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.
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.
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.
This topic has been at the back of my mind ever since I read To Best the Boys — which 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?