Titles and Comp Titles — How To Find the Best Ones For Your Book

I asked my dear friend Ruth Harris to dazzle us with her experience of choosing titles and comps, and she delivered. Big time.

Ruth is a New York Times, award-winning bestselling author whose novels have sold millions of copies in hardcover and paperback editions. Translated into 19 languages and sold in hardcover and paperback editions in more than 30 countries, her books were Literary Guild, Book-of-the-Month Club and book club selections around the world. Ruth is also a former Editor, Editor-in-Chief and Publisher at Big Six and independent NY publishers who knows the publishing business from both sides of the desk.

And so, she’s an author who knows what works and what doesn’t. Enjoy!

A Prince by any other name would still be a Prince. (I hope.)

Meghan by any other name would still be a princess.

Ditto Diana.

Lord or Lady. Peasant or serf.

Professor or student.

Beginner or expert.

Titles orient us to where we are and what we should expect next.

Doesn’t just apply to people, either. Also applies to books, because time-pressed readers/editors/agents take only a few seconds to make their buy decision, and authors have the same few seconds to make their sale.

If you’re aiming for a traditional publishing deal including relevant comp titles in your query letter is a must, because comp titles define the expectations and positioning of your book. Well-chosen comp titles provide a target in a crowded marketplace, and will affect your cover, blurb and sales pitch.

Agents and publishers ask for comp titles because they need a quick shorthand way to establish the basis for sales expectations and marketing. The agent/editor/potential reader needs a reference point, and, if your book will appeal to readers who enjoy legal thrillers, steamy romance or epic fantasy, you’re providing a valuable selling tool by providing appropriate comp titles that give a solid clue about which market you’re aiming at.

Meaning before details.

According to John Medina of the University of Washington, the human brain requires meaning before details. When listeners doesn’t understand the basic concept right at the beginning, they have a hard time processing the rest of the information.

Bottom line for writers: The title and the cover—image plus title—have to work as a unit to explain the hook or basic concept first. Wrong image and/or misfit title confuse the would-be buyer and you lose the sale. On-target image plus genre-relevant title and the reader/agent/editor will look closer.

Your cover indicates visually by color, design and image what the reader can expect inside—a puzzling mystery, a swoony romance, futuristic scifi, or scary horror—but the first words the prospective reader/agent/editor sees are the ones in the title.

Your title tells readers what to expect.

You’re unpublished but your title is awfully close to Nora Roberts’ newest or…ahem…a clone of James Patterson’s most recent? Come on. Get real. Please. For your own sake.

Your book is about a modest governess in 19th Century London who falls in love with the maddeningly handsome Prince who lives in the castle next door, but your title promises hotter-than-hot, through-the-roof sales like, oh, maybe, 50 Shades Of Grey? Really? 51 Shades of Grey is the best you can come up with? Seriously?

If you’re in a quandary about choosing a title for your book here are Anne’s 10 Tips for Choosing the Right Title for Your Book.

You can also research successful titles in your genre for inspiration. Whether your genre is romance or suspense, you will find that certain words recur. Just be aware that most publishing contracts give the publisher the right to change the title. Sometimes the author is pleased.

Other times? Not so much. (Don’t ask me how I know, but horror stories abound.)

If the title you’ve chosen for your book is your idea of the one and only, check your contract to make sure you have the last word on title. The reality, though, is that few author have this right and, if you’re just starting out, you won’t. Sorry about that, but it’s the reality.

If you’re self-pubbing, you control the decision about titles. And, if you think of a better title in the future, you can easily change a title later.

All about comp titles.

The writer’s version of GPS, your comps tell readers/agents/editors where they are and what they can expect if they go further. That’s why a poorly chosen title or the wrong comp titles are an invitation to nowheresville for you and your book.

A sweet romance compared to a horror epic called Tarantula Invasion? I don’t think so.

Scifi comped to something titled A Duke For The Duchess? Nope.

Serial killer police procedural titled Miss Emily’s Quaint Cupcake Cafe? You’re joking, right?

Comp titles are books that are similar to yours. Comps help agents/editors/readers figure out who your book will appeal to and how big the potential audience might be. Comps give the Art Department or your cover artist a starting point and help them understand what is required.

Comps are indispensable to the sales department at a publisher and serve the same purpose in your blurb. Sales reps have only a few second to interest a buyer or bookstore owner. Being able to tell them that New Book X is like Old Book Y is useful shorthand telling the prospective buyers something about the likely audience and sales potential.

  • “If you like X, you’ll love Y”
  • “If you like action-adventure with strong female leads, you’ll like Y”
  • “If you like Regency romance, you’ll like Y”
  • “Readers who like Dean Koontz will love Y”

Another approach is X is like Y—with a twist.

  • “Cozy mystery with dragons”
  • “Historical mystery with space ships”
  • “Romantic suspense in a gay retirement home”

A third example is X meets Y—with a twist.

  • “Jack Reacher meets Jane Austen”
  • “Fan fiction meets literary memoir”
  • “Leo Tolstoi meets K-pop.”

Do’s and don’ts of choosing comp titles.

  • Do stay within your own genre (or genres if you write mash ups).
  • Do keep it realistic. Choose comps with the same likely sales pattern: out of the gate with a burst or a long, slow and steady sales arc, front list star vs backlist stalwart.
  • Do keep it recent: choose titles published within the last two or three years so that they are still fresh in the minds of reader/agents/editors/sales staff/store buyers. Pointless to choose a comp from a decade ago that no one remembers.
  • Don’t abandon common sense and compare your book to a #1 NYT bestseller or the latest gee-whiz phenom.
  • Don’t mix formats. If your book will be offered in a digital edition, don’t compare it to a hardcover title and vice versa.
  • Don’t jump genres. Compare apples to apples, oranges to oranges. That is, compare scifi to scifi, thriller to thriller, epic fantasy to epic fantasy, literary fiction to literary fiction.
  • Don’t ignore demographics. If your book will appeal to women, be sure to choose comps that will appeal to that same reader. Don’t choose a comp that will appeal to young adult readers or males looking for hairy-chested adventure in the remote jungles of Borneo.

Where to find good comp titles.

Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and the gang.

Because readers of romance tend to buy more romance and readers of action-adventure tend to buy more action-adventure, type the title of a book similar to yours into the search window of any book seller to find recommendations under headers like:

  • “Customers who bought this also bought”
  • “What customers bought after viewing this”
  • “Trending now”
  • “Pageturners”
  • “Monthly picks”
  • “Frequently bought together”
  • “Favorite authors”

Goodreads

Tell Goodreads what genre you’re interested in and they will provide a list of titles.

Or you can enter comp titles you’re already considering to ask for more suggestions.

You can also describe the kind of book you’re looking for—“thriller set in Iceland,” “mystery in Uruguay,” “cozy mystery in Nantucket,” or “scifi in a crippled space capsule”—for suggestions.

Goodreads Choice Awards lists their annual picks by category if you’re looking for even more inspiration.

Bestseller lists.

The middle or lower down titles in the NYTimes and the USA Today lists are good starting points, but don’t overlook your town or city. Your local bookstore will know what books are selling well in your area.

If your book is of regional interest—New England, Florida, the Far West—local bestseller info will be valuable and all you have to do is ask.

Librarians can help you ID relevant books that float just below the top bestsellers. We not talking mega authors and books, but titles just below the top ten or twenty that have reliable sales records and are known by buyers/agents/editors/retailers.

BookBub.

Sign up—it’s free—and ask for recs in genres similar to yours or by authors who appeal to the same readers you are looking for.

BookBub also has extensive genre lists that can be helpful as well as real-time updates from authors who write books similar to yours.

More help.

You’ll find more ideas for finding comp titles in this marketing-oriented post by Penny Sansevieri about Finding and Using Competing Book Titles in Your Book Marketing

Dave Chesson’s Publisher’s Rocket uses up-to-date market research data to quickly identify relevant comp titles, categories and keywords.

NerdyBookGirl offers a helpful FREE Book Category Hunter.

★★★★★“WOW! WHAT A STORY!”★★★★★

“A master storyteller coaxed me through a maze of fascinating, brilliant, tragic, and heartwarming twists and turns, and left me feeling uplifted and satisfied. ZURI slides to the top of my favorite books of 2020!”

—Sue Coletta, award-winning, bestselling author

 

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About Sue Coletta

Sue Coletta is an award-winning crime writer and an active member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers. Feedspot and Expertido.org named her Murder Blog as “Best 100 Crime Blogs on the Net” (2018-2021). She also blogs at the Kill Zone (Writer's Digest "101 Best Websites for Writers" 2013-2021). Sue lives with her husband and two spoiled guinea pigs in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire and writes two psychological thriller series (Tirgearr Publishing) and true crime/narrative nonfiction (Rowman & Littlefield). And recently, she appeared on the Emmy award-winning true crime series Storm of Suspicion, and will be a panelist at the 2021 New England Crime Bake. Learn more about Sue and her books at https://suecoletta.com

45 thoughts on “Titles and Comp Titles — How To Find the Best Ones For Your Book

  1. Good timing, and good advice. I’m at the “you can’t get your cover done until you commit to a title” point in the upcoming release, and I sweat them every time. They’re the last thing I come up with (except maybe the blurb), and it’s always a nightmare. My editor and I both think “Trusting Uncertainty” fits the book, but as she points out, it might be a challenge for the cover artist. After all, it has to look good/be legible in thumbnail.

    • Thanks, Terry. Whoever said writing a book or publishing it was easy? No one! It’s just one tough decision after another.
      Good luck with your title. I’m sure whatever you eventually decide will be great!

  2. Sue, thanks for inviting Ruth to TKZ and, Ruth, so glad you visited us to share your always-savvy wisdom.

    “The writer’s version of GPS” is a terrific analogy for comps.

    You always offer practical tips delivered with great wit. Many thanks!

  3. Very interesting post. A book title I’ve had for 15 years was recently used by a mega-bestselling author, so even though there are many books out there with the same titles, I can no longer use it. I really loved that title. Lesson learned? If you have an idea, get it finished and out there.

    • Becky—Book titles cannot be copyrighted, so if you want, you can certainly use your title. As you say, “there are many books out there with the same titles.”

      If you don’t want to do that, is there a small change you can make that will differentiate your book from the others?

      • Hadn’t thought of that, so thanks! I do still need to finish the book, unfortunately.

  4. Sue, thanks for inviting Ruth. And, Ruth, thanks for a fantastic post with lots of great ideas and resources. I’m bookmarking this one.

  5. Sue, thanks for inviting Ruth. A very informative post. I’m an indie author and titles and covers are vital to help a reader “get” the experience the book is promising. They say that the first taste of a meal is with the eye, and that’s truth with books as well.

    While I don’t have agents or book sellers, comp titles still help with advertising and overall branding concerns (since I am my own marketing department 🙂

  6. Good morning, ladies. I’ve got a question for you. What’s your take on using comp authors in promotions? BTW, asking for a friend.

    • Using comps to target the right readers in advertising (or promo sites) is crucial, Garry. The trick is finding the right comps, so you don’t target Harry Potter fans with a gritty thriller. 😉 That said, I’ll defer to Ruth. 🙂

  7. Excellent piece, Ruth (and Sue)!

    One slight tweak, though. You say “If you’re self-pubbing, you control the decision about titles. And, if you think of a better title in the future, you can easily change a title later.”

    No, you can’t (at least not on Amazon). You have to unpublish and then republish a new book. Same with author name.

  8. Garry—Publishers do it all the time: If you like Lee Child, you’ll love Author X. Does it work? Who knows? Doesn’t keep them from trying.

    Better still, your friend should try to get a quote from the author s/he wants to be comped to.

    Still, it’s not a bad way to orient the book for potential readers. Plus, of course, genre-specific cover, killer blurb and fab title.

  9. Ruth and Sue, Thank you for this informative post. Such a lot of wisdom here!

    I liked Ruth’s comment: “The title and the cover—image plus title—have to work as a unit to explain the hook or basic concept first.” With an entire universe of images and words, this is so hard to do. I thought the colors and image on the cover of Zuri capture the essence of Africa and coax the reader in. Couldn’t resist it and snagged a copy from Amazon.

    I also visited Anne’s 10 Tips site and enjoyed the list of famous book titles that were changed prior to publication. A couple of my favorites are on there and I can’t imagine them with the original titles.

  10. Kay—Thank you for the kind words—and for the purchase of ZURI. I’m glad to hear Zuri’s cover appealed. I hope you enjoy it!

    Anne’s posts are always excellent and filled with useful, reliable info.

  11. Garry, thanks for taking the time to add your comment. The designer, Stewart Williams, did a great job conveying the setting, the subject, and the theme.

  12. Thanks for a great post, Ruth and Sue. The information on comp titles was especially interesting.

    I should note that comparing some of my past sweet romantic entanglements to The Tarantula Invasion would not be a stretch. I take your point, however…

    • Joe—LOL. We’ve all been there, done that, and feel your pain. Carry on!

      (Repost…don’t know why my comment landed down below. cyber gremlins?)

    • The comp information is spot-on. Just used Ruth’s tips to find comps for my book proposal. Worked great!

      Hope you’re having an amazing day, Joe!

  13. Some very helpful tips. Comps are even harder when you’re in a smaller niche.

    • Brenda, I started by using Ruth’s Goodreads tip and it worked great. Goodreads is much easier than Amazon. Type your niche into the search bar. Good luck!

      • Thanks, Sue!
        Brenda’s comment was what I was thinking about my own work. There are similarities from twenty years ago, but now? They’ve passed me by if they’re out there! (No surprise, though: I haven’t had as much time to read for pleasure as I once did.)
        I’ll try the Goodreads trick!

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