Hoo: No updates since November 2020, and here it is, almost two years later. I feel like I live out of time, these days. My July to September personal goals included posting three times, but once feels like an accomplishment.
Meanwhile, I took a dip into the bookish internet, and what did I see but fighting! Ah, it’s the way of things. Someone says something, perhaps makes a thread about it; most of the time, the thread is about 80% good information, 20% misinformation or misapprehension. On one of those items, good or bad, someone fails to use critical reading and reasoning, and is angered that a bit of advice doesn’t apply broadly, or apply to their situation, or just doesn’t come with that disclaimer that mileage may vary. Quickly, there are subtweets, quote tweets, new threads. There are patterns in whose anger is uplifted and whose is not. People start missing the point. Some people swoop in as the loudest in the room, the ones you ought to listen to, but aren’t necessarily the ones you want to work with. Rinse, repeat.
So I’m going to talk about comps, with no rancor. (I honestly have none for anyone anyway; I don’t remember who was in the comps conversation; nobody did anything wrong.) Instead, I’m going to talk info, all in one place. As I warned you, nobody is 100% right about everything. My only goal here is information, though, which I hope helps.
Comps in Book Publishing: What Are They?
A comp might mean a competitive, comparative, or comparison title, and different terms and meanings can be attached to different points in a book’s journey. In the most general terms, it means a book that is like another book in a useful way. Most often, in my experience, a comp is used to mean a comparative title, whether that end definition is “a book like this other book” or “a book like this other book and we published the book.” Sometimes, competitive can mean “a book like this other book and some other agency or publisher published it.” Still, there’s always the overall sense of there being a similarity that would help this new book find its readership.
What that similarity is, though, can vary. If you’re publishing a picture book, you probably–not necessarily always, but nearly always, probably–want to comp the book to other picture books. You probably want to comp middle grade fantasy to other middle grade fantasy. You might want to comp adult self-help about how to end a relationship to other self-help about marriage, divorce, couples counseling, maintaining friendships, co-parenting, and closely related topics.
The thing about comps is that while there are (variable!) best practices, and sometimes rules within an organization about how to comp, there are also times when you have to break the rules, or not use comps at all. My dirty secret: I hate comps as much as I hate blurbs. My confession: I know they’re one of many tools in the arsenal.
Here is a bit about when comps can be used, and how.
Do agents like comps? I have interned at agencies, but never worked in any. Let’s say that some will like them, some won’t. In your query letter, a comp might help you pitch your book. Working in that comp can be tricky–at least, it would be for me, because saying that my unproven book is like this other book would feel weird at best. If I have a good comp, though, including it might be a way to make my query stand out in a sea of queries. Maybe the agent really likes a particular property, or sees the mention of another book and understands better that you know where your book would live in the bookstore (and that you’re not trying to write a mashup of every existing genre in a way that appeals to toddlers, children, and adults equally). Here are a couple of ways to do that:
“I noticed that you’re looking for books with a Star Wars vibe, and my book, The Two Suns, begins with a reluctant hero desperate to escape a binary star-system…’ [Ed. note: comparing yourself to juggernauts isn’t the safest plan, but it makes an okay example here.]
“…, with a theme of finding and being your truest self, is a graphic novel for young readers of stories like The Prince and the Dressmaker and The Deep and Dark Blue.”
“I wrote this after asking the question: what if The Great Gatsby was set on a military base in the southern Pacific?”
“…in a story where Gearbreakers meets Paper Girls.”
If you can’t come up with anything, I honestly don’t think it’s the end of the world. It’s all a gamble: does the agent hate, hate, hate the comp you listed? Is it a wonderful comp that hasn’t sold well, or one that agents (and the editors they submit to) have seen too many times lately? You can’t know! Whee! Use ’em if you’ve got ’em, skip ’em if you don’t. What you can do–and really the only thing you can do–is work on getting your best story down on the page.
The next step: Hey, an agent likes your book and thinks they can sell your book! They write a pitch note and attach your manuscript to the email and send it off to editors. The agent might use some of the text of your query; they might not. And they might or might not use comps in the same way you as an author did, as in the examples above. They could also sorta-comp; that is, they might say “I’m sending this to you, editor, because you edited This Book and That Other Book.”
Does the agent have to include comps? It’s nice, I think, to have them, because it clues the editor in immediately to where the book might fit into the market and their list, and the imprint’s list (and, say, see if a particular theme is overrepresented or a priority for acquisition), and can help the editor get a head start on putting together acquisitions comps (more on that later). The comp can, of course, backfire if the editor doesn’t like the comped book, or if the comped book hasn’t sold well, or if the editor simply doesn’t know the comped book (or other media) well. HOWEVER: please let me reassure you that no editor is passing on a submission because they think the submission query’s comp stinks. Editors receive dozens, maybe a hundred, submissions for every new book they buy. By backfire, I mean that, at worst, the editor might think OMG I hate The Great Gatsby, let me tell the agent they can submit to someone else here, saving everyone a bit of heartache.
Dirty, dirty secret #1: I almost always read submissions more or less in the order received and did not prioritize “favorite” or “important” or “big” agents/agencies. I did this because I think moving people up and de-prioritizing others is un-egalitarian, because those practices seemed profoundly unfair toward newer and marginalized agents and authors, and I’m gonna be honest here, with a million things to track, prioritize, and organize, I didn’t have the bandwidth to be running an ever-shifting mental list of emails I hadn’t even opened yet. Working my way through and responding in order–and skipping the “got your email!” emails–was my best, fairest, and importantly, fastest process.
(I won’t lie: Obviously, if I was thinking positively about a manuscript, I might set it aside and move on to something else. At other times, grabbing all the picture books out of the queue was easier than switching reading modes on the fly. And like everybody else, I was sometimes very behind on responses. Etc.)
Dirty, dirty secret #2: I always looked at the submission attachment first, and looked at the pitch email afterward, in an attempt to see what it would be like to pick up the story in book form and to try to skip over any of my own preconceptions (that comp didn’t sell, I don’t like the idea, whatever). One of the books I was most excited about when I was acquiring had the second-worst query I have ever seen.* (The worst: “I don’t do pitches.) I can’t say that’s true for everyone; an editor with a very established list might always look at the pitch to see if the offering fits well with their limited openings (though, of course, I’ve found that editors tend to be very generous about passing books along when they know a book could work for the imprint if it was a fit for another editor).
*I didn’t get to buy it! Just letting you know in case you’re the sort of person who likes to go out sleuthing; there’s nothing more to the story.
Comps are used in all kinds of ways at acquisitions…maybe. At some imprints, the acquisitions process is as simple as an editor going to their publisher and having a quick conversation. At others, there are multiple rounds of reads, in-house pitches to the team, analyses from finance, and more. If the process is more formal, it’s likely that the editor will have to come up with some comps, both published by their house and published elsewhere. You should insert the word “probably” into all the rest of the statements.
The editor, if internally pitching the book, wants–needs–others to sit up and take notice. While the read might be the most important (remember that I said all you should focus on is writing your best book?), sales matters too. So the editor wants to find three to five(ish) books targeted at the same audience, in the same genre, with sales (as available internally, or on Nielsen BookScan for titles published elsewhere) that paint a picture of how the book the editor wants to buy would do in the market.
They’re looking for books published in the last couple of years. They’re likely not allowed to use the biggest bestsellers, since the sales team is tired of every book being comped to those, as are the book buyers that they’ll be talking to down the line, but the editor hopes to find titles that are familiar to their colleagues; it’s impossible to read even a fraction of what’s sold in any category every year, but some books will ring a bell anyway. The editor wants to show that readers like the themes, setting, etc., and show how the book might appeal to a particular audience, but also be interesting widely. Most publishers, in one way or another, also want to have a varied portfolio of books so that there’s something for everyone and so they’re not pitting books against each other on their lists (two books with dead moms this season? we’ll take one of them, says the book buyer), so the editor is trying to balance alike with different, niche with broad, unique with “like these other recently published good books you know.”
It’s tricky. Especially tricky when a topic or theme is making a comeback. When there haven’t been successes yet, but you know readers are waiting for something new. When readers are very exciting about something new, but similar books haven’t been in the market long enough to garner many sales, and your team is trying to figure out how many yours might sell in the 2-3 years that they’re using for a financial model.
Trickier: I’ve heard that at some imprints, if you can’t pitch a book to the team as “X meets Y,” you’re not getting the go-ahead. I hate this idea; not all books lend themselves to that kind of framing.
In summary: This is a point where comps matter, up to a point. They’re rarely the thing that makes or breaks a book’s acquisition; the editor’s passion, a unique selling angle, the strength of the manuscript, and more will come into play. The editor will, however, need something.
Marketing and Publicity
Your quick primer: Publicity is the free stuff (getting a book reviews, getting the author an interview), and marketing is the paid stuff (advertising, particularly including behind-the-scenes industry stuff that most authors never see, promotions, the the like). That’s oversimplifying, but you get the gist. These hardworking folks are reaching out to other hardworking folks who may or may not have time to read an advance copy of your book, so they may have to shorthand your story as “the next Big Book You Have Sold a Lot Of!” or “X meets Y!” or “For fans of This Other Title You Know People Bought and Liked!” They’re trying to maximize opportunities, so comps are in use here.
You might see these comps on marketing copy, and marketing copy includes the description of your book online; on your book cover or advance copies; in press releases; and more.
Comps have been flowing up the chain throughout the pre-publication life of the book. Perhaps some comp titles have been swapped in or out of the list that the team looks at in-house. Maybe the strategy has changed from “X meets Y” to “for fans of” or maybe even “this other author who has written a comp title loved it,” if you got that kind of a blurb. (I hate blurbs with the intensity of the core of the sun. That’s a different post.) But here is where comps are necessary: Book buyers, meaning in particular big chains and stores that sell things other than books, will look at the sales of the comp titles and use that to guide their ordering for the on-sale date, which flows back through the chain of information to finance, production, and so on. Some of these buyers will not look at anything published more than two years ago! And, like the marketing and publicity folks did, the sales team is trying to shorthand their enthusiasm so that stores will stock your book, meaning readers will happen upon it and buy it because they see it on the shelf.
Even with great comps, things can go wrong. The buyer/buyer team isn’t super interested in the comps. They think that a particular comp isn’t doing well for them, and they had to return a bunch of copies, and don’t want your similar book to be in the same situation. Maybe they’re not seeing a lot of pre-orders. Maybe they don’t perceive enthusiasm among their customers. And then they might pass on carrying the book in their stores or even online. Or they might under-order, and your book might be out of stock for a bit (not as awful as you might think–there isn’t usually a big gap between out of stock and in stock, no matter how evil the out of stock message about how we’re out of stock and aaaah we don’t know if there will ever be stock again and yes there are boxes at the loading dock now but woe woe how will we know when we can ship–but it’s a scramble for the publisher, scary for the author, and sucks all around). (Another part of the suckage is that some of the big book sellers are moving toward a “just in time” inventory model, so they order juuuuuuust enough, planning to reorder later. Books can be printed fairly quickly, but ordering in small batches still takes time, doesn’t allow for planning, and costs more because of the smaller batch size, which means it’s harder to get to profitability, which means publishers get more conservative in their estimates and acquisitions, and on and on.)
The point is, this is a point where comp titles are truly necessary.
From here, some buyers will or might look at trade reviews, advance copies, catalogs, and other sources to decide what to stock in their stores or acquire for their libraries. Some really want a verbal pitch from their sales rep; others might put a finger on the scale for a local author. The comps might matter less.
And then we can’t forget the readers! Some will see a comp and think “hey, that’s for me.” Some will see a comp and think “aw, I don’t think I’ll like it (but maybe my friend will.” Some won’t notice the comp at all. So we can argue, here, that comps are nice to have, but like they are at many points in the life of the book, not a make or break thing.
If you take one thing away from this post, take away that comps are interesting and maybe useful, and only occasionally necessary. Every single book has a different path, and there are a zillion factors that affect each one–maybe in a different way from which they affected other books. Can you control it? Can anybody? Nope. Write your stories. Read good books. Carry on.