Comp Titles: How Well-Known Should They Be?

The intricacies of picking comp titles with just the right amount of notoriety

A reader writes:

Thank you for your incredibly useful newsletter! In the last 8 years or so I've been writing seriously, I've often wished for exactly something like this.

I expect to be done with my very first novel (eep!) at the end of the year and to begin querying agents in January. A question that has plagued me is to find the right comps for the querying process. I read somewhere that comps have to be recent (not a problem, I have plenty of options lined up!) and have to have done well but not *too* well. This is where I struggle: what's well-but-not-too-well? I understand agents don't want all prospective authors claiming to have written the next Game of Thrones, Six of Crows, or Spinning Silver, but this requirement is very confusing. What is the measure of how well a book is done? Earning out? Bestseller lists? High Amazon rankings? Awards? General Twitter yelling? How can I even get useful data to make a choice?

Oh, thanks so much for your kind words, Reader! And congratulations on being almost finished with your first novel!

Comps are HARD. Oh, my gosh, can they be hard. But you’re way ahead of the game in that you have plenty of recent comps that fit your book — I’ve seen many authors wrestle with even getting that far (including me!). Your question is a great one, because this piece of advice is everywhere: to choose well-known titles but not TOO well-known.

You probably understand this part already, but the reason for this terribly confusing advice is the purpose of comps. You want it to be well-known enough for the agent to be familiar with the comp and get an instant impression of your book, and also have the comp be a successful enough property that that impression comes with a positive veneer that there’s also going to be a market for your book. The reason you want to avoid super well-known properties, however, is that they tend to be used very unspecifically by people who don’t know the field that well. Imagine an agent who gets a thousand cliche-heavy sword fantasies that all comp Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones in their cover letters. Those comps will quickly become a proxy for “this person not only doesn’t know what’s been done in fantasy, but wrote a super generic fantasy that probably doesn’t have anything unique about it.” Not to mention the ring of entitlement that comes with claiming you’re going to be the next author-billionaire… so you can see why you wouldn’t want to use them!

In other words, you want the comps to work as intended in giving a snapshot image of your book. As long as you’re choosing in that direction, you’re in good shape.

What is Too-Well-Known?

The good news is, from everything I’ve heard and seen recommended, the “too well-known” has a pretty high floor — as in, you’re right that you don’t want to choose Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, or anything else on that level. I’d say a good rule of thumb is anything that’s gotten a popular media adaptation (or something that seems likely to, if it’s still new) is probably on the level of “too well-known” to help you.

Beyond that, I’d reserve comping something that hit multiple bestseller and awards lists (like Spinning Silver) for only if it’s a really, really strong comp for you, and edge away from using a book like that during the time that zeitgeist is still going strong. But assuming things eventually die down a little, I don’t think you’d get dinged for a book even as high as that level, as long as it’s genuinely a great match for your work. For example, I think you’d be perfectly fine comping to Novik’s Uprooted now, a few years later, even though it might have been iffier when it had just been released and everyone was talking about it.

Other than those very high-level cases, I don’t think you’re going to step in it. For example, most of the time I think there’s no problem in comping to books that have hit awards lists, especially the ones that have very strong “images” of what they are. Just for instance, looking at this year’s Hugo nominees — if an author comped their books to Becky Chambers or Rebecca Roanhorse, that gives me an incredibly strong image of what that author is writing. Chambers and Roanhorse’s books are popular and well-known — and rightly so! — but they’re also not comps that are likely to be used by generic folks who never read the genre. And they have very specific aspects of their styles that have not (yet) sparked a widely-copycatted trend.

What’s Well-Known Enough?

So yeah, I’d say something hitting an awards list (as long as it isn’t the next George R.R. Martin!) is certainly an indication it’s well-known enough and well-thought-of enough to make a good comp.

Sadly, the rest of what you listed probably won’t help you much. Earning out is something that’s impossible to know from a distance (and depends far too much on the initial deal to make a good metric). If something hit a bestseller list, then yes, that’s a sign the book’s caught people’s eyes — as long as it’s traditionally published, that is; if you’re querying agents I’d hesitate to use anything but the most well-known self-published books as a comp. (And I don’t think something like hitting a single bestseller list for a week puts a book on the side of “too well-known;” it’s the ones that stay #1 on the NYT list for months that are going to be a notch too high.) Amazon rankings fluctuate pretty wildly, and I wouldn’t trust them — a better metric might be the number of Goodreads reviews (not the star rating, but the number of reviews) to get a general idea of how much saturation a book has gotten. That’s also a pretty easy number to compare between the titles you’re considering, happily. Positive editorial reviews, such as starred reviews from the big four review sites, are likewise a helpful sign that agents will know and think favorably of the comp, and books by well-regarded authors can be a place to look, even if none of that author’s books individually was a runaway bestseller.

But honestly, what I’d ultimately do is poll other writers in your genre. Get together a shortlist of comps you’re thinking about using, approach one of your writing communities, and see how people who pay attention in your genre and category respond to them. Do they know the books? Do those books give them a solid image of what to expect from your manuscript?

And if in doubt, you have space for more than one comp, so if you’re worried about your perfect comp not being well-known enough, pick a slightly better-known one to balance it out. (Or vice versa!)

The Comps That Break All These Rules

All that said — I’ve seen comps that do use super-well-known names, or straight-up comp to movies and television (which is generally advised against), and do it in a way that really works.

Sometimes it’s that the comp is just too perfect to pass up, but more usually I see this when it’s a comp with a twist, such as “a lesbian Game of Thrones” or “Law & Order in space.” Or it’s a comp that takes different aspects of diametrically opposite properties and marries them, like, “if Winnie the Pooh were the protagonist of Gone Girl.” (Not real examples.)

Obviously, you can only do this if the rest of your query supports it! A lot of manuscripts are served better by playing the comps straight. But though I wouldn’t tell anyone to claim with a straight face that they’ve written the next Star Wars, there sometimes comes a time when it makes more sense to throw the “rules” out the window.

And there are queries that don’t comp at all! I didn’t include any comps in my query letter, for example, because I couldn’t find any that didn’t feel like they weakened the pitch by being too far off the mark. That is to say, it’s certainly preferable to have comps, but it’s also not going to wreck the rest of your query if you pick something that doesn’t hit exactly with a particular agent you’re querying.

Finally — Relax a Bit

In the end, I do want to urge you to relax a bit.

Almost every agent I’ve ever talked to socially or on panels — and that’s a pretty sizable number now — has said authors stress too much about this stuff, and that it won’t make or break us in querying them. (Even though it feels that way!)

As long as you’re avoiding the ridiculously huge names, I think it’s highly unlikely an accurate comp to a more well-known book is going to cause you trouble. Similarly, if you don’t choose comps that are well-known enough, the worst that can happen is that the agent isn’t familiar with them.

Sure, good comps can give you help in planting a good image in an agent’s mind, and of course when we’re querying we want all the help we can get. So I completely understand the urge to want to hit the perfect sweet spot! But it’s clear you’re already putting a lot of thought and effort into this; you’re not just throwing in the only two books in your genre you’ve read. Given that, I think you’re going to be fine, and once you do your best and make a decision, I think you can give yourself permission to stop worrying about it.

Good luck and happy querying!