Go Pro is a blog series in which I talk about the craft and business of writing books for kids. Last week, I talked about query letters, and posted a template for you to follow. This week, I want to get a little bit into one of the nitty gritty aspects of query letters: naming comparable titles for your manuscript! How to choose the right comp titles?
Once you understand why comp titles belong in a query letter, this becomes easier. So here's the thing you need to know:
Comp titles aren't there to sell the person you're querying on the idea of your book. Comp titles are there to give the agent or editor you're querying a sense of what shelf your book would sit on, and of who the audience for your book might be.
There are three ways a book can be similar to another book: theme, i.e. back-to-school or kids-doing-science or coming-of-age; tone, i.e. lyrical or laugh-out-loud funny or straight-forwardly informative; and genre, i.e. spy adventure or fantasy or anthropomorphic animals.* For each comp title, PICK TWO.
I can't stress this enough. PICK EXACTLY TWO. If you pick one, your book isn't going to be similar enough, and the person you query will think you don't know what you're talking about or you don't read widely enough to know what you're doing. (And maybe you don't read widely enough. Do you read widely? Read even more widely. Read every day.) They'll see Captain Underpants as a comp and expect something hilarious and cheeky with underdog superheroes and maybe some toilet humor, and if the only thing your book has in common is superheroes, they're going to be disappointed by your book. (I made EXACTLY this mistake, and the agent I queried did me the honor and favor of telling me that this was why he passed. I've never forgotten that lesson.)
And if you pick all three, the agent or editor you're querying will see your work as derivative and unoriginal. (And if there are a lot of titles out there that are similar to yours in all three areas, maybe your book IS derivative and unoriginal. Does your book have a fresh take on this theme? Does it bring something new to the table? If it doesn't, then maybe what you need to do is write a new book.) Furthermore, if one or more of your comps are in their list (and it's good if at least one of your comps is in their list), and it's comparable to your book in all three key areas, then they have to say no to you, because their obligation is to the books already in their list and yours is so close it will be competing with that book. (Jennifer Laughran, an agent at Andrea Brown Literary Agency, has blogged about this. You should read it.)
They don't want to say no to you, so don't give them a reason to say no.
A terrible example of how to list comp titles is: "This book is the next Harry Potter!" (Because we don't need another Harry Potter, we already have the first one.) Or: "This book, which takes place at a boarding school for young wizards, will appeal to fans of Harry Potter."
But a good way to list comp titles would be: "This book blends the wizardry of Harry Potter with the slapstick potty humor of Captain Underpants, but with a girl hero."
Tell them what's similar (kids in school, where the conflict is often between them and the rule-makers in their lives, and fantasy elements, and slapstick humor), but also tell them what makes your book stand out (the main character is a girl, in a genre dominated by boys).
Also: it's okay if one of your comp titles is a blockbuster, but it's best if they aren't all blockbusters. It shows that you don't have unrealistic expectations for the success of your book. It's okay to dream, and we all do, but nobody wants to work with a diva who EXPECTS Five-Star Treatment before their first book has even been sold. And the market is impossible to predict, so appreciate the good stuff when it happens, but be realistic in your expectations.
That's it! Simple.
If you have any questions, drop them in the comments. And good luck!
*Jennifer Laughran has also blogged about this, and you should read that post, which is here.