Comp titles: With great power comes great responsibility

“My book has all the excitement of The Hunger Games, the romance of Twilight, and the magic of Harry Potter.”

I’ve seen lines like this more than once at the end of a query letter. While I appreciate what the author is trying to do, this is an ineffective way to show an agent how your book compares to what else is in the market.

Before I became an agent, I was a full-time librarian, a job I still do and love part time. My favorite part of librarianship has always been, and probably always will be, reader’s advisory, the art of matching books to readers. It’s one of the things I like about agenting, too, finding that book that I hope will be a perfect match for an editor. When doing reader’s advisory, it’s not enough to just recommend whatever’s on top of the NYT list. Good reader’s advisory requires interviewing a reader, finding their specific likes and dislikes, and doing your best to put a book in their hands that will have them come back to you for more recommendations.

As a writer, you have a responsibility to fairly compare your book to others in the marketplace just as I have the responsibility to listen to a reader and get them the book they want, not just the book everyone else happens to be reading. I know that when I see a YA author only compare their books to the mega-bestsellers, especially when the books don’t have that much in common, it’s a sign that the author probably doesn’t read much YA. This applies to authors of all genres for all audiences. Not all thrillers compare well to Gone Girl. If you choose to put comparative titles, titles that you believe share a readership with your book, in your query letter, choose them wisely.

At writers’ conferences I’ll often ask during a pitch session, “Whom do you write like?” or “If you picture your book on a bookstore shelf, all last names being equal alphabetically, who is next to you?” I’m wary of two answers: if an author only names huge authors whose books really aren’t like theirs, or if they say their book is like nothing else currently for sale (because if there’s nothing else like your book on the shelf, there probably isn’t much of a demand). I know every author wants a career as big as Suzanne Collins’s, and as an agent I’d love for all my clients to have careers like hers. But it’s more important, if you choose to put comp titles in your query letter, to choose authors whose books fairly compare to yours. It helps the agent get a clearer idea of the type of book you’ve written and it’s your chance to show an agent that you’ve done some research on starting your writing career.

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