Should comp titles be necessary?

I don’t usually do publishing hot takes, but I do wonder what everyone else’s opinion on this is. I’ve seen people agree that comp titles (comparative titles) are necessary, and I don’t think they see the other side.

Comp titles are popular in queries, and in some places, they are required. I’ve been in Q&As where some literary agents (for adult mainly) say they will automatically reject a writer if they don’t list two good comps in their query.

However, are comps really necessary?

Comps do come from a good place. Knowing where your book would fit on a bookshelf is helpful—not just for the agent but for you too. It shows that you understand the industry of what’s selling at the moment.

But comps are also mixed with a lot of rules. No books older than ten years. (Some agents want no books older than five or three years.) Can’t do a book with a movie deal or one too popular. Can’t do an indie book, even if it’s on the bookshelves. Have to pick one in your genre and age range. Etc.

Yet some people don’t fit into the boxes publishing has created. Even though books are getting more diverse, it’s still a small (probably still in single digits) percentage of books overall.

Most traditional books still follow the white gaze in a heterosexual world. If a book has LGBTQIA+ characters, it’s mostly gay men. It’s hard to get any other representation when agents ask writers to change their characters to be more “relatable.” Or when agents check writers’ relationship status online to see if they’re bisexual “enough.” (True story.) Or told that their character with a mental disorder is too much and needs to tone down. That their disabled character isn’t relatable enough. The list could go on.

So, if we’re to write books—the diverse books publishing is asking for—why are we asked to compare those books to books that aren’t diverse?

They ask for unique and fresh books but only unique and fresh books that compare to the unique and fresh books they’ve already approved.

Some say that if you can’t find a comp, there’s not a market for your book. Which is not true. Readers—now more than ever—want and ask for diverse books. They’re out there fighting for them. They’re always tons of threads and articles and lists to find some. More reviews ask for stories to not repeat the same formulas that trad publishing has been doing. The ones who are stopping these diverse books are the agents and acquiring editors—not the market.

This is not to say that all agents are auto rejecting if a writer doesn’t have comp titles. Some say that if you’re a diverse writer, you don’t need comps at all, which is great.

But to auto reject if someone doesn’t have comps, especially if they’re a diverse creator? That just seems like another gate.

What are your thoughts on comp titles?

8 thoughts on “Should comp titles be necessary?

  1. An excellent proposition for thinking and discussion, Robin. You raise several important issues but in my experience what may strike writers, authors and readers as important may not always be what motivates publishers, editors and agents, especially if we are thinking of this through the perspective of “commercial” publishing. The most interesting thing your essay uncovers, in my view, is the almost entirely commercial premise on which commercial publishers’ business decisions are made. And what publishers think, agents think. You could remove this discussion from book publishing entirely and superimpose many other “markets” onto the premise without batting an eye. Real estate, for example, in which brokers [agents] advise homeowners [clients] that their hope of earning a nice sale price on their home is almost entirely dictated by a marketplace of “comps.” And what comps the homeowner compares with is largely based on the opinion, taste and market experience of the agent. I have found that most literary agents do not hunt for a publisher that will fit the manuscript you have written, rather, they will quickly decide whether the manuscript you have written fits anywhere in a preexisting market conception. Agents are on commission, of course. They don’t waste their time experimenting with a marketplace or seeking out unique sales opportunities for unique book manuscripts. Such is the commercial marketplace for book publishing. Which is why good, quality university presses and small presses have access to amazing and often unique authors that the commercial marketplace doesn’t care about.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree with everything you said. The commercial market of trad publishing is saturated with what has already worked and rarely branches out. Small and university presses are a great alternative. I’ve heard from authors who have published with both the big five and small presses, and they all said that they loved their experiences with small presses more.

      Liked by 1 person

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