You’ve finished your manuscript and are crafting your query letter. Selecting two or three comparative titles is how you help the agent or editor quickly understand the space your work may occupy and give a sense of the world your manuscript inhabits. There are many rules about what not to do, so we will explore a few of them today.
The Harry Potter fallacy: For many years after the success of Harry Potter, aspiring authors likened their work to the series. Even if your book is the next HP, you are better off to let us proclaim that ourselves. The same goes for Stephen King, James Patterson, Sarah J. Mass, J.R.R. Tolkien, Dan Brown, and basically anyone who has amassed multimillions in book sales over the past decade or two. Flying too close to the sun, here. Fight the urge.
The current mega-seller: Trends occur in publishing and when one hits the collective awareness, a few copycats get dragged along for the ride. Are they any good? Well, that is debatable. Are they sure to be a hit? More often not. When the reading masses stumble across something that feels new to them, it awakens an appetite that publishers are eager to satisfy. But keep in mind that this window closes very quickly and is filled from already existing submissions. Writing to fit a trend, almost always results in disappointment.
The biggest hit of the last decade remixed with the biggest hit from forty years ago: What’s better than one blockbuster? Two blockbusters! Right? Wrong. Literary tastes change, social awareness grows, and nothing spells formulaic like trying to lift concepts from pre-existing books.
The tired-to-death comparisons: Like the first example, these commonly used and known to everyone titles often appear on school curriculums and are sure to cause the agent/editor to eye-roll, like The Lord of the Rings series, or The Catcher in the Rye.
The lost-in-translation: When comparing to foreign works, English language translations will need to be widely available and recognizable, usually having been met with a large degree of commercial success and critical acclaim. Think The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani.
The obscurity trap: Using titles that no one has ever heard of defeats the purpose. Especially when we find out that they have been out of print for years or were self-published. It might be the perfect comparison for your book, but does nothing to highlight your work in an attractive manner. It is your job to find the titles that are both an accurate reflection of your work and relevant to the reader of your query.
The movies with books: Mixing books with movies can come across as lazy in a query letter. While acceptable and encouraged in screenwriting, in publishing you are expected to try harder to find suitable comparisons.
The original: There is absolutely no one who can compare to you, so you’ve declined to use comps altogether. Your work is so innovative that you couldn’t find even one author who can be likened in any capacity to your masterpiece. Guess what? It is a huge turnoff, akin to someone bragging on a first date that you’ve never met anyone like them, ever, and never will again. Huge red flag.
The selection of your comparative titles should strike the balance of books and authors that are familiar and believable, and show your fine-tuned understanding of exactly where your publishing audience can be found. Even better, you have helped to identify which authors have name recognition that may be tapped for an endorsement of your work!