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Comp Reading your Way to Success

Comp Reading your Way to Success

publishing reading tools May 16, 2024

Okay, let’s get the elephant out of the room.

If you’re anything like me, the first time you heard someone talk about a comp title, you tried to discreetly pull your phone from your pocket and stealthily search “wth is a comp title” and then insisted that you totally knew what they were talking about the whole time even though you still weren’t 100% sure that you knew what it was.



“Comp” stands for comparable or comparative, not compensation or competition. Not that I thought the publishing industry would expect us to list the books we’re going to be competing against in a query letter or anything. A comp title is a comparable title, or another book that is targeting a similar audience as yours! 

These books are your contemporaries, not your competition. Be honest. We all know how long your tbr (and mine) is. Two books being similar is way more likely to encourage readers to read both than pick just one.


The Many Uses of the Comp

Now, with the elephant gone, let’s focus on why we use comp titles. Comp titles do significantly more heavy lifting than their status as a quickly and discreetly searched for publishing vocab word would imply.

Comp titles are used for three things:

  1. To help you, as an author, better understand the publishing and purchasing market you’re entering into.
  2. To help agents, as a middle-man, get a quick, down and dirty picture of what your novel is about, the audience you’re targeting, and where your book fits into the market.
  3. To help publishers and readers, as consumers, to understand if the book is going to resonate with them.


Despite each of these scenarios being different enough to deserve a highlight above, comp titles do the same thing in each of these scenarios: comp titles are meant to pinpoint and convey the vibe of your book by using a familiar title.

While book covers, blurbs, and reviews are all things that influence us into (or out of) buying that book we’ve been hearing about online, the quickest way to my reader heart is to compare the book to one I already love.

A book with a beautiful cover, a blurb that hooks me, and a high Goodreads rating will always have me carrying it around Barnes and Noble for an unspecified amount of time until I convince myself it’s worth the little treats I’ll have to give up to buy it. But if I’m told it’s the next Nancy Drew?


 It’s on sight, baby. (And not in the violent way.)


The Search for a Comp

Unfortunately, like most things in the writing and publishing world, finding a comp title is much easier said than done. And so I’ve put together a quick list of dos and don’ts to make it easier read than done too!

Do check publishing dates

We’re starting with a heavy hitter of a do. Choosing a comp that has been published within the last five years is crucial.

As an author, comp titles are intended to give you a snapshot of what is currently popular in the market that you’re looking to enter. That only works if the comp title was released in the current market. In mystery, it’s always tempting to read a timeless comp title like Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple, but it’s not going to do you any favors.

As a consumer, comp titles are intended to help readers know if the book is something they’re looking for. While a timeless comp like Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple can give readers and publishers a vague idea of what they’re getting into, it can also make them wary of reading a book that feels dated or a story that’s already been told.


Don’t depend on content

This one sounds contrary, especially for someone like me who is all about content. I want to know if the first couple is endgame or if you’re pulling a Sarah J. Mass on me. I want to know who dies and how and when. My little heart can’t take it otherwise.


But it’s important to note that the content of two stories can be the same, but the audiences can be entirely different. Modern retellings are a great example of this. If you search “Cinderella retellings” both Ella Enchanted and Throne of Glass are in the top fifteen results, and those are definitely meant for different audiences.

To find content comps, you need to nitpick the content. The effort is not worth the reward.


Do depend on vibes

Vibes, on the other hand, are a great way to choose comp titles.

As an author, you want to know what your audience is looking for. As an audience, readers and publishers want to know if you’re going to give them what they’re looking for.

Depending on vibes to find a comp title means looking at intended audience, major tropes, genre, and tone. Look for books that are going to make readers feel the same way as your book will.

Let’s reuse the example of modern retellings. Fans of Ella Enchanted would probably also enjoy The Princess Academy. Both are intended for young adults (specifically young girls), include found family and magical gift tropes, and are fantasy novels.


Don’t pick a box office hit

It’s tempting. It feels like a way to convey how amazing your manuscript is.

It’s also a really obvious choice and can imply that you didn't do more than search “Top Selling Mystery Novel of 2024” on the internet.

Plus, it just sets a standard that few people can meet and most people aren’t willing to let anyone try.

Just don’t do it to yourself.


Do stick to your genre

Again, comp titles are all about giving yourself a snapshot of the current market or giving your consumers a snapshot into your book. That means sticking to the market that you’re trying to sell to.

Yes, it’s tempting to market a book as “Sherlock Holmes if Arthur Conan Doyle was right about the fairies and Sherlock became one” but I promise everyone is going to have a better idea of what’s going on if you choose a paranormal or fantasy mystery compt title. Both those genres do exist and are actually quite popular.


Don't limit yourself to books

Again, a little counter-intuitive, but hear me out.

If someone told you they’d taken this movie and turned it into a book, would you read it?


(The Mummy, 1999)


What about this one?


(Stardust, which I guess is technically also a book but the book and the movie have very different vibes despite having the same content *nudge nudge*.)



If the vibe fits, the vibe fits.


Do look to authors that inspired you

In keeping with the above don’t, comp authors are also a common use of comp “titles.”

If your writing style is heavily inspired by a childhood – or adulthood – favorite author instead of a book, it’s absolutely appropriate to use a comp author. In this same vein, it’s also appropriate to use a comp main character. Like I said above, any modern Nancy Drews are no hesitation buys for me. 

Just remember that while these three (movies, authors, and characters) can be exempt from the five year rule, comp books cannot.

In the end, comps are marketing tools, and you need to choose the tool that’s best for the job you need done. Using this list and trusting your instincts is a great way to get started on your comp reading journey!




Should I read comp titles before I start writing?

There are pros and cons, and what's right for someone else may not be right for you

Comp titles can be a great place to start if you want to make sure there's a current market for your idea. It's also a good place to look for popular (or unpopular) tropes. But reading comps before writing can over-influence your story, or deflate your motivation if you're left feeling like your idea is unoriginal.

If you're looking for titles to use in querying, the titles you include should be published within the last five years. Depending on writing speed, reading before writing could disqualify anything you read!


How do you pick a comp title for a dual-genre book?

Choose the genre that makes the most sense given your intended audience. I once wrote a historical romance set in post-WWII Boston that heavily featured spy craft, gangs, and rising tensions between the US and the Soviet Union. It was also a Hades and Persephone retelling.

In looking for other books my intended audience would enjoy, would a Hades and Persephone retelling like A Court of Mist and Fury or a historical spy romance like The Lantern’s Dance be more accurate?


How many comp titles should I look for?

For a query letter, you ideally need two or three comp titles. Fewer is an indication that your book may not have an existing market. More is an indication that your book may not be original enough to stand out.

For reading – with a goal of research or querying – five to ten books, depending on your reading speed and how carefully you were in choosing the books, is usually a good number. But sometimes it may take a few extra books…or a few dozen.

ALSO: Tracking your Reading Resolution


How should I use comp titles in a query letter?

In a query letter, comp titles are used to help agents or editors quickly identify the intended audience and vibe of your novel. When picking titles, you want to choose books that sold well but were not books that defined an era or genre (like Hunger Games or The Fault in Our Stars).

Two to three titles should be included, but don't dedicate more than two or three lines overall to the titles.


Elizabeth Miles
Written for The Plottery

I’m Elizabeth Miles, but you can call me Lizzie! I am a full-time stay-at-home mom and part-time author during breaks from chasing down over-confident toddlers. Mystery, romance, and fantasy are my favorite genres for both reading and writing. You can find me on Instagram (@authorlizziem) and TikTok (@authorlizziemiles)!



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