I hate waiting.
What a controversial statement, right? Of course we all hate waiting. But I think writers have a special, intimate hatred for waiting. We just have to do so much of it! We check e-mail obsessively while we wait to hear back from agents. We wait patiently (and nervously) for edit letters from our lovely editors. We anticipate our next turn to submit at writing group, and await next year's big conference. Other times, we wait for inspiration. Wait for the gods of creativity and productivity to bless us once again so we can meet that darned deadline. In other words, we procrastinate.
Whether you're waiting for important news from your agent, comments from your critique partner, or just procrastinating, it helps to have a task for yourself. Not just to make the waiting period go by faster, but so you don't feel completely useless by the end of it. Overachieving writing coaches out there always say, "Start a new project! Outline your next novel!" Certainly good advice. But if that sounds too daunting (and if you're in procrastination mode already, it will sound too daunting), may I suggest a different task? Something absolutely essential to your career as a writer, but--dare I say it--easy and fun??
What could this mysterious task be? you may ask. And where have you been all my life?
I'm talking about finding comparative (sometimes called comparable) titles. Technically, this is work. You must do it, and not just to have a well-rounded query letter or a good pitch-session at a conference. But finding your comparative titles need not feel like work. It only requires a love for reading (which you already have because you're a writer, obviously), plus some time. And luckily, when you're waiting around for something big to happen, time is one thing you have in spades.
A Book By Any Other Name
A comparative title, or "comp," is a book that's similar to yours. Imagine you've just read an amazing book--Leigh Bardugo's YA fantasy Shadow and Bone, for example--and you want to keep the good times rolling. You want to read something along the same lines, but just different enough to feel fresh and new. You might consider reading Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, or A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab. For writers, the comp title does the same thing, only in reverse: it helps convey, by comparison, what kind of book you've written to a potential reader, agent or editor.
Think of those book summaries you read inside jacket flaps, or on a book's Amazon or Goodreads page. That synopsis is crafted to entice you. Read me, you know you want to! You've no doubt seen comp titles sprinkled in there among the marketing copy. Why? Because people like seeing something familiar. If you see that this new book is the latest Night Circus, or perfect for fans of John Green, you might just perk up and pay attention.
In a query letter, a well-chosen comp title will get an agent or editor salivating to read more. Ooo, I've been wanting to see another book like that! But in a query letter, comp titles do even more. Your comp titles also demonstrate that you are a professional. You've read in your genre, and you're familiar with the market. You've given thought to this process. You, my friend--and your manuscript--are worthy of careful consideration. Are comp titles essential in a query letter? Not at all. But they help. It's a plus factor. In the publishing business, that's worth a lot...It might even make the difference between a hard pass and a second look.
Mission Not Impossible
Obviously, a comp title is only helpful if an agent recognizes it. And it wouldn't be much use if the comp title is, in fact, nothing like your book at all. So choosing your best comps becomes a balancing act.
The ideal comp will come from not only the same genre as your book, but the same sub-genre. It will be written in a similar style or tone. It'll also be fairly successful--don't compare your shiny new manuscript to a huge bomb that nobody read--but it also can't be too successful. A New York Times bestseller is great, but mega cultural phenomenons (like The Hunger Games and Harry Potter) are usually verboten. And, on top of all this, your ideal comp title will be something recent. As in, published in the last year or two.
Okay, maybe this task isn't quite as easy as I'd promised.
Don't overthink this. Of course your comp won't be exactly like your book. It just needs to be similar, which will be a subjective determination. But the good news? While choosing the perfect comp might be tricky, the process of finding it won't be hard at all. In fact, it's something you should be doing anyway. I'm talking about reading in your genre.
That doesn't sound so bad, right? As a starting point, read your genre. A lot. But never fear if you're reading broadly and still can't find that ideal comp. There are ways to target your reading so that you're more likely to come across a great comparative title to adorn your query letter.
First stop: Goodreads. Those "People who enjoyed..." sidebars are somewhat helpful. But I love to check out Goodreads lists that readers have made categorizing certain types of books. Lists like "Best YA Gothic Novels," "Time Travel Books," and "Accidentally Pregnant in Romance Novels." They can get pretty specific. Blessed are the list-makers!
Second stop: Amazon. Search for a book in your sub-genre, and check out the "also bought" section underneath the product info. I find tons of potential comps for my reading queue here. But be warned: you can lose hours clicking around in one "also bought" section after another. It's a labyrinth of beautiful book covers.
If that's not enough, ask librarians, bookstore employees, and fellow writers for their recommendations too. Then, get to reading! (And yes, you must have actually read the comp to put it on your query letter. Probably goes without saying. I hope.)
What happens if, after all that reading, you can't find the perfect, recent, New York Times bestselling comp for your manuscript? That's okay. You can get creative. Instead of mentioning a straight, one-to-one comp title in your query letter, try an "x meets y" formulation. Here, you can also bring in TV shows, movies, classic novels, Shakespearian plays--the possibilities truly become endless. I saw a sale in Publisher's Marketplace not long ago for a sci-fi pitched as "Harry Potter meets Star Trek." Seriously, how amazing does that sound?? And they even got to work in the forbidden Harry Potter comparison. It worked because it was in "x meets y" form (plus the authors were already bestsellers, but set that aside for the moment). Here's another example that is so great, I can't get over it: Kim Liggett's YA horror-romance novel Blood and Salt was pitched as "Romeo and Juliet meets Children of the Corn." Chills!
After all that reading--whether or not you found just the right comp--you'll truly know your genre. You'll have a list of potential agents, culled from the acknowledgments sections of books that you loved. If you've already sent out query letters, you'll have new ammo for your next round. Perhaps you'll have ideas for your next revision, too, or even for your next project. And, hopefully, you'll have had a blast.
Not a bad way to pass the time while you're waiting.