A Bookseller’s Guide to Comp Titles: Browsing for Your Book

As a former bookseller and current agent assistant, I am an expert in only one thing: the ways people think about books, and the ways people don’t realize they think about books. I am, weirdly enough, an expert in comp titles.

The reason there are so many “rules” about comp titles is that there are no real rules about comp titles. More than any other part of a query package, comps are where snap judgment comes into play. And snap judgment is still pretty unhackable.

So let’s talk about some of the big stressful “rules,” and what snap judgments are behind them.

You’re not allowed to comp to anything popular: Of course you should comp to popular books! If you comp to an obscure book, then nobody will know what you mean. You should comp to books that lots of people loved, and that almost any genre reader would recognize. 

But imagine this. You’re chatting with a friend of a friend, you mention that you’re into science fiction, and they say, “Oh, I loved The Hunger Games!” What’s your reaction? Probably that they’re not very well-read in genre fiction, right? Not the impression you want to be making in a query letter. In other words– if the book was turned into a blockbuster, career-launching movie franchise, maybe find another comp. Otherwise, you’re fine. 

Your comps must be between two and five years old: This rule is impossible and ridiculous. If you have really great, really recent comps, by all means use them! If not, let go of this rule and be free. 

However, an agent’s job is to sell your book into the market that exists right now, so your comps need to feel fresh and relevant. It should feel like your comps could be published next year. If you tell someone your book is like Frankenstein, well, we’ve already got a Frankenstein, and the genre is wildly different now. But if you say it’s like Frankenstein meets Annihilation, you have my attention.

Your comps must be books: Nope! But again, an agent’s job is to sell books. So comp to movies and shows and video games all you want, as long as you’re confident that someone will say, “The Americans meets Terminator? Yes, I see how that’s a novel, and I want to read it.” 


Enough about rules. 

Instead, think about the way you browse for books at the bookstore. Think about the snap judgments you make. Probably you wander around the fiction and SFF sections, scanning for a title that catches your eye. Probably you have a pretty good idea whether you want a doorstopper or a novella or something in between. 

And if a book is stocked with the cover faced out, maybe the cover will grab you.

You might pick it up because it reminds you of eight other books you’ve already loved. (I personally will pick up any book with a cut-paper style cover.) Or maybe because you’ve never seen a cover like that before, and you’re dying to know how the robot and the neon iguana fit together. 

In a query, your comp titles do the job of a book cover. They’re the overture, the mood lighting, the spice mix. Do you want to prepare the agent for a comfort read in a beloved subgenre, or do you want them to be intrigued by a combination of comps they’ve never seen before? Or maybe a little of both? 

And remember, we’re mostly talking about the vibe of the book, not the content. So if your fantasy heroine has muscular dystrophy, her mobility aids will probably be on the cover. But they wouldn’t define the style of the cover. So don’t worry about finding another fantasy heroine with mobility aids– instead, try and match the feeling of your book: sweeping, immersive, and inclusive.

If you wrote an epic that deserves a gorgeous, moody painted cover featuring a badass brown lesbian and her canes, maybe you pitch it as “for fans of Tasha Suri and C.L. Clark, featuring a disabled protagonist.” Or if it’s a litfic crossover that needs one of those graphic folk art-inspired covers, maybe it’s “Uprooted as written by Madeleine Miller, with the anti-ableist rage of Nicola Griffith.” 

I’d read both of those books! And more importantly, I can immediately feel the difference between them.

(As for the robot/iguana book– it’s Frankenstein meets Annihilation, of course!)

Next week, I’ll get deeper into bookselling, the arcane art of the hand-sell, and how to use the principles of hand-selling to stress-test your comps. Until then, sweet dreams of a foil-stamped cover with your name on it.

Lauren Bajek

Lauren Bajek is a queer writer and agency assistant, and a former bookseller and SFF buyer at the legendary Elliott Bay Book Company. Her fiction is forthcoming in Baffling Magazine and elsewhere.