Finding the Perfect Comp. (This isn’t my favorite part of being a writer, FYI)

There are certain things about publishing that I find tricky, and as far as I can tell, they’re more or less the same things that other people find tricky. Here’s a non-comprehensive list of tricky things and a rating on a scale of 1-10 on how tricky I find them, 10 being the most tricky.

  • Query letters: 9
  • Waiting: 5
  • Rejection: 7
  • First Drafts: 8.5
  • “Clean Up Edits”: 4
  • Synopses: 12
  • Comparative (“Comp”) Titles: 6.5
  • Finding synonyms for “tricky”: 10, apparently

What we’ve learned here is that while choosing comp titles is difficult, it’s not as soul-crushing as writing a synopsis. That’s good news. And, for better for worse, comp titles remain important. First, they signal to agents that you’ve done your homework. You know what’s current and marketable in your genre, and you can accurately place your work in the marketplace. 

In my query letter, I used LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE and SMALL ADMISSIONS. Admittedly, the former wasn’t a great comp because it was a giant bestseller. When something takes off like that, every writer tends to use it, and then it starts to mean very little or seem too aspirational, akin to claiming you’re the next J.K. Rowling. I tried to specify that the motherhood themes were what linked my work to Celeste Ng’s. I’ve talked about Amy Poeppel’s novel many times before on The Debutante Ball. It’s one of the very few that takes place within a school, so not only do Amy and I employ similar tones and humor, but we also have a setting in common. (AND, Amy is a former Deb. I think that’s how I learned about her book in the first place.) In addition to the two I used, I really thought that my work compared well and strongly to Liane Moriarty’s, but she’s a J.K. Rowling of contemporary fiction, so a no-no for comps. Plus, Moriarty has murder and stalking in her work, and I don’t.

In her pitch letter (like a query, but from an agent to an editor at a publishing house) my agent used WHEN LIFE GIVES YOU LULULEMONS, MY (NOT SO) PERFECT LIFE, YOUNG JANE YOUNG, and also SMALL ADMISSIONS. I had only read two of these, so I quickly caught up, and yes: I agreed that Lauren Weisberger’s LULULEMONS and Sophie Kinsella’s PERFECT LIFE would also appeal to readers of mine. (And obviously, I was enormously flattered that my agent thought so, too.)

Comp titles will still haunt you after you sign your book deal as your editor, marketer, and publicist try to figure out how to position your book. They’ll ask you for your ideas at this point and might even suggest some books for you to read to see if you agree that they’re good pairings. I rejected one title and suggested a few others to my team, and we ended up with WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE? and once again, SMALL ADMISSIONS, which is truly the perfect one. THE GIFTED SCHOOL was published after my book was already in the pipeline, but that’s become a valuable link, as well. When Kirkus made the connection between my work and BIG LITTLE LIES by my perennial favorite and ultimate icon, Liane Moriarty, I nearly cried with joy.

The moral of the story? Comp titles aren’t so much fun, but you’ll have to think of them and use them, and eventually, they’ll probably help readers find your novel. So, just try to get on board. Read a lot in your genre and stay current, not just on the mega-hits, but also on the mid-list titles that might link favorably to yours.

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Kathleen West

Kathleen West is the author of the forthcoming novel, Minor Dramas & Other Catastrophes, out 2/4/20 from Berkley. She lives in Minneapolis with her family.