From February 15th to the 18th, I attended the San Francisco Writer’s Conference at the International Mark Hopkins Hotel atop Nob Hill in San Francisco. In many ways, I was fully prepared for those four days. I had my 45-second “elevator pitch” sketched out and memorized, I knew what genre I was writing in, and I was pretty well up to speed on the different publishing options available to me (self-publishing, traditional publishing, and “hybrid” publishing, which is a mix of the two).
In some ways, however, I was woefully unprepared. When the morning of Sunday the 18th rolled around, it was time for the main event. “Speed dating with agents,” it was called. All of us aspiring writers had been anxiously waiting for this day, and practicing and preparing for it the previous three days. This would be our chance to sit down with as many real, live literary agents as we could in the span of an hour. We had just three minutes with each agent, so we had to make our pitches short, snappy, and sexy.
I workshopped my pitch with other writers before the speed dating session began, so I thought it was pretty good. But when I actually sat down with sci-fi agents, I found that I had missed one critical element of a good book pitch. This was the first question Laurie McLean (of Fuse Literary Agency) asked me when I’d finished:
“What are your comps?”
“Comps” is short for “comparison titles.” If you’re a writer and you say you have “comps,” then what you have is one or two recently published books by well-known authors floating around in your head that are similar to yours in plot, style, theme, and/or concept.
I overheard several other aspiring writers rattling off their comps to agents during the speed dating session at SFWC 2018. It sounded like this:
“My book is a combination of The Girl on the Train and Go Set a Watchman.”
“My book is Stephen King’s 11/22/63 meets John Scalzi’s Lock In.”
I had overheard the word “comps” being tossed around a lot during the conference, and had quickly selected some of my own. But they weren’t good, and didn’t satisfy the agents I spoke with during speed dating. Laurie McLean and other agents gave me some good pointers for choosing comps:
- They should be related to your book in some obvious way: either the plots are similar, or the themes, or the initial plight of the main character(s), etc. This goes without saying, but don’t choose a totally irrelevant comp for your manuscript or you’ll just confuse people.
- They should be recent, meaning they were published within the last ten years (preferably three to five years).
- They should be popular, not completely obscure or incredibly famous (because it’d be a tad arrogant if an unpublished writer went around saying, “My book is Tolstoy’s War and Peace meets Ellison’s Invisible Man“).
I don’t even remember the comps I mentioned when I was speaking to agents during speed dating. I want to say I picked Stephen King’s Dark Tower series for one, but I don’t remember the other one. (My selection of the Dark Tower books led Laurie McLean to classify my novel as a “weird Western,” which is a genre I’d never heard of before, but fits my manuscript better than “speculative fic” or “sci-fi.”)
So! Long story short, my pitches to agents at the San Francisco Writer’s Conference all ended embarrassingly, because I didn’t have good comps. I found myself being admonished by multiple agents to read more “current” works of science fiction and choose more contemporary comps. (They have an excellent point. I’m well-read in science fiction, but classic science fiction from the Golden Age, not any 21st century stuff. Call me a snob, but I think the best stuff’s already been written.) These agents told me to scour my local bookstores and libraries, read popular sci-fi books, and find more modern comps.
So my question to you, my dear readers, is this:
Do YOU have comps?
I know finding and choosing comps sounds like a royal pain. I can hear you now: “But my book is so unique there isn’t anything to compare it with!” I felt the same way, trust me. But there are three excellent reasons why you should put your nose to the grindstone, swallow your pride, and pick a set of comps for your manuscript. Those reasons are:
Reason #1: Comps help you quickly and succinctly summarize what your novel is about
Let’s face it: it’s almost impossible to explain exactly what your book is about in less than a minute. But if you have a couple of comparison titles to rattle off to the agent during your pitch, it’ll help the agent to understand what’s at the heart of your story and theme. For example, if you said “My book is about a group of young apprentice sorcerers who embark on a great quest to stop an evil dark lord from taking over the world with a magical artifact,” I’d probably yawn. But if you said “My book is a combination of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings,” I’d sit up and take notice.
Reason #2: Comps help you show an agent or a publisher that there’s a market for your book
So you wrote a book. This book is about the first colonists on Mars trying desperately to survive after an asteroid impacts the Earth and leaves them stranded and alone, the last surviving remnants of humanity. You’re not sure whether this is a marketable idea. So you comb back through the list of recently published and popular science fiction novels (Google is great for that sort of thing) and discover a book called The Martian by Andy Weir, which tells the story of an astronaut who is stranded on Mars after the rest of his crew believe him dead and mistakenly leave him behind. You also run across a book by Neal Stephenson called Seveneves, about humanity trying to survive and endure after the moon disintegrates and rains hell on Earth’s surface.
So you polish your pitch, write a killer query letter to an agent, and open by saying “My novel is a blend of Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves and The Martian by Andy Weir.” These two contemporary comps, which were both popular and well-known when they were published (in 2015 and 2011 respectively), immediately kick the agent’s imagination into overdrive. Well done!
Reason #3: Comps help an agent or a publisher understand your book on a deeper level
Have you ever read Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein? If you have, you’ll know that the word “grok” means “to understand something intuitively or via empathy.” To grok something or someone is to comprehend them on the deepest level. When you pitch an agent, you’re trying to get them to see both the literary merits and salability of your manuscript, and do to that, you have to get them to understand (in a minute or less) why your book is special. Agents and publishers read. Everything. All the time. They know what’s popular and what isn’t. If you have a couple of well-known, recently published novels with which to compare your own, the agent or publisher can quickly grok your book and get appropriately excited about it.
If I told you that my sci-fi series is like Stephen King’s Dark Tower series meets X-Men meets The Island of Dr. Moreau meets Jessica Jones meets Transmetropolitan meets Yojimbo meets Transformers meets Twelve O’Clock High meets Neon Genesis Evangelion meets The Thing meets Dinosaurs vs. Aliens…
…well, you’d probably be like:
But if I said that my book, New Model Earth, was a combination of The Arrivals by Melissa Marr and Time Storm by Gordon R. Dickson (I know that last one’s not contemporary, being published in 1977…but it’s the closest analogue I can find for the plot of my book)…well, then you might be interested.
I know I didn’t use the best examples, but hey…it’s Sunday morning, I’m sore as hell from the gym, and I need to run to the store to buy ingredients for the fish head soup I’m making tonight. (Here’s the recipe if you’re curious.) I hope you enjoyed this post, and best of luck choosing your comps.
Now get off the Internet and get writing.