I get asked about comp titles from time to time, and my overall thought is that unless you can find two perfect comps (e.g. this meets that) that are:
- under ten years old,
- in the genre you’re writing in (for at least for one of the two),
- widely enough read that most agents would be familiar with it,
- but not so recently popular that agents are seeing it constantly (e.g. Harry Potter, The Hate U Give, )
then the comparative titles might not be the best thing for your query.
Pitfalls when… comps are over ten years old
When I see comps that are over ten years old, it makes me think that the querying writer hasn’t read enough in the current marketplace. Particularly when I see comp titles that are twenty years plus (and not classics). Picture books published twenty years ago were significantly longer and had slower, quieter narrative arcs than picture books published today do (generally). The same can be said for middle grade and young adult, in that middle graders and teens today sound and act significantly differently than they did twenty years ago, and plots and voice that worked then might not work now.
Comps aren’t in the genre you’re writing in
Like the above, if your comps are two movies, I wonder if the writer is reading in their chosen genre. Even more so when I see comps for a YA that are both adult books. I think it’s fine to do one book meets one movie – so long as it gives a crystal clear image of what your book is.
But if you’re querying YA, I wouldn’t use an adult book comp unless you’re very explicit about how your book is still YA.
Comps are unrecognizable by the agent/editor
This isn’t so bad – there are thousands of books published every year and it’s ridiculous to think that an agent or editor would have had the ability to read them all. So the worst that happens here is that the comp doesn’t mean anything to the agent or editor. But then I wonder – could that space be better used in your query?
Comps are recent blockbusters or cultural phenomenon
Sometimes this works – “Stranger Things meets X” is a thing that I see occasionally but not so often that it’s lost its meaning quite yet (but I don’t see a lot of fantasy or sci-fi queries, so another agent may feel like they see this all the time and put it in this category.) But it seems that every book with a wizard is compared to Harry Potter, a lot of social justice novels are compared to The Hate U Give, and of course for a time a ton of paranormal romances were (and – believe it or not – still are) compared to Twilight. And the problem is that, like I said before, as an agent I see some comps so frequently, that it has sort of lost its meaning and actually starts to work against you – because again, it starts to feel like the author hasn’t read anything else in their genre but the bestseller/cultural phenomenon. (Random #mswl note: I’m not looking for fantasy at the moment, but if you do have a social justice themed pb, mg or ya in fiction or non-fiction, I absolutely want to see it!)
Anyway – back to that tricky line of finding a comp that fits your book, is popular enough to (likely) have been read, but isn’t constantly used as a comp in query letters already.
Comp title exercise:
Ultimately, my suggestion would be to take your comps, tell them to your critique group (and better, someone who hasn’t read your book but is familiar with your genre) and ask them what they think the comp says about your book. Are they close to what you’re trying to convey? If not, give each comp individually and ask them what is the first thing they think of when they hear it. Is this what you’re trying to portray, or do you need a better comp? Or do your comps just need a bit of explanation to work for you (e.g. the wacky humor of X meets the environmental message of Y)?
Just like you work your query letter as a whole, don’t be afraid to spend some time on comps – if you choose to use them – with your critique group/writing partners.