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The Elusive Comp Book

For my readers who are not also writers, this blog heading will likely make little sense. Allow me to explain. The expression “comp book” is an abbreviation for a comparable or competitive book, i.e. a book similar to yours in theme or voice, but especially genre. It is a book whose readers would also enjoy your book.

Why does this matter? Well, when you query an agent, they will want you to mention at least two comp books for your manuscript. By naming well-known books that are similar to yours, you give the agent an instant and clear idea of the essence of your manuscript. It also tells the agent you know your market. Readers of popular books will want more of the same fare. If your book has something similar to offer, you can tap into an existing market more easily. That is great news for the agent who is going to be promoting your manuscript to publishers, for whom sales are everything.

Simple, yes? Hold on, not so fast. You need to choose books that are successful. After all, the agent should know of this book. However, you should avoid hugely successful books like Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. Authors should be confident, but not suffer from delusions of grandeur. Also, it is best to choose a book that has been published traditionally. Self-published books can be very successful, but if you’re looking for an agent, you don’t want to promote books that didn’t use one!

Finally, the comp book has to have been published within the last two years. The agent needs to be confident that the target market has enjoyed the comp book recently, so that there is a strong likelihood your manuscript will ride that wave and sell well, too.

Fair enough, you say, what’s the problem? The answer is this: sometimes a book takes longer than expected to write and revise. When you started it, your genre celebrated themes like yours. You had comp books a-plenty in mind. Meanwhile, maybe three years have passed. Maybe even more. (This is surprisingly common, as most authors only write part-time.) At last, you feel your work is polished enough to query. However, to your horror, you discover that the comp-book well is dry. The examples you had in mind were published five years ago. You can no longer use them as current comp books. And an Amazon search reveals that all the new-release books in your genre niche are self-published.

Now what? Well, some agents don’t require comp books. Or you could self-publish. But the danger in the absence of comp books is really that the market might have shifted. In all likelihood, this is a sign that your book is not going to find a large enough audience, even if you publish it yourself.

The sad truth is that your manuscript may have to rest awhile, waiting for a possible resurgence in popularity. This might feel like a terrible blow, but all the work you put into that book was not wasted. You next project will likely progress far more quickly as you plough your writing, editing, and querying experience into it.

The easiest way to avoid such a situation from (re-)occurring is to read, read, read! Stay up-to-date on the latest offerings in your genre. Watch those trends.

For those of you who are muttering under their breath, easy for you to say, let me admit that this is wisdom I have acquired the hard way. The young-adult series that I have been readying to query, fell victim to these circumstances. Nine years of work halted abruptly. The good news is that this is an excellent opportunity to learn from my experience and throw my energy fully into my Austenesque romances. In the next few months, revisions on my first manuscript should be complete, and I can set my sights on querying with comp books at the ready!

Take heart, fellow writers, there is more than one path to publication. And, my patient readers, perhaps I am one step closer to having my work in print for you to savor at last. So, off I go to chip away at it some more. Thanks for listening. It’s good to know you’re out there, at the other end of these sentences. I couldn’t do it without you.

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