The Dreaded “Comp Titles”: What Are They and How Do You Use Them?

Comp Titles

Agent Jacqui Lipton gives her tips on what to look for in a comp title.

How often are authors told they need to have an elevator pitch ready to share with agents and editors for those moments when you might be lucky enough to get 30 seconds of a publishing professional’s time? And how do you convince an agent or editor in the dreaded query letter of why they should pick up your manuscript?

There’s definitely an art to the elevator pitch and the query letter, and a great source of information on how to craft effective query letters can be found on Query Shark. In this context, the question often arises about whether you need comparative titles (“comp titles”) and how you choose them.

Depending on the kind of pitch, query or proposal you are putting together, you may subdivide comparative titles into “competing” titles and “complementary” titles. This is often a good thing to do with nonfiction proposals where you’re trying to identify how your work complements (without necessarily duplicating) titles that have sold well, and where it might compete with works already on the market. While the fiction market definitely has genres — murder/mystery, thriller, sci-fi/fantasy, romance, literary fiction, chicklit etc. — the nonfiction market has a lot of niches so you may have to think in a little more depth about how you position your piece in that market.

But I’m getting ahead of myself…

What is a comparative title anyway? What should it ideally achieve? And when is it okay to forego the comparative title?

What is a Comp Title Anyway?

In the most basic sense, a comp title is a reference to another work, very often one or more books, that gives a sense of what your book is at its heart. It is a marketing tool as much as anything else. If you are good at selecting comp titles, the agent or editor should be able to immediately get a sense of how they would position the piece in the market without even needing to read the synopsis or opening pages.

An apocryphal Hollywood story is that the movie version of Cujo was originally pitched as “Jaws on Paws.” Whether or not this is true, you can see how it works, right? Those three words immediately tell you what the movie is about and where it would fit in the marketplace. It’s like Jaws (a horror movie involving a terrifying animal attacking innocent people) but the animal is a quadruped, most likely a dog or a bear or something along those lines.

And that’s really the trick with good comps. The idea is to very quickly encapsulate for the agent or editor precisely what the book is and where it would fit into the market.

The idea is not to tell them how well read you are or that your book will be the next [fill in the name of a recent blockbuster]. The idea is to tell them what your book is and how they could sell it. 

Cujo (1983) movie poster

That’s why it’s also a good idea not to use comps that are so obscure no one has ever heard of them. Again, the point is to communicate content and marketing information, not to demonstrate how well read you are.

It’s also fine to use film and television references as well as books from other genres as comps, provided they help focus the agent or editor on what you are trying to sell them.

For example, Karen McManus’s bestselling YA murder mystery, One of Us is Lying, has been described as “The Breakfast Club meets Pretty Little Liars.” That combination tells you immediately that it’s a story about a group of teens in detention involved in a twisted mystery plot.

If you want more examples from the real world, you can make a habit of reading the weekly deal announcements in Publishers Weekly and Publishers Marketplace. You’ll often see a deal announcement with comp titles included. And you can always practice on other people’s books before you try to pitch your own.

Can you think of good comp titles that would immediately describe any of your favorite books (or movies, or TV shows)? Maybe you could make a game out of it with friends?

You also don’t have to stick to the same genre as your story when you’re using comps. My client Lyn Miller-Lachmann has previously blogged about the way I used an adult sci-fi dystopia to pitch her forthcoming YA historical novel, Torch. (Her blog post is also an excellent resource on comp titles generally!) I’ve also used nonfiction books to pitch fiction where the fictional work has a similar subject and/or narrative voice to the nonfiction piece. 

Comp titles can be a lot of fun and you can get really creative with them as long as they still serve the central purpose of quickly and easily placing your work in the market!

The idea is not to tell them how well read you are… The idea is to tell them what your book is and how they could sell it. 

When Are Comps Unnecessary?

Of course it’s not always possible to think up good comp titles. Sometimes there simply is no good clear shorthand way to describe your work using comps and that’s just fine. Can you instead come up with a pitch or tagline (ideally in 25 words or less) that serves the same function, i.e. tells an editor or agent where your book would go on the shelves? That works too. The idea is conciseness. Conciseness without comps is just fine.

There are some areas where comps are less useful or necessary than others. Some picture book editors have said to me that they typically don’t think comps are all that useful for such short works. Given that picture books these days are usually around 500 words or less (at least fiction picture books), comps may not always help.

Think of some of your favorite picture books and consider whether they are best described with comp titles or not.

Comps can be more useful for nonfiction picture books, especially if your book fits into an emerging area of nonfiction interest, like biographies of great inventors or entertainers, or meta-fiction (which isn’t really non-fiction but is a genre where there are often obvious comps).

Adult nonfiction can be a different beast from kidlit in terms of comps as well. Because there are more nooks, crannies, and niches in writing nonfiction for grown-ups, you might find yourself in your book proposal writing a comprehensive list of “competing and complementary titles” to demonstrate exactly why your book is needed in a particular area.

For example, when I was writing the proposal for my book, Law and Authors: A Legal Handbook for Writers, I wanted to demonstrate a market gap between somewhat sophisticated, legalistic books on the laws relating to writing/publishing and short chapters on copyright and publishing contracts in writing craft books. I used about a dozen books in my “competing and complementary titles” section of the proposal to demonstrate the market gap and how my book would be a useful next step from the craft books and would help pave the way for readers to understand the more sophisticated books.

Nonfiction proposals are also different because you can spend pages on your competing and complementary titles, unlike a fictional work that you’d typically pitch in a more shorthand way.


The Bottom Line

Don’t be scared of comps and don’t fret if you can’t come up with good ones. If coming up with comp titles is something you want to get better at, there are lots of ways to practice like reading deal announcements and making a game out of thinking up comps for existing works. And play comping games with friends. Often you can’t see the wood for the trees in your own work, but a friend might come up with an unexpected insight. And if you have an agent, they should be able to throw some ideas out there too — once you do, a lot of this work is in their hands anyway.

Why not play a few comping games and see what you come up with?