One of the most common questions you can expect to hear when you pitch your work to agents and editors is this: What are your comps?
Comps are comparable titles. That is, profitable books similar to yours that can help support the idea that your project can find an audience and succeed in the marketplace.
You should know what your comparable titles are, as they are the ammunition writers, agents, and editors all use to sell your work. Here’s why: Publishing is a notoriously slim-market business. Decisions regarding what to publish are based on what has worked in the past. Sales numbers of similar projects—comps—are plugged into the profit-and-loss statements that help determine the viability of projects.
When editors pitch projects to their publishing boards, they need to present P&Ls for those projects. Without good numbers, the P&Ls don’t work, and the projects don’t get the green light.
I was an acquisitions editor for many years, researching thousands of comps and running thousands of P&Ls to pitch thousands of projects. (And no, that is not an exaggeration.) Now that I’m an agent, I know that I need good comps when I pitch editors, because they need good comps to pitch their publishing boards.
Comps are your homework (not mine)
That’s what I tell people at pitch sessions when I ask them about comps and they tell me they don’t have any and could I recommend some to them. What this says to me is that odds are they are not:
- widely read in their genre
- fully cognizant of the importance of genre, much less sub-genre
- willing to do the research and reading required to acquire a deep understanding of their genre
- able to identify their potential reading audience(s)
- effectively position their work against the competition
This is not what you want me or any other agent or editor to think. When you’re pitching publishing professionals, you want to impress them not only with your project, but also with your understanding of the book business and your determination to break through in a what you recognize as a very tough marketplace.
Know your market, know your comps
You may have heard my fellow agents and editors warn writers against using comps. That’s because so many writers use the wrong comps the wrong way. There’s a huge difference between saying “I’m the next Gillian Flynn,” and saying, “I’ve written a domestic thriller in the tradition of The Woman in the Window, The Other Woman, and What Alice Knew.”
There’s only one Gillian Flynn, and comparing yourself to her is a conceit you cannot afford.
But The Woman in the Window, The Other Woman, and What Alice Knew are all debut domestic thrillers published in the past couple of years. The Woman in the Widow was an instant smash hit, but paired with the very successful debut The Other Woman and the more modestly successful What Alice Knew, you’ve provided a range of comparable titles all in the same sub-genre that should appeal to the same readership.
Note: In these examples, the genre is mystery/thriller, the sub-genre is domestic thriller.
Your comp checklist
Here’s a checklist to make sure your comps are on track, based on the typical comp requirements editors must meet when they pitch their publishing boards:
- Your comps are all debuts (assuming your project is a debut).
- Your comps were all published in the past three years.
- Your comps fall within the same sub-genre as well as genre as your project.
- Your comps are successful titles, but not category killers.
- Your comps are by up-and-coming authors.
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