A Bookseller’s Guide to Comp Titles: Hand-Selling Yourself

Welcome to another installment of Lauren Talks About People Talking About Books! Let’s get into hand-selling.

In bookselling, hand-selling is when you tell a customer what book to buy, and then they buy it. Bookstore customers are easily startled by even the gentlest offer of help, so usually hand-selling occurs when the customer has explicitly asked for advice.

Now, customers are notoriously bad at asking for the book they want, which makes sense, because brains are meat labyrinths powered by lightning. It used to be in the window and the cover was blue! It was a history book that was on NPR last week! I can’t think of a single book I’ve ever liked, but I want you to recommend me a book!

But usually it goes like this: they tell me a couple of books or TV shows they really like, I read between the lines to figure out what the common element is, and then I pull about twelve books from the shelf, with a little impromptu pitch for each one. It’s a fun puzzle, and I get huge satisfaction from nudging readers toward books by women, queer and trans authors, authors of color, and books in translation.

Then one day I met my match: a customer who wanted a book just like Ender’s Game and Ready Player One.

Orson Scott Card is notoriously homophobic and Ready Player One has some starkly  transphobic moments. As a queer bookseller, my first reaction was “hell no!” But here’s the thing– maybe that customer really did like those books because he’s deeply invested in the straight, cis, white male perspective. Or maybe he just likes to read popular space operas! From those two books alone, I don’t actually know.

(Tip: When you query, you want agents to know what you mean by your comps.)

I don’t remember what books I actually gave this customer. But here’s what I’d do now: I’d pretend to assume he just likes splashy space operas, and I’d direct him toward the wealth of queer space operas being published right now. Becky Chambers, Ann Leckie, Alex White, Valerie Valdes. If he seemed immediately resistant to those, I’d fall back to the Expanse series– it’s still dudely, but not so toxic.

Now let’s run that exercise backwards. Orson Scott Card, Ernest Cline, Becky Chambers, Ann Leckie, Alex White, Valerie Valdes, James S.A. Corey. What do different combinations of those six authors communicate?

  • Orson Scott Card + Ernest Cline: Socially conservative adventure SF, for people who like the 1980s. Pew pew.
  • Ernest Cline + Becky Chambers: This is a fun romp, but the author is probably not queer and not good at parsing subtext. Pew pew.
  • Orson Scott Card + James S.A. Corey: Readable and dudely and probably in space. The author is very interested in fictional politics and can afford to be bored by real-life politics.
  • Ann Leckie + Alex White: This will seem like an ordinary space opera until it turns your brain inside out.
  • Becky Chambers + Valerie Valdes: Zany multi-species adventure-romances in space, will make you speculate about the uses of various alien appendages. Pew pew.

Any of these authors are plausible comps for a space opera! But different combinations of authors send VERY different messages. (And some of them, frankly, are confusing combinations! Beloveds, it will never serve you to pitch a book as Orson Scott Card meets Becky Chambers.) So when you choose your comps, don’t just think about whether they capture what your book does– think about whether they suggest a type of book that you didn’t write. 

Let’s go back to last week’s fantasy novel with the cane-using heroine. If you pitch it as Tasha Suri meets C.L. Clark, and then I learn that the heroine is white, the setting is Fantasy England, and the romance is straight? That’s a problem. Even if there are real reasons for comping to each of those authors, when you put them next to each other, the people expect revenge lesbians of color!

So once you’ve got your comps mostly settled, ask yourself: if a stranger said these were their two favorite books, are you really sure they’d love your book, too? Or is there a different book that that person is hoping to find?

And ditch the bigots.


Lastly: you can’t hand-sell someone on a book they don’t want. It doesn’t work. My Ender’s Game/Ready Player One customer was never going to walk out of the store with a Sofia Samatar. 

So don’t worry about your comps being the splashiest or trendiest. Worry about them being recognizable, coherent, and true to your novel. Honesty sells books.

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.