nick! I’m 98.2% sure we can survive this ;-)

When it comes to comp titles (as with many things in publishing), no-one seems to quite agree about what the name stands for. Some say comp means “comparison,” others say “comparative” or “competitive.” But whatever the name means, they can broadly be defined as follows:
Comp titles are existing books - published in the last five years - which you are comparing your own work against. Such comps are used throughout the publishing process, for pitching to agents, publishers, booksellers, and eventually to the book-buying public.

Just a quick note that this post is going to talk about fiction titles – the process for non-fiction is slightly different and may involve more detailed analysis of comp titles in your book proposal. There is also a difference in terminology between the UK and US. In the UK we talk about submitting to an agent, in the US it's called querying an agent. UK people write a covering letter to accompany a submission, whereas US folk write a query letter. For the sake of clarity (and because Heather is American), we’re going to use the US terminology in this post.

Heather and I have been working on comp titles for my illustrated YA novel Riot Boyyy, which is about to go on submission (look out for it, publishers!) This has been a complex process, and I must admit to not totally understanding comp titles in the past, or why they're important to publishing folk. I figure that if I didn't know, then there must be quite a few of you in the same boat!

Heather, can you tell us why comp titles are so useful for agents and publishers?

Sure! So, comparative titles are really useful for a lot of reasons. They began originally as part of an editor’s proposal package to their acquisitions board, which comprises other editors, the sales team, and the marketing team (usually). Editors use comparative titles to the manuscript they are trying to acquire, so that sales and marketing can do an appropriate analysis on how well they think the manuscript up for acquisitions is going to sell.

This type of pitch has trickled down from editors to agents and now to authors as they try to get their book noticed.

Comp titles can be useful in other ways as well. When used properly, they can give the agent a sense of the novel. For instance, perhaps something might have the paranormal aspects of The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater and the complex morality of The Sin Eater’s Daughter by Melinda Salisbury.

When I pitched Riot Boyyy for The Hook at the SCBWI British Isles conference last year, I summed it up as: “The Perks of Being a Wallflower meets Tom Gates at a feminist punk rock concert.” I thought that was pretty clever, but then I did some more research and ended up throwing away the analogy before I sent my submissions to US agents.

What were my reasons for this? Well, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is amazing, but also 20 years old, which doesn't make it a useful comp in the current market. The Tom Gates books are massive in the UK, but don't have the same kind of name recognition in the States.

Crowd photo by Magnus D

Heather, as you mentioned earlier, publishers use comp titles to set expectations for their internal teams and for external booksellers. They’re saying: this existing title sold in a certain way, so we expect this new title to do the same. As an agent pitching to a publisher, are you choosing comp titles for the same reasons?

Not necessarily. While it’s true that I want something to sell well, I’m also looking for a lot more than that. For me, comp titles are as much about setting, character, relationships, themes, influences, and also showing how the book is high concept.

Authors are a step earlier in the process, and they may be using comp titles as part of a query letter to an agent like you. What should they be thinking about when they choose a comp?

If an author is pitching me in a query letter, pitching on twitter, or talking to anyone about their book, comps are a great resource that can get the conversation going quickly and spark immediate interest. In that way, it’s less important if an author uses an older comp or uses movies or television for comparisons. However, if you use more current comp titles, it means to the agent that you’re aware of the current market trends, and that bodes well for the author/agent relationship. Agents appreciate when authors are knowledgeable about the business of publishing.

One caution though, if you’re writing in YA and you use something from twenty years ago, the YA reader of today might not have a clue what you’re talking about.

I located my very first email to you, and it turns out I didn’t quote any comp titles in my query letter. So omitting them is clearly no barrier to success! But could I have strengthened my pitch by including some?

Your book is unique and doesn’t have many comps, which is one of the reasons I loved it so much! That said, I’ve seen amazing comps and then jumped right down to the pages because they peaked my interest so well. So if you can use comparable titles, it can definitely strengthen your pitch.

Harry Potter covers by Scholastic and Bloomsbury

I can imagine that you get a lot of grandiose query letters from authors comparing themselves to Harry Potter or some other megabucks franchise. But what if authors comp themselves to a more niche title that you hadn’t previously heard of? Would you find that intriguing or off-putting?

I do find a lot big-name-$$ titles being comped, and honestly, there’s nothing that sets up an agent's expectations quite like that. It's a big promise you're making as an author. And because (so far) none of them have delivered on that promise of being just like those titles, it’s an even quicker pass.

If I’m not familiar with a comp title, I’ll just read the query. Then if I like the query concept, I’ll read the pages. If the pages stand up, I’ll look up the comp title and see that, oooh, it was published by Aladdin (or some other traditional publisher) and it sold really well and has 2,000 reviews with a 4.0 rating. Wow! I’m interested and would most likely request a full manuscript.

So for me, the main thing for comp titles would be to have a high number of reviews with a good rating from a traditional publishing house, even if it’s a smaller one.

You mentioned that authors querying you don’t always need to comp to books, and could use a TV show or movie if it seems like a better comparison. Can you expand on how that might work in practice?

If you have good comp titles with current books, use those in preference. However, I think TV or movies are fine for query letter comp titles. Not every agent feels the same way, but this is why they occasionally work for me. If it’s a timely show, the markets weave into one another. I also think movie/TV comps are good for giving a sense of the world, the relationships, perhaps a complex character arc, or a variety of other similarities that bring out some major aspect of your manuscript in a few words instead of a paragraph. For instance, if your main character has a negative arc, I might more quickly understand that if you compare him to Walter White (Breaking Bad).

Call that one the Heisenberg principle ;-) So, how long might you typically spend choosing comp titles when submitting a book to a publisher?

Hours. If it’s a highly-unique illustrated book about a certain feminist boy from Tacoma, many, many hours and three major rewrites of the submission letter.

Oops. Sorry about that!

No worries! ;-)

It usually only takes me a few hours, maybe four, to get amazing comparable titles for the books going out on submission. But comparable titles are so important, I’ll do whatever it takes until I get it right. They’re essential to a good letter to editors.

Finally, where do you go to find comp titles? Are you camped out in the children’s section of your local bookstore?

I love the bookstore! But in reality, I go to places where it’s easiest to find books. Publishers Marketplace is my first go-to. I look up books sold within the last few years. Once I have a list from there, I dig deeper by using Google or search Barnes & Noble or Amazon. What I love is that they often give you a whole list at the bottom of books similar to the one you’ve chosen. It’s like a “For fans of...” section. It might be a bit of a cheat, but it still takes a long time.

Heather, thank you so much. We’ve managed to get to the end of this blog post without either of us firing the other one, which has to count as a success!

Absolutely! I’m so happy you asked me to be on your blog. I hope this helped!

Heather Cashman is currently on the look-out for MG and YA submissions, so please send her all your good stuff! You can find her detailed wish list and submission guidelines at her Manuscript Wish List page. You can also find her on Twitter.

Nick Cross is a children's writer/illustrator and Undiscovered Voices winner. He received a SCBWI Magazine Merit Award, for his short story The Last Typewriter.
Nick is also the Blog Network Editor for SCBWI Words & Pictures magazine. His Blog Break column appears fortnightly on W&P.

Heather Cashman is an associate agent with Storm Literary Agency and is based in Kansas, USA.

Heather loves commercial fiction that has a literary flair and inclusive books that bring us together as citizens of the world.

Friday, 6 September 2019

Launching Kitty

On Saturday I was in my favourite book shop, Waterstones Milton Keynes, launching a new series from OUP by myself and Jenny Lovelie. It's a highly illustrated series in two colour for young readers from maybe 5+.

Kitty is a girl with cat-like superpowers and she has to learn to use them wisely. She has heightened senses and great agility, so she runs across the rooftop at night with her cat crew. The first book, Kitty and the Midnight Rescue, sees her rescue a stripy ginger kitten called Pumpkin. In the second book, Kitty and the Tiger Treasure, she solves a mystery when a precious artefact is stolen from the city museum.

As a long-time cat lover, this series has been a joy to write. It was also wonderful to launch it in Waterstones MK as they have been supportive towards me for a really long time and for that I am immensely grateful.

I really hope young readers will love this series. I ran a crafty activity making cat masks (just like Kitty's!) on the day and enjoyed seeing everyone getting very creative.

It was also amazing to have the support of friends. I was so so happy to have a few Slushies and other writer pals there looking suitably cat-like!

My four week old baby mostly slept through proceedings in spite of losing one of her kitten socks. I have a suspicion that a few people may have come to see her as much as me!

The third book, Kitty and the Sky Garden Adventure, will be out next year.

Friday, 30 August 2019

Five Top Tips to Prompt a New Writing Idea by Kathryn Evans

It's almost September, the start of a new academic year, so here are some ways to kick start some new ideas.
TOP TIP ONE - What If?

Ideas come from everywhere.

With an open mind you can pick up ideas like a magpie picks up shiny things.
The ideas behind my book More of Me came from:

1. Looking at old photographs of my daughter and wishing I could have kept all the previous versions of her - toddler Emily, six-year-old Emily, twelve-year-old Emily - maybe not fifteen-year-old Emily, that version was quite hard work.

2. And from observing the weird ways some insects reproduce - notably, aphids - what if that was exploited by science?

3. Remembering what it was like to be sixteen and feeling your life was being controlled by your parents - what if it really was?

These seem like random ideas but they came together to make an award-winning novel that was nominated for the Carnegie medal.

My new novel, Beauty Sleep, came from similar apparently disparate thoughts.

1. What if a girl from the eighties suddenly had to cope in a world where she's inundated with social media?

2. What if homelessness became a crime?

3. What if a great beauty product held a dark secret?

You'll see those two small but important words that are at the heart of every writer's work:

What If?

So that's my first and most important tip - build the question what if into everything you see/do/hear:

What if I'm doing the washing up and the drain expands and sucks me in?

What if I go to bed and when I wake up, I'm in a different century? ( I might write this one!)

What if my puppy gets bigger and BIGGER and BIGGER?

You get the idea. Hopefully.

Top Tip Two- If you're stuck, cheat.


Use story prompt websites. They aren't really cheating, they're just lighting a match under your ready to burn tinder. Reddit is great :

But there are dozens of these sites - have a google and find one that works for you.

TOP TIP THREE - Use some Imagination tools.

Okay, this is kind of like Top Tip Two but I just confessed to cheating and you can NEVER trust a writer.

Story Cubes: I've never used them but I know someone who has and got a book deal out of it! Jill Atkins threw a torch, an open book, and a keyhole. She wrote a story called Grandad's Magic Torch and Franklin Watts are publishing it for their Reading Champions series in April 2020. Jill has written over 100 books, so if it's good enough for her, it's good enough for me.

Prompt Cards: I have a stack of cards with about thirty characters, inciting incidents and decisions a character makes to prompt in writing workshops and they ALWAYS spark loads of ideas.  It takes the pressure off to be given a trigger and quite often the writer rejects the card in favour of something else it's sparked off.

Other Writing: Dipping into history books,  guides for tourist sites, science magazines, myth and legend books will all fire something in your brain, guaranteed. Even practical writing books can help, Marie Basting, author of the fabulous debut Princess BMX, says:

When I was unsure where to go with new project, I read 'Stealing Hollywood' by Alex Sokoloff which really got me back on track.

TOP TIP FOUR - Talk to other writers.

Teaming up with other writers is a great source of support, encouragement, and stimulation. I was stuck on a story when I went to my monthly SCBWi writers group and they made a couple of suggestions that turned my story around. Give the girl a friend and give her a magic way out. I tore up the script I'd just finished and started again - it's SO MUCH better.  I haven't followed the advice exactly but their interest in my story kick-started something much more fun and imaginative.

I also asked my writer pals on twitter what they did to fire their story engines.

Mo O'Hara, the author of the Zombie Goldfish books, is a people watcher:

I people watch and listen to snippets of conversation. There is always a story.The other day I saw a really tough looking teenager in a hoodie with a giannormous cuddly toy. He was prob on a call but he looked like he was arguing with the Panda...story!
GR Dix takes himself off for a trip:

I drive around the countryside / look at a map - daft village names = character names = inspiration!

As does Nina Wadcock:

Visit old places or graveyards and wonder whose stories are beneath my feet.

 Top Tip Five - Lower your Crap-o-meter.

This is possibly the most useful tip I've ever been given and it was from our very own award-winning, best selling, Teri Terry. It's okay to write rubbish sometimes.  You can edit later.

Get it writ, then get it right.

Don't hamstring yourself by trying to be perfect from the start. No book is perfect from the off. It's like expecting to chisel out the statue of David with the first couple of hammer taps. It's not going to happen. Take off the pressure and have some fun with your writing.

Happy writing everyone!


Kathryn Evans latest book, the pacy, gripping thriller ( Sunday Express)  Beauty Sleep, is out now.

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