Category Archives: Writing

Comps and Comparisons

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.

Querying

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.

Submissions

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.

Acquisitions

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.

Sales

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.

And Beyond

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.

In Summary

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.

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Filed under Publishing, Resources, Submissions and Acquisitions, Uncategorized, Writing

Kissing (Scene) and Tell Me

I know; two posts in a year! I’m trying to spend more time writing in 2018, because to write well, I have to slow down. I need active and passive think time, and the ability to walk away for a while, days even, and let questions and analyses dribble out of my brain. I have to clean house and read the whole internet first (too bad it’s so much longer than it used to be). I would really like to slow down.

And lately I’ve been especially struggling with two brains–one, the technical side that wants everything to be correct, the one that runs hot, the one that remembers how to hyperfocus, and details from that time before we were showered with praise for multitasking, and the other the curious, analytic brain that makes predictions and sees patterns and appreciates the bigger picture. When those brains are on at the same time, they’re both the worse for it. How do you turn off half your head? Also, I’m procrastinating on something I don’t want to do by writing this post. Yes, I am suitably ashamed and also sort of pleased that I am doing something I’m not supposed to. (Roll your eyes at flimsy rebellions here; spare me your disdain. I’m trying.)

But what I’ve been thinking about even more is reading. I’ve had a half-dozen different people ask me, just recently, how to become a better writer. Maybe how to improve their first crack at writing a story, or whether they should take some course or follow some career path, or go to some event. I want to say: Wait! The best thing you can do for your writing is read more.

Reading–and reading well–is a whole post on its own. But taking my advice in hand, painfully, as I’ve pinched a nerve somewhere, I am working on a very modest goal of reading 100 published books in 2018 (manuscripts don’t count), and I’m on track for that. I’ve read a handful of picture books, some middle grade, adult fantasy and nonfiction, graphic novels in MG/YA/adult, and and some genre and contemporary YA. And one…I don’t know what it was besides a pointless mess and I have no idea where it came from or why it was a book but I must have downloaded it by accident. I bounced out of two of the books around the 50-page mark, but I’m not missing out on anything, I promise. And you don’t have to read all of books if you don’t want to. It’s not my job to like things, and it’s not yours either.

I have more of a walking commute than a train one, and I get carsick reading on the subway. Most of my all-pleasure reading so far has happened on the subway platform (thanks MTA for regular overcrowding and delays that average I dunno 3 hours a week on lines I ride) and escalators (really deep stations), and I’ve also been trying to schedule 20 minutes before bed. I’ll probably finish book #32 tonight. If you need a kick in the pants, start with a small kick, like reading a chapter of a book a day, and you’ll find the groove. And I hope you’ll be finding polished work that you can absorb, enjoy, analyze, and be nourished by.

All of that leads up to: I read a book. I’m no longer in the business of reviewing what I read, and I could write a whole post on that and who gets to review and when and why bad reviews are good indicators that you’re reaching an audience beyond friends and family…

Anyway, I read a book. I’m going to be very vague about this book, because I know full well it’s typeset now and all, and written years ago at this point, and frankly, when I’m going to describe could have happened in any number of books.

I got to the last quarter and there was a kissing scene.

It was a good kissing scene!

Here are some reasons I thought it was a good kissing scene:

  • I found the characters who were kissing to be interesting. (Let’s not have the “likeable” discussion right now. Your eyes are probably glazed over already if you read this far.)
  • There was physical tension in the scene–the characters were in close contact, and aware of each other before they kissed. There had been other opportunities for them to kiss, but those hadn’t panned out, for various reasons, so there was a will they/won’t they vibe, too.
  • In the kissing, there was a nice mix of feelings and emotions and descriptions that were familiar along with unexpected, exciting, vivid sensations!
  • There was plot tension, because the stakes were changing around the characters–and the fact that they kissed meant that the stakes got an extra layer of change.
  • There was relationship tension; it was clear that the kiss signaled a verification that the characters had passed some point of no return, and that they were probably going to have a lot more points to deal with in the future, based on this moment.
  • There was emotional tension, because the characters both represented things that the other hadn’t dealt with yet. (In fact, it was a play on a classic romance trope! And was working in that moment.)
  • The characters liked and wanted the kiss! I liked the kiss! I’d have that kiss! (Other kinds of kisses: not discussed here.)
  • And in all, when those tensions were finally resolved, finally (always make the reader, or at least me, wait for it), they were more changed and renewed–there was new tension, instead of straight resolution!

A lot of the time, kissing scenes are boring and unbelievable, and don’t feel necessary or useful to the plot, and I don’t really need them to be in every story, and I’ve honestly read so many that it feels like there’s nothing new in most of them, so when there’s a good one, I’m extra pleased! Delighted! And this was like the third good kiss I’ve read this year!

So…why was I utterly dissatisfied, even disgruntled, afterward?

I flipped back through the (e)book. The writing wasn’t absolutely amazing, but it served the story and mostly didn’t throw me into editor brain mode. There was plenty of action and adventure, an interesting antagonist, and enough world building that I knew what was going on, and not so much I felt infodumped on. I hadn’t been excited about the premise, yet it had me engaged well enough to keep turning the pages instead of picking up something else. The characters were familiar types, but different enough and developed enough that they weren’t stock or mere outlines of interesting people, people that readers are often told to think are interesting instead of the characters just being interesting. I was, in the grand scheme of things, satisfactorily entertained.

What was my problem? I even went to Goodreads to see if I was missing something, and of course, as you can expect, the 1-star reviewers all had some different, or conflicting, reason why they hadn’t been happy readers. P.S. If you’re an author don’t read your reader reviews; they’re about the reader and not you and maybe not even really about your book; I didn’t like it so I gave it 1-star is not about you; plenty of people use the star system for reasons other than ratings, etc.

Anyway, here’s what I think, and I’m curious if there might be other reasons.

  • First, the two kissing characters didn’t get enough page time together, and when they did, they weren’t interacting with each other in sustained ways. By that, I mean that while they were on each other’s minds (at least in one direction; the POV was 1st person) for plot reasons, there wasn’t a lot to go on in terms of why they’d like each other enough to kiss. Or, hey, hate each other enough to kiss, because that was possible too!
  • When they met, in scenes, their interactions were brief and often utilitarian, or focused outwardly on action only, without an undercurrent of more…anything, and the longer scenes had a power imbalance that meant the smaller clues that they’d eventually be kissing didn’t land as much as they might have if the power imbalance had been addressed more or more intertwined with attraction (and attraction doesn’t have to be about, or all about, thinking a character is hot–it’s often as good or better if there’s some other sort of connection, or some other sort of connection that’s tied up with a little physical or mental want). In fact, there were a lot of weighty themes that weren’t directly addressed in the overall action plot, and didn’t necessarily need to be–but if if they’d been addressed in the emotional plot, that would have strengthened things a lot.
  • I knew the characters would kiss, but I wasn’t anticipating it because of the characters; I was anticipating it because I know how stories work. I didn’t get, say, a moment where they had to repeatedly grab hands to enter a throne room in the customary way turning into a comforting warmth turning into fingers entwined just a little too long. Or a irritatingly wry comment turning into a phrase that makes the character smile to outright funniness leading to appreciative laughter. (Neither of these examples is from the book I read.) There were some hints, of course, but they weren’t linked, and didn’t build on each other in a way that said these two characters would be interacting in a way different from how those two characters would interact with characters they would never kiss.
  • I’m sticking this in the middle because I don’t even remember if this was in the book–story details drain out my ears as fast as I pull them in through my eyes, much to my ongoing dismay–but I just want to generally complain about the word “falling” and the phrase “falling for them.” Please, if you love me, and even if you don’t, find some other way to say this. Or find something else to say.
  • It wasn’t until, oh, 10% of the book leading up to the kiss that the characters got to spend significant time together focused on their characters over/in tandem with their immediate actions, to go through things that involved making decisions together, to show the reader how they’d work together or react to things if they had to be a team instead of individuals–and even then, that section fleshed out the non-POV character and didn’t show me why that non-POV character liked the POV character so much.

Don’t get me wrong–there was lots I did like about the book, and I picked up the sequel right away. I figured out I’d also pre-ordered the author’s book coming out later this year, too, so good job me using up those ebook credits. I’ll probably stay up irresponsibly late tonight finishing the sequel.

Overall, though, a lot of ideas were laid out on the page but never fully examined, never pushed beyond what had to happen, minimally, for the plot to move on, never used to drive things in as razor-sharp a way as they could have. There was plot! I wished for more, though, and the book had a framework for something awesome that didn’t quite come to be.

I can see what I think this story wanted to be, and I wish I could have read that book. And then, highest honor, have read it again. I guess I just wanted to drag this story up a mountain, yelling at it to keep trying to get what it deserves, to go for every bit of better it could be, and be able to slap it on the back and tell it YEAH when it made it to the highest peak.

The moral is: it’s tough to trace and balance all of the different plots and types of plots, if you want to use those terms, all the way through a whole book. How is…another post. Happy–when this posts it will be–Wednesday!

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