The Real Value Of 'Comp Titles' Is Broader Than You Think
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Comp titles, known in the publishing industry interchangeably as “comparative” or “competitive” titles, are a wonky industry thing that can tend to throw authors off, mostly because they don’t understand how or why industry people use them. This post aims to shed light on this, and hopefully in the process reduce authors’ anxiety.

Why Do Comp Titles Matter?

Sales reps use comparative titles for a singular purpose: to set projections. In simple language, this means determining how many books sales reps think they can presell to retail accounts before they actually attempt to do so. Comps also allow publishers to set forth their expectations, showcasing through the comp titles they select how they hope or anticipate a new title might perform in the marketplace. In this way, the sole purpose of comp titles from an industry standpoint is as a gauge for preselling—to retailers, not consumers.

When Do Authors Have to Deal with Comps?

Comparative titles are mostly a publisher’s responsibility, except for when they’re not… Authors run up against comp titles when they put together nonfiction book proposals (and any author might consider adding comps to their query letters), which has to do with positioning their work more than anything related to sales projections, since the book doesn’t have a publisher yet. Some authors confuse positioning with projections, understandably, especially if they’re not really sure what either term suggests. When you attempt to position your book, it’s not problematic to suggest that your novel tackles themes similar to those in The Goldfinch, or that your memoir is reminiscent of The Glass Castle. These kinds of comparisons help agents and editors grasp what you think your book is. Once your book sells to a publisher, however, the general rule of thumb is that you not use bestselling books as comps. The rationale here is that bestsellers are anomalies. A publisher might have one book a season (if that) that they think might “break out” (never mind its likelihood of becoming a bestseller). Because comps help sales people set projections, publishers are tasked with finding more modest-selling comparative titles for the vast majority of the books on their lists. If, as an author, you’re tasked with this responsibility yourself, finding the right comp titles is going to involve research, polling friends, and talking to industry people where possible.

How the Heck Do You Find Your Comps?

Just like most things these days, you have two options when it comes to sleuthing out your comp titles: online and offline. I recommend starting online, with Amazon. In addition to being an online retailer, Amazon is also a giant search engine—and you can and will find your comps on Amazon if you know how to look for them. Start by entering into the search field those keywords that speak to your book’s subject matter. For instance, “kidnapping novel” or “inspirational memoir.” You will have to tweak and refine this search. You’ll also need to scroll down past the first page of results. When looking for comps, search within your own genre: fiction comps for fiction, self-help comps for self-help, and so forth. Amazon’s entire “Consumers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” function is a formula that can help authors think well about comps. If you can come up with a single title your future costumers would also buy when purchasing your future book, you can generally follow the rabbit hole, scrolling that book’s “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” feature to see what books have a similar readership. In the real world, go talk to booksellers and librarians. These are folks who think about books all day every day, and you’d be surprised how helpful they can be, and how willing they are to brainstorm with you if you catch them in a slow moment.

Screen shot from my book, Green-Light Your Book

How Do I Tell if a Book is a Mid-Level Seller?

This one is tough, and you won’t always know. You can narrow your focus in a few ways: 1) Look at the Amazon page for a good cover, a typo-free description, and lots of blurbs and reviews. A book that has over 100 but less than 1,000 reviews is a good sign, as compared to a bestseller that can have upwards of hundreds of thousands of reviews. 2) Check to see who the publisher is and try to find comp titles by publishers you recognize. 3) Google the book’s title and/or the author and gauge for yourself how much attention the book got. Are there any traditional reviews? Was the author widely interviewed? You may be able to see the difference between mid-level sellers and bestsellers in that the former group may have a handful of reviews and interviews (a good online presence) as opposed to the latter group, which is likely to have the requisite New York Times review and Fresh Air interview, along with hundreds of other hits.

5 Final Tips

1) Try to choose books that are no more than five years old.

2) Don’t rule out your own publisher! If you’re a traditionally or hybrid published author with traditional distribution, your distributor will welcome comp titles from your own publisher’s backlist. Don’t exclusively choose those titles, but mine the backlist of the team that’s publishing you!

3) Never ever write or say that your book is so original that there are no comps. Remember that this process is an exercise in helping an agent/publisher/sales team identify your readership, so saying you don’t have any is a huge backfire.

4) Use your social networks. Tell people about your book. Post your summary online. Once you’re close enough to publication that you need to start thinking about comps, it’s well past an okay time to publicly disclose information about your book. Let your well-read friends be a resource!

5) Even if you’re self-publishing, comp titles are useful. You want to know who else is in your sandbox, not just because they’re your competition, but because most readers are looking for books similar to ones they’ve already read and loved. Making comp titles work for you is an effective marketing strategy. The authors of your comp titles might be your future blurbers. You can also encourage readers to buy your book if they liked a competitor’s book. You can become that book consumers buy on Amazon when they also like one of the books you’ve established as a comp. Having awareness about what other authors and titles you want to be associated with will ultimately be a boon to your own book.

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