If you have never worked in publishing, you might not be familiar with the term “comp title.” A comp title is a book that publishers compare your project to in order to determine its capacity for turning out a profit. A publisher who wants to take on your book will likely use comp titles to create what’s called a P&L, a profit and loss statement–but if your P&L shows that your book likely won’t sell, your book won’t be acquired.
As authors, it’s hard to understand your book in terms of its marketability. I didn’t set out writing THEY COULD HAVE NAMED HER ANYTHING with a particular audience or demographic in mind, and now that I’m approaching a second novel, I still don’t really think about who will or will not read it. However, I do have an idea about what publishers think ISN’T marketable.
When we were trying to sell my first novel, we came up against a lot of “but this is a book about teenagers, which means it should be read by teenagers, but the themes in your book are a little… adult. We don’t think this is YA, but we don’t know how to position it in the adult market, either.”
Basically, they were telling me that they didn’t know who would buy my book.
As you can guess, I didn’t know what to do to address this. I was adamant about not aging the characters up, because really, the plot wouldn’t make any sense if I did. To me, it just seemed like the editors we were pitching to were nervous about taking it on in part because they hadn’t added a book like mine to their lists before.
In an incredible recent piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Laura McGrath wrote about how comp titles basically discourage new projects and reinforce the status quo:
“While intended to be an instructive description (“this book is like that book”), some editors suggested that comps have become prescriptive (“this book should be like that book”) and restrictive (“…or we can’t publish it”).
Some authors say that they write with an audience in mind. If that helps give you direction, great, but I don’t think it’s necessary. You should write the book you want to write. If you write something you’re passionate about, you’ll have the motivation to keep working on it, no matter how much you’re rejected. The number one thing to writing a book, especially your first book, is keeping up your commitment to it. And really, you can only do that if you’re writing the book you want to write.
I firmly believe that there is a market for every book. That DOES NOT mean you won’t have to make edits later–your agent or editor might advise you to make some pretty big changes to make your book more appealing to a wider audience–especially if you’re a debut author. But for me, writing for a market is a crapchute. The market fluctuates, trends dissipate, and sometimes, the most unlikely books become bestsellers. Getting a book published is tough, but often, it has nothing to do with whether there are people out there who want to read it. It’s good to know what goes on behind the scenes, but don’t let that dictate your process. Start with what’s calling you.