All artists hate being put into a box. We are, after all, individuals with our own unique outlook on the world. Unfortunately, however, unless you are able to tell an agent exactly which pigeonhole your work fits into, you’re unlikely to persuade them to represent you. Not only does your query letter need to clearly state what genre your novel falls under, but it also has to mention a couple of comparison titles. In short, they want to know where your book belongs within a bookshop and whether or not there is an existing market for it.
Unfair, I hear you cry. The whole reason I want an agent is so that I can focus on my art, not on marketing. I’m an author, not a saleswoman. Well, tough. Those trying to get their foot in the ever-narrowing door of traditional publishing have to suck up a whole lot more than they used to. Sadly, if you don’t show willing to flog your own wares from the get go, you are unlikely to find representation.
Shall I compare thee to a Steven King?
All writers have a seminal work on their bookshelf that’s practically seared into their DNA. Usually read at an early age, this is the book that ignited their passion for reading and inspired them to pen their first words. It’s also a work that has long been in print and practically sells itself. It’s probably the first title you thought of when asked for a comparison title to your own novel. You should never ever mention this book in a query letter.
Agents are forward looking creatures, always scanning the horizon for the next emerging trend. They’ve read the classics, of course, but they know that the market is always hungry for something new. This is why, ideally, at least one of your comparison titles needs to have come out recently. That means within the last two or three years.
Get comparison titles from your beta readers
If you’re pitching to agents, you will have already given your novel to at least a couple of beta readers (if not, I would highly advise you to do so). The best beta readers are text hungry little bookworms. This makes them the ideal people to consult when it comes to choosing a comparison title. Listen to what they have to say and read any works they mention, just to be sure you agree.
Of course, this isn’t a failsafe method and authors are always well advised to read extensively within their own genre. Knowing what kinds of titles are coming out gives you an edge and allows you to stay ahead of the game. Though, it’s important to bear in mind that there is a fine line between being inspired and writing pastiche, which is why I like to mix it up by reading as widely as possible.
If you’re still coming up empty, there’s a useful trick you can employ. First, brainstorm a bunch of words that you’d associate with your book. Include not only the genre and sub genres, but also the setting and themes. Say: romance, gothic, female protagonist, New York, obsession. Come up with as many words as possible.
When you’ve written your list, open up an incognito tab by pressing control + shift + ‘n’, then go to Amazon and click onto books. The reason you’re going incognito is that Amazon’s search engine will be skewed by your previous history, whereas you want to be casting your net was wide as possible.
Start typing in your list of words. Initially, you might come across some pretty weird titles, but don’t be deterred. Mix up the order you write the words in and try deleting or adding other terms. Then start reading the book descriptions (good practice for when it comes to writing your query letter). In addition to looking for thematic similarities, you should also be checking when these titles were published and how high they rank.
Once you find some similar titles, start reading them to see if your hunch was right – hopefully you haven’t fallen into some kind of hideous mirror world where you discover you’ve inadvertently plagiarised the work of another author! And there you have it. Voila! Your comparison titles, reasonably fresh off the press and selling well enough to show your agent that there is indeed a healthy market for your book.
If you need any help writing your query letter, I can offer a free assessment. For more details of my full query critique package, take a look at this link.