Teatime: Are Comp Titles Actually Useful?

Chances are you’ve picked up a new release because it was marketed “for fans of [book you loved]”, or maybe you read a review comparing it to one of your favorite books. And as you read that shiny new novel, you’re likely to have one of several possible epiphanies:

  • The comparison is accurate, and you may have found a new favorite book.
  • The comparison is not accurate, but you enjoy the book anyway.
  • The comparison is accurate, but for some reason you’re just not that into this book.
  • The comparison is not accurate, and you really don’t like this book.

Maybe you’ve had better luck in these cases than I have, in which case I am totally envious … and hope you can get something out of this post anyway. For me, I often find myself somewhere between the best and worst case scenarios, and it led me to wonder: Are these “comp titles” actually nice helpful and accurate? Or should I just disregard them?

After all, not every frontlist title can — or should! — be the next Six of Crows, despite what their blurbs say.

What Are Comp Titles?

In case you’ve never heard the term before, comp titles (comparison / comparable / competitive titles) are books similar to the one being promoted. Since there are lots of different aspects to books — plot, tone, genre(s), themes, etc. — authors and publishers will often use multiple comp titles, each matching one aspect of their book. For example, a book might have a similar premise to The Fault in Our Stars, but the writing style might be more reminiscent of I’ll Give You the Sun.

As for the purpose of comp titles, a quick Google search yielded explanations mostly focused on the industry side of things: querying, marketing, and so on. Comp titles used in this way typically take into account factors like expected sales trajectory and book format: relevant information for publishers and authors, but not so much for non-professional readers and reviewers.

That doesn’t mean comp titles are limited to usage within the publishing industry, though! They’re also used to promote upcoming and new releases: you’ve probably come across synopses or reviews drawing comparisons between books, and Edelweiss+ users can actually suggest comp titles.

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Benefits of Comp Titles

I’ve already briefly touched on why comp titles are helpful for publishers and authors — in a nutshell, they give useful information and can be included in promotional materials. (I’m sure they serve more purposes for this demographic, but I’m not an industry professional so it’s not the focus of this post. Also, in case you couldn’t already tell, most of this is based on personal experience and speculation; I could be totally wrong about some things, in which case please do correct me!)

For more casual readers, comps can be helpful in figuring out whether you’re interested in a book. No matter whether you read a book per day or one per year, it’s a sad fact that you won’t be able to pick up every new novel that piques your interest; comp titles can help you narrow down your TBR. If Jane Eyre is your all-time favorite book, then it’s fairly easy to find the upcoming and recent releases that use it as a comp. If you’re a mood reader, comps can serve as a reference point to find a new read that will hopefully match your mood. Or if you’re just getting back into reading and overwhelmed by the volume of frontlist titles, comps can help you ease into it based on what you’ve previously read.

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Drawbacks of Comp Titles

Although multiple comp titles are used to give a more holistic impression of a new release, promotional materials don’t usually specify why specific comps were chosen, i.e. whether they’re meant to hint at the target demographic or premise or atmosphere or something else entirely. So if you specifically loved the social commentary in The Hunger Games, you might be disappointed to discover that the book you picked up has a similar plot but focuses on completely different themes.

And just as others’ reviews can influence your reading experience, awareness of the specific comps may “prime” you to look for similarities as you read — for better or worse, you may notice things you might not have otherwise and/or have certain expectations going into a book.

Avid readers and infrequent readers see the same comps, so it’s tricky to find titles that are both popular enough that most people are familiar with them, and accurate enough that they’re actually helpful. Bloggers and other reviewers can help in this regard, since they tend to be fairly widely read in their preferred genres so they can draw from a wide pool of potential comp titles; of course, there’s no guarantees that readers of the review will have read the comp they choose.

So certain comps are naturally picked more than others, though relatively recent titles (or, on the flip side, classics) seem to be generally favored. Again, not every book can be the next Six of Crows, and at this point it’s been used so many times that I for one don’t ascribe much credibility to the comparison anymore. 

Evidence also suggests that choosing comp titles is a flawed practice that “keeps publishing white“: few of the most-used comps are by authors of color (AoCs), and yet books by AoCs often get comps from other AoCs. This cycle can make it difficult for diverse reads to even reach the market, let alone attract readers / sales.

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Final Thoughts

This topic has been at the back of my mind ever since I read To Best the Boyswhich shares some plot-level similarities with its comp title, The Scorpio Races, but has a completely different atmosphere — and was revived by Kal @ Reader Voracious’s review of Wilder Girls, in which she notes that it isn’t at all like Lord of the Flies despite having seen them being compared. 

But it did cross my mind that maybe these key examples stuck with me because they’re noteworthy, rather than representative of the general population. So I’d love to collect data and do a proper analysis (AP Statistics comes in handy at times like this!) to see whether comp titles tend to focus on plot, or themes, or genre, or whether they’re more arbitrary, and how accurate they tend to be…. But realistically speaking, if it doesn’t happen before the new semester begins, it probably won’t happen for a while.

So all I can definitively say at this point is that the utility and accuracy of comp titles will vary from person to person, as all things do, but it might be best to take them with a grain of salt. Their role in the publishing industry is well-established (though not flawless), but for us non-professional readers they may not be as pivotal.

Do you pay attention to comp titles when deciding whether to read a book? Have you found them to be useful, or do you think they’re purely marketing tools?

19 thoughts on “Teatime: Are Comp Titles Actually Useful?

  1. I do tend to really look at the book parallel to the comp title, and I don’t mind when they’re different but sometimes I hate it when they’re compared to say Game of Thrones just because they’re fantasy, drives me nutty to have such a huge genre boiled down to one book.

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  2. What I do is that whenever I see a comp title I go through the blurb of the book and see if it sounds similar to the one it’s being compared with. If no, I usually put it down and if yes I pick it up. I usually end up liking the book in the case of the latter but of course sometimes like when the writeing style is bugging me or the characters turn out to be two dimensional I wouldn’t like it.

    But all said I mostly find comp titles helpful 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad to hear they’re helpful for you! my biggest problem tends to be that I don’t know if a comp title has been picked because it has a similar plot or feeling or both, so it just doesn’t tell me what I want to know when deciding whether to TBR – but if it works for you, that’s great!

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  3. In general I don’t mind comp titles, but I’ve been burned too many times by mediocre books heralded as the next The Handmaid’s Tale or The Secret History. Most of the times that I’ve read something that has been compared to these two, the book ends up only having the vaguest connection: a dystopia that has something to do with reproductive rights or a college setting/dark academia themes. They end up being basically nothing like their comp titles. So when a new book is compared to one of those titles, it’s a complete turn off for me. But otherwise, I do find comp titles somewhat useful and it might encourage me to at least pay more attention to a potential new read.

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  4. I think I lost count the amount of times I’ve rolled my eyes seeing certain books being compared to Six of Crows, City of Bones, TFIOS, Harry Potter…oh and The Hunger Games and Divergent were pretty popular comps at one point. I think whilst they can be helpful and I have read books through them being marketed as being similar to another book I read and loved…I also base my choices on the blurb mostly. Sometimes the cover too and if I remember of any book bloggers shrieking about it, I weigh everything together more so now then I did before I started blogging. Loved this post Izzy, particularly since this is a topic I hadn’t really thought all that much about until now ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. thanks Clo! it seems to me like comp titles might be more helpful for people who haven’t read as many books (so they have fewer points of reference), but for those of us who are familiar with more, it’s not as useful as the details of the specific book and what others think of it 🤔

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      1. Yeah I would agree with that, like I can see them being useful for people who are maybe just finding their footing in the book world. Trying to find books to read and enjoy can be super hard, if you’re not sure what you like yet haha.

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  5. I think comp titles are … interesting, but can be very misleading. You have raised all excellent points though. (And I also pushed To Best the Boys higher up my TBR because The Scorpio Races is my fave book ever, and I have not heard that comparison before!)

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  6. I feel like comp titles pass right over my head and have no impact on whether or not I read the book or not. I tend to heavily rely on the cover or title on the spine to catch my eye, and then solely focus on the other synopsis! I’ve been disappointed by author’s recommending it on the cover in a snippet and comp titles many times before, so now I just go on what the actual book says about the book…

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    1. oh man, I’m such a sucker for pretty covers and engaging synopses! they’re not always more reliable than author blurbs and comp titles, but then I’m still really bad at predicting whether I’ll actually like a book 😅

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  7. Loved this post! Book comps are definitely helpful – but only if they work. And that sucks – that Six of Crows is used for everything remotely ‘gangster/hit groups’ etc. I’m sure there are other books to be used as comps?
    Ooh, stats – that sounds like a super interesting post and very interesting re the data you would find.
    I find the comp titles do help (my decision towards reading the book) – but if they’re done right. Like don’t tell me it’s Star Trek meets the Hunger Games (for instance, though that does actually sound good 😄) if all you take from Star Trek are the colour t-shirts they wear.

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