Starting in January 2020, I queried a novel for the first time. Working through the list of agents I identified took about a year overall, though there was a chunk of time in April-July when I put the process on hold. I was starting to get editorial feedback, and wanted to put the novel through another draft before sending out more queries.
I gave it a fair shake, but now that I’ve reached the end of the querying process for that novel, I’m ready to trunk it for now and move on. I still think that novel has potential, and I have some ideas for how to improve upon the current nth draft, but I’m reluctant to sink time into another revision of it right now, when I could spend that time on something that hasn’t gone through that cycle already.
I’ve kept pretty mum throughout the process, on purpose. I didn’t want to reveal that agents I had queries out to were further down my list than others, not that that means anything. Nor did I want to reveal that other agents had already looked at the novel and passed on it, not that that means anything either.
Now I’m at a good point to reflect on what I learned along the way. Take this all with plenty of salt. I’m not an authority! This is just about my experience with the process.
In the first of these posts, I’ll be talking about comps. Comps, or comparable titles, are other books (or shows, movies, etc.) that you name-drop to help form an impression of your book. Some agents may ask for comps directly. It’s a common field in QueryManager. But pretty much any query you send out can include comps in the body of the query letter if you choose to, and it’s typically recommended to include them if you can.
The Comp Don’ts
Unfortunately, there are lots of ways to pick the wrong comp, or to misuse a comp.
Don’t aim too high
If you compare your book to a very successful touchstone of your genre, you’re probably saying one (or more) of these things:
- You haven’t actually read much of your genre.
- You may think very highly of yourself.
- Your work may be cliche, taking inspiration from a well that many others have already drawn from.
If Harry Potter is the clear reference point, then so be it. No point in obscuring that, if the first time anyone reads the manuscript they’re going to spot your primary inspiration. In that case, make sure you also make it clear what new element you bring to it. Harry Potter, but in Antarctica.
Don’t aim too low
If you compare your book to a more obscure title, you risk giving one of these impressions:
- The comp might not mean anything to the agent. (Whether they take the time to check it out probably depends on the agent, and how their day is going.)
- If it’s a book that didn’t perform well, that could tell the agent that selling something similar is going to be an uphill battle.
Don’t go too old
If you’re citing a classic, you run into the pitfalls of citing a bestseller. You may think highly of yourself. You may not be reading enough of the genre you’re writing. You may be in dialogue with a work that there has already been a lot of dialogue with. It may be a style that got saturated. The readership may have moved on already.
Citing something older and less famous risks some of those perceptions as well. It also means that if a book didn’t do well, and isn’t still selling today, there’s a longer track record by which to judge it.
Although if your book taps into nostalgia for a particular period of literature, or if there’s specific source material you’re updating or subverting, it could well be the exception.
Don’t go too far afield
If you cite a comp that’s too different from your book, someone who reads your manuscript expecting one thing could be disappointed to find another. They could feel duped.
However, if you’re doing a genre mashup, you may want to do an X-meets-Y comp, as a way to specify which strains of each genre you’re mostly pulling from.
Don’t repeat yourself
If your book is about werewolves, you could comp another book about werewolves. But then including more comps about werewolves might just seem redundant and unhelpful. We get it. It’s a werewolf book, just like these hundred others. What else went into it?
I still struggle with identifying comps. With so many pitfalls to it, it would certainly be nice if there were just one methodical set of instructions to follow, but it’s a subjective thing. It depends on what your story is about, and how you could convey that to someone else’s mind. But here are some possible starting points.
This is kind of the default way to get comps. If you like writing, hopefully you’re already into reading, right?
That said, it could be arduous to keep a pulse on books that seem similar to yours. If they’re recent titles, there’s no telling which ones are going to be well-received or not. Plus you likely also want to read things outside the particular sub-genre you’ve been writing in.
I don’t think “this could be a comp” would be enough to justify reading something front to back. If you hate it, then the person who’s going to love what you’ve written is liable to hate it too. (Or not! Who knows.)
Ask your readers
Writing isn’t a solitary pursuit. There’s always someone else’s eyes involved. Whoever reads your work, ask them, if you get the chance, what they would compare it to. Be ready for them to name things you might not actually like.
Get a second opinion about what genre (or genres) your story belongs in. You might be too close to get an accurate view of it. You worked so hard on that romantic subplot. That makes it a romance, right? Maybe you’ll gain a new understanding of what genre you should be listing in your query. Or maybe there’s something to fix in the manuscript, if it didn’t land in the genre you were aiming for.
Follow the tags
Use Goodreads, Amazon, or possibly your local library system, to find books that share characteristics with yours. This can also be a way to find authors, agents, publishers, etc. who are into what you’re into.
Keep track of your inspiration
Maybe you write because you read something amazing, and you want more of it in the world. Maybe there was a book that you read that didn’t go the way you expected, and you write to explore the possibilities that another author didn’t. Your influences could end up unrecognizable by the time you query. They could end up irrelevant (due to age or popularity). But it could be somewhere to start.
Test different combinations
Enter pitch contents like DarkPit, SFFPit, PitMad, DVPit (if that applies to you), etc. Try out a number of different pitches throughout the event, including different combinations of comp titles. See what people respond to.
Tailor your comps to the submission
If an agent has mentioned a particular book (favorably), then you know that’s a comp title that they’ll recognize, and that it’s something that matches their taste. That’s no guarantee of course. If you cite someone’s favorite novel as a comp, they’re going to have high expectations. But it does give you some common ground to build on.
I hope my thought process helps you with yours. Above all, my guiding principles throughout the query process are:
- This is a match-making process for business relationships.
- Agents are human beings.
- You’re a human being too.
- Agents are professionals.
- You’re aiming to be a professional too.