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The Dire Necessity of Comparables

A must have for query letters and pitches.

First of all, we're going to include a snippet or two from the Penguin Random House website on COMPARABLES, then follow up with notes from a former senior editor at Random House, Caitlin Alexander.

Part I

Comparison ("comp") titles are books that are similar to yours in one of two ways: either the content is comparable (premise, sometimes  with a dose of theme, and/or plot) or the sales trends are expected to be similar. For your publishing team, comp titles are extremely important. The comps help editors making acquisition decisions to figure out who and how big the audience might be for a specific title

Editors also look at the sales trajectories of comp titles: will Book X be the type to backlist forever, like Book Y, or go strong out of the gate and then fade fast when the publicity dies down, like Book Z? Marketing teams also find comps useful when putting together marketing plans for individual titles.

Additionally, comp titles are essential for the sales group. They give the sales reps a good shorthand when selling in to retailers. Reps have only thirty seconds to pitch each book with some accounts. Being able to say “It’s like x and y” can be one of the most effective ways to get attention from the buyer and to set expectations about audience and ballpark sales potential."

Part II

Keep it recent - Watch the bestseller lists and follow industry news. If you can (legitimately) comp your book to something that's been a recent smash, you'll have a leg up. Bestsellers are hard to predict, and often take everyone by surprise (e.g., Fifty Shades of Grey)--once something's been proven a hit, publishers are going to be looking for more, instantly. After 3-6 months, though, they're all going to have seen a dozen comps to The Help!

Keep it fresh - Stay away from comparing your book to the ubiquitous bestsellers--Danielle Steel, James Patterson, Janet Evanovich--because they are their own brands and impossible to duplicate. If your book falls into a somewhat glutted category in which a lot has been published over the past couple of years (paranormal, dystopian, etc.) focus on why yours offers a unique twist (e.g., The Help set in Alaska). 

Keep it simple - Comps aren't as much about what your specific story is as about who the audience is--what specific readers your book can be effectively sold to. Wildly cross-audience novels sometimes work (e.g., Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), but more often a book has to be marketed to one audience or the other. If you're trying an "x meets y" comp, think about what readers each appeals to and whether there's likely any crossover. (If you put a Vince Flynn cover on a novel, would anyone who loves Nicholas Sparks pick it up?)

Keep it iconic - If you've written something that falls into that iconic-novel-that-only-comes-along-once-in-a-while vein, e.g, The Secret History or Special Topics in Calamity Physics, they're an exception to "keep it recent." Generally stay away from comparing your book to classics, though, unless you've consciously written a story inspired by one--they're not helpful as a marketing comp, particularly because a lot of their sales are coming from students

DO think about what makes an author iconic: You may have loved Nick Hornby's A Long Way Down, but chances are that most agents are only going to be familiar with his best-known books, High Fidelity and About a Boy (or may not have even read him at all and will only know his reputation). If you want to use A Long Way Down as a comp, make sure that if all the agent hears is "Nick Hornby," and associates it with humorous novels about aimless thirty-something men finding direction, they'll still see how your book will appeal to Hornby's audience.

Part III

Where to Look?

Amazon, Goodreads, and Allreaders.com are some of the sites where you can look up a book you know, or specific elements of a story, and find other books that are considered similar or being bought by the same readers. Publishers Marketplace is worth paying a one-month subscription for so that you can browse or search the deals and see what books are being comped to when publishers first acquire them (sometimes these comps come from the editor, sometimes from the agent and author). They also have a section where you can look up the bestseller history of any title. Amazon's rankings won't tell you anything about how well a book sold, and the number of reviews is not always a good indicator--if there are more than a hundred reviews, though, you can usually assume the book sold well.

Read - Go to B&N.com, Amazon, and elsewhere, and there you can usually read the first few pages of any book. Do this to help get a sense of whether fans of that author would indeed find your book appealing.

Read as much as possible in the genre in which you're writing; it will not only help you pinpoint the ways in which your book offers something special, or show you terrific storytelling techniques, but it supports the industry you hope will support you.

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