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.
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”
- “Monthly picks”
- “Frequently bought together”
- “Favorite authors”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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