Not using comps in a query letter

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holmes

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I know there is a lot of advice out there regarding comps in query letters, but I'm wondering what everyone here thinks. I have been struggling a lot to find good comps, and I'm leaning towards not using them. I think its a personal thing for me, I even have difficulties comparing other books beyond just genre. Obviously certain aspects can be similar, but books are so different!! While researching agents, I've stumbled on one who specifically said they don't want comps because they want something unique and it made me feel a lot more confident about not using them. Anyways, what are your thoughts??
 

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I've seen some agents say they do find comps important, because it demonstrates that you know the market you've written in. Whether that means they'd R a query they otherwise find interesting I don't know, but I suspect that depends on exactly how interesting they find your pitch.

Personally, though, I always recommend that people find comps. If you haven't found any you're happy with, keep reading in your genre until you find some. It's worth the time and trouble - not so much for queries, although I do think there are some agents who will be more comfortable if you have them, but for everything that happens next. You need to know what you've written in case the people around you (agent, editor, marketing department) get it wrong. 99% of the time they won't, of course; but if you're part of that 1% (hello!), you're going to want to have a strong feel for where you belong so you can argue your side.

TL;DR: Find comps not for agents, but so you are properly armed to defend your work.
 

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I've seen some agents say they do find comps important, because it demonstrates that you know the market you've written in. Whether that means they'd R a query they otherwise find interesting I don't know, but I suspect that depends on exactly how interesting they find your pitch.

Personally, though, I always recommend that people find comps. If you haven't found any you're happy with, keep reading in your genre until you find some. It's worth the time and trouble - not so much for queries, although I do think there are some agents who will be more comfortable if you have them, but for everything that happens next. You need to know what you've written in case the people around you (agent, editor, marketing department) get it wrong. 99% of the time they won't, of course; but if you're part of that 1% (hello!), you're going to want to have a strong feel for where you belong so you can argue your side.

TL;DR: Find comps not for agents, but so you are properly armed to defend your work.
I love this. I do try to stay well read in my genre, but I could definitely do better. And I have comps that I could list if asked, but I don't feel like they are a good enough fit to actually use in a query letter.
 

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I love this. I do try to stay well read in my genre, but I could definitely do better. And I have comps that I could list if asked, but I don't feel like they are a good enough fit to actually use in a query letter.
How they're used is a fuzzier question, I think. For my last ql (that did relatively well), I had one book I comped for atmosphere and style, and another I comped for themes. I have no idea if that's what most agents were looking for.

I tend to think of comps as a sort of RIYL thing: if you liked PLANETFALL, you'll like my book.
 

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More and more, I'm sensing that agents and editors want comps. I think it's because of the Twitter pitch contests? Having done Pitchwars, I've also noticed that the entries that have good comps tend to be the more popular ones as well. So I think it's better to find comps. You could use them as loosely as you want.

I had a really tough time figuring out what genre Dial A For Aunties is. It's not romcom because romance isn't the main plot, it's not a cozy mystery because there is no mystery (you know who killed the guy from the very beginning), it's not a heist though there are heist elements, it's not a family drama even though there is a lot of family drama... I told my agent I have no idea what it is. She subbed it as Jane the Virgin meets Crazy Rich Asians. I thought that was such a wonderful comp. But my publisher sells it as Weekend at Bernie's meets Crazy Rich Asians. That's two pretty different comps (minus Crazy Rich Asians)...JtV and WaB aren't even close to being the same genre, but they both work!

Instead of focusing on genre, use comps to highlight the best parts of your book. You could say: "For fans of the dry wit that is found in X" or "if you like the atmospheric setting of X, you'll like my book" (What Lizmonster said about RIYL is so brilliant).
 

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More and more, I'm sensing that agents and editors want comps. I think it's because of the Twitter pitch contests? Having done Pitchwars, I've also noticed that the entries that have good comps tend to be the more popular ones as well. So I think it's better to find comps. You could use them as loosely as you want.

I had a really tough time figuring out what genre Dial A For Aunties is. It's not romcom because romance isn't the main plot, it's not a cozy mystery because there is no mystery (you know who killed the guy from the very beginning), it's not a heist though there are heist elements, it's not a family drama even though there is a lot of family drama... I told my agent I have no idea what it is. She subbed it as Jane the Virgin meets Crazy Rich Asians. I thought that was such a wonderful comp. But my publisher sells it as Weekend at Bernie's meets Crazy Rich Asians. That's two pretty different comps (minus Crazy Rich Asians)...JtV and WaB aren't even close to being the same genre, but they both work!

Instead of focusing on genre, use comps to highlight the best parts of your book. You could say: "For fans of the dry wit that is found in X" or "if you like the atmospheric setting of X, you'll like my book" (What Lizmonster said about RIYL is so brilliant).
Yes, I have seen a lot of different ways to present them, and I do appreciate some of those more than simply stating, "my book is like this one and this one". I'll give it some thought and maybe include comps for some agents that seem to prefer them? I don't know...
 

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tl;dr: The key to me is to communicate what your book brings that the comps don't. I think it would be super easy to do more harm than good by doing it sloppily.

Comps are essential for non-fiction, particularly to demonstrate how your work differs from what's out there. What knowledge gap needs to be filled, and how will presenting it in this way get readers to click "Buy Now"? What would your book about rowing in the 1936 Olympics contribute that Boys in the Boat didn't already say? It also shows you know the market, which would be harder for an agent/publisher to know for non-fiction. They aren't the experts.

For fiction, I would absolutely expect an agent to know the market already (otherwise it's a run not walk away from that agent!). Perhaps I'm falling behind in the times, but I always thought that comps were not helpful in fiction. If my query is good, the agent should already have a list of comps in mind, and if the query is good, should be able to see how my book is different. Also, I wonder if I risk mis-characterizing my book if I don't include the absolute best comps (I can only read so much! I might not be aware that someone else might be a much better comp). Older advice was that if I compare myself to Tom Perrotta or Jonathan Franzen, but why would readers read me if they can just read Perrotta and Franzen? If I do go the route of highlighting how my book is different, this will take a high level of skill to avoid Golden Word Syndrome, and badmouthing the other writers (which I'm sure will be an instant rejection). I'm sure more authors aren't doing this for this reason.

I do see there is a middle ground to be struck, and I look forward to seeing how others have navigated this.
 

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For fiction, I would absolutely expect an agent to know the market already (otherwise it's a run not walk away from that agent!).

You'd think, wouldn't you? That wasn't my experience, although the issue was subgenre rather than genre (a bigger issue for something like SFF or MTS, I think). So I'm once burned, twice shy on this.

I do think comps are an afterthought of a sort in a fiction query - I wouldn't expect an agent who was otherwise intrigued to change their mind based on comps (unless you chose to comp something really odious). On one of those hideous forms some of them have you figure out now, I said "it's got the atmosphere of X with a little bit of the detective noir of Y," and they did request the book. Whether the comps helped me get that request I have no idea.
 
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That's kind of what I'm thinking at this point. If anything, I feel like comps will only hurt my query letter at this point, which is definitely because of my ability to select them, not because my book is so special or anything...
 

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That's kind of what I'm thinking at this point. If anything, I feel like comps will only hurt my query letter at this point, which is definitely because of my ability to select them, not because my book is so special or anything...
So this is me beating that dead horse again. :)

If you're having trouble finding comps, don't query yet. Keep reading and find comps. You will not be sorry you did that work up front - take it from someone who did not.

The thing about queries is that there's often a lot of radio silence, but once you get interest things go very quickly. You're going to want to know as much as you can so you can ask Prospective Agent the right questions.

Whether or not you use comps in your query is up to you (although if an agent asks for them, I'd use them). But it absolutely pays off to figure out where what you've written fits in the commercial market. If Prospective Agent agrees with you, great! If they disagree, you'll be in a position to ask some specific questions about why, and from there you can figure out if you want to adjust your own expectations, or move on.

An agent, no matter how professional and successful, isn't necessarily going to share your vision for your work, and you want to know that before you sign on the dotted line. The best way to understand what you're getting into is to have a solid understanding of what you've got.
 
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holmes

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So this is me beating that dead horse again. :)

If you're having trouble finding comps, don't query yet. Keep reading and find comps. You will not be sorry you did that work up front - take it from someone who did not.

The thing about queries is that there's often a lot of radio silence, but once you get interest things go very quickly. You're going to want to know as much as you can so you can ask Prospective Agent the right questions.

Whether or not you use comps in your query is up to you (although if an agent asks for them, I'd use them). But it absolutely pays off to figure out where what you've written fits in the commercial market. If Prospective Agent agrees with you, great! If they disagree, you'll be in a position to ask some specific questions about why, and from there you can figure out if you want to adjust your own expectations, or move on.

An agent, no matter how professional and successful, isn't necessarily going to share your vision for your work, and you want to know that before you sign on the dotted line. The best way to understand what you're getting into is to have a solid understanding of what you've got.
Yes, that's great advice. I'm planning on querying in August, and I really don't want to postpone, but obviously I will if I need to. I'm currently soaking up as many current books in my genre as I can, and I'll continue to do so. Hopefully I can get through quite a few and maybe find some good comps. Otherwise, I may have to wait until the fall. But this has been a long time coming and I'm anxious to get started with the process!
 

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But this has been a long time coming and I'm anxious to get started with the process!

I am right there with you. :) But when people say publishing is slow, they mean it. My first book was bought in November of 2014 and didn't come out until May of 2016. An no, it didn't require much editing - IIRC I had one set of notes to turn around. The book was in its final form in early 2015.

Taking a few extra months to get your ducks in a row feels really frustrating, I know! But in the end it's such a tiny percentage of the whole timeline, and it's so very worth it.
 

Chris P

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So this is me beating that dead horse again. :)

If you're having trouble finding comps, don't query yet. Keep reading and find comps. You will not be sorry you did that work up front - take it from someone who did not.

The thing about queries is that there's often a lot of radio silence, but once you get interest things go very quickly. You're going to want to know as much as you can so you can ask Prospective Agent the right questions.

Whether or not you use comps in your query is up to you (although if an agent asks for them, I'd use them). But it absolutely pays off to figure out where what you've written fits in the commercial market. If Prospective Agent agrees with you, great! If they disagree, you'll be in a position to ask some specific questions about why, and from there you can figure out if you want to adjust your own expectations, or move on.

An agent, no matter how professional and successful, isn't necessarily going to share your vision for your work, and you want to know that before you sign on the dotted line. The best way to understand what you're getting into is to have a solid understanding of what you've got.

Well, dead horses sometimes gallop through threads in such ways that many of us who haven't seen one before gawk in wonder at the sight.

Thanks for the perspective! I was looking at it too narrowly (and with outdated advice). I love the "if you don't have comps, keep reading" advice.
 
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Do you recommend only using newer novels from the last 2-3 years? And exactly how popular should they be? I know they shouldn't be Game of Thrones/Harry Potter, but I was told even Scythe was too popular. I don't want to use unsuccessful books, obviously, but I don't know where the line is anymore.
 
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I am right there with you. :) But when people say publishing is slow, they mean it. My first book was bought in November of 2014 and didn't come out until May of 2016. An no, it didn't require much editing - IIRC I had one set of notes to turn around. The book was in its final form in early 2015.

Taking a few extra months to get your ducks in a row feels really frustrating, I know! But in the end it's such a tiny percentage of the whole timeline, and it's so very worth it.
Do you know why it took so long? A year seems to be a common wait time but what makes it longer? Just curious.
 

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Do you know why it took so long? A year seems to be a common wait time but what makes it longer? Just curious.
For a first book, I don't believe 16 months is out of the ordinary. They're tiling you in with all the other books they've got on deck. The vast majority of what happens between purchase and release is sales and marketing, mostly aimed at distributors. ARCs, at least in my case, were sent out about 4 months before the book release (maybe earlier for the first book). There's also line and copy edits, internal layout, cover design, etc. IIRC, the book went to press about 6 weeks before the release date.

I sold three books at once, and the schedule was different for each one. My second was scheduled for November 2016 (election day, as it happens, and wasn't that fun?). IIRC I had a February deadline, and I asked if I could have another two weeks; they said they couldn't give me more than one week or we'd miss the November release date.

FWIW, I'm being told publishers are purchasing for 2023/2024 at this point. Some of that timeframe is due to covid, but not all of it.
 

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In this latest round of querying I've been doing, I don't include comps in the base letter. But many agents who've switched over to using the QT forms will ask for comps in a separate field, so they are necessary to have on hand.
 

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Do you recommend only using newer novels from the last 2-3 years? And exactly how popular should they be? I know they shouldn't be Game of Thrones/Harry Potter, but I was told even Scythe was too popular. I don't want to use unsuccessful books, obviously, but I don't know where the line is anymore.
Sorry - missed this one!

Yeah, as a general rule 2-3 years is a good timeframe. I definitely (well, mostly :)) wouldn't go further back than 5 years. As for whether to use "big" books - I comped with STATION ELEVEN last time, and got plenty of nibbles on the query letter. (For one agent I also comped LEVIATHAN WAKES, which was 8 years old at the time.) SCYTHE has been in the news a bit because apparently they've got a screenwriter for the movie, but I don't know that I'd shy away from it. The bigger problem with GoT and HP is that they've become tropes in popular culture, and comping them doesn't convey much specific meaning.

ETA: YA isn't my market, so I defer to AW's YA folx on SCYTHE.
 
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If there is one thing I learned in the last year is that the publishing industry loves comp titles. My agent used them when subbing to publishers, my publishers used them when talking about the book. It seems to be a kind of shorthand in the industry to tell people what a book is about in a very short amount.

Comp titles shouldn’t be perfect fit. If they are then your work is derivative. When I subbed to agent I had one comp title that was similar only for the genre/setting/atmosphere of the book and another that just had similar theme (but different genre).

I don’t think an agent would reject you because you didn’t include comp titles but they are a plus in my opinion. And the more recent the better.
 
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Do you recommend only using newer novels from the last 2-3 years? And exactly how popular should they be? I know they shouldn't be Game of Thrones/Harry Potter, but I was told even Scythe was too popular. I don't want to use unsuccessful books, obviously, but I don't know where the line is anymore.

My rule of thumb with comps is to try and stick to the last 5 years, and to use bestsellers which haven't been turned into a movie. I have no basis for this reasoning, lol. I think it's because bestsellers are exciting enough to pique the agent's attention, but you don't want to choose ones that have been turned into a movie or TV series because you can bet that many other writers have picked that as a comp as well.

Do you know why it took so long? A year seems to be a common wait time but what makes it longer? Just curious.

I'm under the impression that most books take 2 years after the deal to hit the shelves. Delays do happen though, more often than we think. My MG was delayed because the imprint I was with folded. A couple others in my debut group were delayed just because their editors were running so behind that they had to be bumped one or two seasons, which sucks. 1 year is actually the fast track.
 

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My rule of thumb with comps is to try and stick to the last 5 years, and to use bestsellers which haven't been turned into a movie. I have no basis for this reasoning, lol. I think it's because bestsellers are exciting enough to pique the agent's attention, but you don't want to choose ones that have been turned into a movie or TV series because you can bet that many other writers have picked that as a comp as well.
I like this rule, it makes sense.
 

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tl;dr: The key to me is to communicate what your book brings that the comps don't. I think it would be super easy to do more harm than good by doing it sloppily.

Comps are essential for non-fiction, particularly to demonstrate how your work differs from what's out there. What knowledge gap needs to be filled, and how will presenting it in this way get readers to click "Buy Now"? What would your book about rowing in the 1936 Olympics contribute that Boys in the Boat didn't already say? It also shows you know the market, which would be harder for an agent/publisher to know for non-fiction. They aren't the experts.

For fiction, I would absolutely expect an agent to know the market already (otherwise it's a run not walk away from that agent!). Perhaps I'm falling behind in the times, but I always thought that comps were not helpful in fiction. If my query is good, the agent should already have a list of comps in mind, and if the query is good, should be able to see how my book is different. Also, I wonder if I risk mis-characterizing my book if I don't include the absolute best comps (I can only read so much! I might not be aware that someone else might be a much better comp). Older advice was that if I compare myself to Tom Perrotta or Jonathan Franzen, but why would readers read me if they can just read Perrotta and Franzen? If I do go the route of highlighting how my book is different, this will take a high level of skill to avoid Golden Word Syndrome, and badmouthing the other writers (which I'm sure will be an instant rejection). I'm sure more authors aren't doing this for this reason.

I do see there is a middle ground to be struck, and I look forward to seeing how others have navigated this.
Yes, I think it is one more responsibility loaded onto the writer ( whether novelist or non-fiction.) You are supposed to 'know' who is writing like you, right now. Having spent months being inventive and creating a new book, I was supposed to trawl round looking for similar books! How does one do that, if, as mine is, your novel is plain ordinary literary?
Answer, = good old Goodreads, where you can zap through pre-read books and inspect the precis at the beginning of any reviews. This saves you time at a crucial moment, when you are already facing the Niagra-moment of sending off that all-important query letter.
 

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