“Comps” as they are known help readers, writers, publishers, distributors and booksellers understand what kind of book we're dealing with. Today's post dives into the nitty gritty of comparable authors and titles–and why they are key to effective publishing. This is the Alliance of Independent Author's ultimate guide to comparison authors, titles, genres and tropes.
A trade publisher will always ask about comparable authors and titles in a book proposal because knowing a book's comparable authors and titles is an important part of publishing well.
As the books' author, you know your book and the world you’ve created really well, but your reader doesn’t. Comp titles help them to understand what kind of book it is and what sort of promise it's making.
A good comp title lets a reader know what that book is about. It’s shorthand for describing your book, and leaves the reader in no doubt about what kind of book this is.
As writers, comps help us to understand what readers value about our work, as well as what we share in common with other writers. And as publishers, we use comps in advertising, promotion and positioning. To please readers means doing sufficient research to understand what the market wants, and that requires comparisons.
As well as providing a guide to writing style, point of view, and so on, knowing your comps will help you to find book reviewers in your genre, give you examples of trends in your genre and help you find joint promotional activities with other authors that can help build your email list and sell more books.
What Are Comparable Authors and Titles?
Comparable authors are the authors shelved in a physical bookshop near your books, or deemed by an online store algorithm to be similar to some aspect of your books, but finding your best “comps” is not always simple. Comparable titles may be in the same genre, have similar plots, use similar tropes, be written in a similar style, and/or have a common thread such as the setting, or subject matter. Your “comps” should always be books which have seen success in their niche.
This is not about how good or bad another writer is, compared to you, but about understanding the patterns and expectations in your corner of the book market. For example:
- Are you pricing comparably to other authors who have similar offerings?
- Are you including the right tropes for readers to recognise whether they enjoy books like yours?
- Does your cover look similar to others in the genre? In what ways? Is this a good thing? Why aren't other people doing what you're doing?
- Do your blurb sound similar or different? What can you learn from their blurb?
- Is the tone/theme/atmosphere of the book similar or different? How?
Comparable Authors and Titles: Genre
While two thriller authors are both writing in a comparable genre, there will be differences to note, as well as similarities. For example, if you write thrillers, your books might be comparable to James Patterson, or John Banville, and readers who most like one of these authors might not read the others. Medical thrillers won't be filed in exactly the same spot as psychological thrillers as historical thrillers.
Or take fantasy. A high fantasy book aimed at an adult and a contemporary fantasy for middle graders will ve very different in tone and feel. If you’re writing for adult readers your book's tone and feel will be different to that of a middle-grade author. While every fantasy author might like to be compared to a great classic like Lord of the Rings, your comp type may actually be more like Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Even though they’re quite close in terms of the fantasy genre, they're a mile apart in terms of how you brand and market them.
That said, you begin with genre, using one thriller author or one fantasy authors as a starting point to see what comparable authors are doing, and what comparable titles pop up in also-boughts lists. In poetry, comps tend to circle around subject matter and category, the nationality of the poet, and use of language — whether it is formal or freestyle, dense or popular poetry.
In non-fiction, it’s usually subject related but again there will be matters of tone to attend to. You might be publishing a “how-to” book but does it a have a textbook feel? Or is it more of a self-help, popular commuter read?
Comparable titles should be a close match for effective marketing. This is usually best done by checking the niche or smallest category they fall into. But with comparable authors, an author might match with some of your titles, but they might also write in other genres which wouldn't be suitable.
That distinction is important when doing market research around your books and author brand. When the alignment is correct, you're clear about the points of comparison you're promoting, and how that fits your overall positioning.
Comparable Authors and Titles: Nuance and Niche
So when looking at comp authors, consider the whole package. Review:
- The tone of the writing
- Invisible qualities of the prose
- Subject matter
Then test and see.
Our assumptions can lead us astray in this area. When you’re starting out as a publisher in the early stages, you should question all your assumptions about everything, because publishing is very creative and individual. Strange things happen, you can’t be sure, and each author is different. It’s really important to experiment. So try using different points of comparison and do it with a spirit of play and enjoyment, giving yourself time to .
Whatever value you’re offering the reader, whether it’s non-fiction, poetry, or fiction, underneath ;you’re making them feel something; feel informed, feel amused, feel entertained, feel good about themselves, feel uplifted, feel broken-hearted. Learn what that underlying feeling is. That’s your value. That’s a significant point of comparison for all books.
Comparison Authors and Identifying Readership
Getting to know your comps is a learning process. At first, you have a vague sense and an idea of who your “comps” are, as you do more research and exploration, you become much clearer. You also learn a lot about your yourself as an author and where you fit in, that stands to you when writing the next book.
Some authors are very good at this from the get go, a lot struggle with it at first. One reason why is they think it’s about authors they like to read, or authors that they would like to be compared to, but actually it’s about the authors that you share a readership with.
It’s the readers who decide who your comps should be.
So as ever, get reader focused. What kind of readership do you share with this particular author for that particular brand of books? Or what readership does a particular books share with a particular title?
Then you need to ask yourself why: in what ways am I like this other author that I share this readership with? What are the specific overlaps? What is it about their books that would appeal to my readers, and vice versa?
We’re not comparing ourselves to people who are very new in the business or unknown. We are comparing our author brand to other brands that have achieved influence and impact, popularity and renown. Our aim is to get some of the readership they have interested built in our books.
Author and Title Comparison: Mindset and Resistance
Comparison can sometimes be a negative experience for authors. It can create doubt, anxiety, worries over not being good enough. Sometimes authors can have internal resistance to comparing themselves to others.
But this isn't about directly comparing your words to another person's words or deciding who is the better writer. It isn't about about them being better or worse publishers than you. It's about ensuring you put the best book and product out on the market. It's about finding the right readers and getting clear about what they like.
The tough talk: you’ll need to set aside the view that your book is completely unique and your voice is nothing like anyone else’s. You may already know some writers who are comparable, you may not have a clue. It doesn’t matter. You can easily find them. The important thing is being willing to do the work on this, to analyze what makes your books appealing to readers.
How to Find Comp Authors and Titles
When looking for comp authors, the perfect place to start is with the bestseller lists and ‘Also Boughts’ on the online retail stores. These are books that stores suggest. Look for phrasing like “If you liked this you might like…” “Because you enjoyed X you'll love Y”.
Everyone has access to these, and they are purely based on sales i.e. what buyers are buying.
Bestseller lists in newspapers and other trade publications don’t count Amazon sales (because they get their sales figures from BookScan, and Amazon don’t release their sales figures) and usually exclude self-published books.
Look for trends and repeats across the stores to get the most accurate picture of which books people are buying and responding to in your particular niche.
Once you know you share an audience with another author, click on any of their books and examine their ‘Also Boughts’ too. You are likely to find new authors who will feed the process. It might also be worth creating a list of these authors and the titles of their books for later use in targeting ads.
Another method for finding comparison authors—if say, your also bought section hasn't populated yet—is to drill down into super niche categories. For example, if you are looking in the fantasy section and not finding many books, try refining your search:
- Books > Young Adult > Literature and Fiction > Social and Family Issues > Death and Dying
- Books > Young Adult > Historical Fiction > Ancient Civilizations
Having a dig around those two categories (if you write in them) will produce far greater results and comparisons than trying to find books in larger categories.
Examining comp authors’ cover designs, including titles and typography, is always informative. Shortlist the ones that you like best, or dislike most, and think through your reasons. Make notes.
- What colors/palettes do they use?
- Are there figures on the front and what type of clothing are they wearing? Or do the covers stray away from people entirely?
- Are the covers photo manipulation, illustration, cutout art, graphics or something else?
- Or are there repeating images, patterns, symbols or otherwise on the covers?
- What types of fonts are used?
- Is there a pattern or rhythm to the book titles? For example, psychological thrillers are often 3-4 words long and include a personal pronoun like “Her Last Tomorrow”
- Do they use blurb quotes on the covers or are they blank?
- Is there series information on the cover?
Compile the information until you have a good understanding of what a “standard” cover in your genre would look like. What 4-5 things would you expect to see on a cover in your genre?
Ask, Ask, Ask
In your newsletter, ask your readers what other books they enjoy reading that are most like yours. Ask librarians, ask in bookstores for books like the books on the list of comps you've compiled. If you're on bookstagram, try asking that community. There's often “recommendations” threads and posts to be found.
Everyone knows it can be painful reading your own reviews, but you can always read the reviews of comparable books instead. Reading them will show you how their readers actually responded–you can literally get inside the heads of your readers. (Tip: As you research reviews, add the most insightful reviewers to your review list, and approach them for a review. You're specifically looking for:
- Key phrases you see repeated across multiple reviews
- Words that explain the emotional pull the reader experienced. Did they cry? What it gripping? Were they afraid?
- Words that point out issues or things they didn't like
- Phrases that explain the tone
- Phrases that tell you what they got out of it
There are lots of elements of a blurb that you can learn about by comparing genre blurbs. Look out for:
- Blurb length
- The emotional pull, is it all about romance? Vengeance? A journey?
- Do multiple blurbs in the same genre use
Comparing Marketing Ps
The marketing Ps are:
Let's start with platform. You need to look at the author's presence on a holistic, global level. How do they locate themselves and their books in the marketplace? Are they wide or exclusive? Do they have multiple social media accounts or are they visible only on one? Do they write in multiple pen names or are they strictly one genre only? In that genre are they hardcore stuck to that one niche or do they branch into adjacent-but-still-genre-relevant niches?What's the most obvious way readers connect with them? Is it via a podcast, a blog, a newsletter or paid advertising?
On to positioning. How do they present their books so they can be found by readers? What categories and keywords do they use? What design elements are tailored to their market? What approach and tone do they use in their marketing copy, and why does that resonate well with readers? What branding and colors do they use? Do they swear or are they “clean”? How do they present themselves in interviews? Does that match their book brand?
Promotion next. What promotion tools and strategies work well for them? Is their readership especially responsive to free books, 99-cent deals? Or do the readers want free short stories and background material about the books and characters? Do they have merchandise? Are they targeting other industries like gaming, movies or something else? Do they use author swaps as a promotional tool or perhaps a free first in series?
Purchasing. Do they sell through social media? Are they Amazon only? Do they sell direct on their own websites? Are they using Facebook advertising or Bookbub? Or maybe they only use newsletter promotions or perhaps just AMS ads. What is their promotional strategy?
And last, partnership. As you’re serving the same audience, could you join forces for events, cross-promotions in each other’s newsletters, competitions, social media campaigns? Could you reach out and offer to help promote their upcoming launch? Could you tell your readers, subscribers and followers about a book of theirs you enjoyed reading? Acts of kindness go a long way in the indie community.
Using Comp Author Information in Your Ads
When you’re ready to invest in advertising, knowing your “comps” will save you a lot of money. If you've already done that research and have a big comprehensive (and accurate) list of authors who are like you, then you can use this list of names and titles as your keywords for your adverts.
NAME OF AUTHOR and NAME OF AUTHOR are comp authors because your readers also enjoy their work. What that means for advertising is that the audiences of NAME OF AUTHOR and NAME OF AUTHOR may be optimal targets for your ads.
And, crucially, you can test this and see whether your book marketing delivers for those readers. Today’s advertising tools in particular will allow you to actually figure it out.
You can develop a better marketing strategy when you marry your gut feelings about this with tests and experiments that can tell you more about who your readers are, and what they value.
Using Comp Titles for Pitching Rights buyers and Influencers
Using comps like this when pitching agents or publishers is also useful to quickly convey the concept of your book e.g. “Harry Potter meets The Avengers” has become an entire niche.
Most agents and publishers want you to name five or so comparable titles, each from a different author.
While you may use titles that have topped bestseller lists and/or been adapted into movies for self-publishing purposes, when pitching agents and publishers, it's best to avoid these, as they have broken out of their genre, so aren’t truly comparable. It looks like you don't know your niche very well and that you may have delusions of grandeur.
Comparable Titles and Authors: Meet Your Promise
Whether you're using comps to reach rights buyers or readers, be sure your books keep the promise you've set up. If you’re using a popular title to describe your book, it must match that comparison and have the same implied elements.