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.

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