Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Query comps, or "Mommy, who do I look like?"

By Julie 

Just in case you missed it, I finished a manuscript and have been intensely studying feedback and making revisions in hopes of sending agent queries soon. Along with making revisions and final touch-ups, I’m beginning to get really serious about my pitch—the title, the logline, the synopsis (eek), and yes, the query letter. The query letter is the short document one sends to agents (or sometimes editors) to grab their attention. The goal is for agents to request your manuscript, then become so excited about it, they offer representation in finding a publisher.

A query letter is similar to the cover letter you might send with a résumé, except you don’t get to/need to send a résumé along with it. The query letter has several critical parts. The blogosphere has MORE than covered the subject, so I won't go into much detail. For me, the novel is an entity kind of like a person. When selling your story to an agent or a publisher, the important things about her need to be clear in your query letter. For fun, let’s break it down by body parts.

Here are the crucial items that make up an individual and how they might relate to a novel manuscript: 

Name = Title (duh)
Stats = Word count, genre
Brain = The author’s voice
Blood = The author’s passion for the subject, including relevant experience or research
Heart = The themes and conflicts that make the story tick  
Guts = The story itself. The plot. The “what happens?”  

Now, are we missing anything obvious? Of course we are. We’re missing, in short, the skin. The outward appearance. The “What or who does she look like?” 

So … for purposes of this blog post:  

Skin = Comps  

And that’s what I’m concerned with for the moment. In your query letter, comps are other books you might compare yours to (or sometimes an author who you believe writes like you). The word is used in short form so widely, I’m not completely sure what the long version is. I’d assume “comparable titles or authors.” But in publishing jargon, it’s simply comps. And comps can be tricky. Very tricky. In fact, when I do an Internet search on “query comps,” not much comes up at all. But while not mandatory, using comps can be a useful tool in your query letter. 

Look at it like this: If you were single and decided to try online dating, first you’d check out the profiles. Profiles are kind of like query letters—a really short opportunity to present oneself to the field of available candidates and hope the right person bites. Imagine this internal conversation I might have while looking at online profiles (though I'm already very happily married ... to a guy I met online!):

Check this dude out. “My ex-girlfriends often compare my looks to George Clooney, Brad Pitt, or Matthew McConaughey.” Uh huh, really? NEXT!

Oh, here’s one. But … “I look just like my neighbor from down the street—Joe Jones. He’s a great guy.” Who the heck is Joe Jones? And why do I care?! Nnnnnext! 

Maybe him? Let’s see what he says. “I’ve been told I look a little like Topher Grace. You know, that guy from In Good Company and That 70s Show? I guess I can see it.” Okay, now we’re cooking. Topher Grace is pretty cute. Not the biggest name in Hollywood, but I like him! This guy sounds confident, but not arrogant. This could work … what else does he have to say about himself?

Coming up with comps is something like that. You don’t want to send the agent into hysterical laughter, or worse, tempt him or her use a trigger finger to delete the query before even reading the rest of it because you came across as arrogant in the comps you chose and how you worded the comparisons. At the same time, you don’t want to use such obscure comps the agent has to look them up on Amazon. (Which she likely won’t do unless she’s having a really boring day, and we know how often those happen in agentland.) 

So how do you find the happy medium? Comps that aren’t so outrageously successful they make you look like a dummy for using them, yet known enough that the agent might nod her head enthusiastically and say, “I gotta get this manuscript. NOW.” Here’s an example of another kind of conversation. Not an actual conversation, mind you, more like a combo of several I’ve had recently with my critique partners, using actual titles I’ve considered as comps for my manuscript.  

Julie: What do you think about The Memory Keeper’s Daughter? Or The History of Love? Maybe Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. I mean, I have alternating timelines and points of view, forbidden/lost love, secrets waiting to be uncovered.
Critique Partner: Those are good, but some of those are pretty big. Maybe too big. Runaway bestsellers. You might come across as arrogant. I also kind of think of Saving CeeCee Honeycutt or The Secret Life of Bees.  
Julie: Really? How is it like those? Oh, wait, you mean kind of because of the tone and location? Kind of southern? Oh, and because of the younger voice and the mentor characters?
Critique Partner: Exactly!
Julie: Well, those are big, too. Secret Life was a movie.  
Critique Partner: Speaking of books into movies … I could kind of see The Notebook. In fact, I could really see it, but don’t tell you-know-who how much I loved that movie.  
Julie: Me, toooooo! And don’t worry, your secret is safe. I won’t tell if you won't tell I loved the book, too! But talk about huge. Could I get away with that?  
Critique Partner: It kind of depends on how you word it. *Sigh.* I don’t know. I have no idea.
Julie: I know. If it’s not big, the agent may not have even heard of it. I mean, I thought about (title redacted to protect the innocent author).
Critique Partner: What? Never heard of it! 
Julie: Like you said, exactly. So, what do I do? Do I just have to pick lesser-known works and hope for the best, or is it all about how it’s worded? You know, “My story might appeal to readers who enjoyed The History of Love, or readers who like novels by Kim Edwards might enjoy this story.”
Critique Partner: Even then, you have to be careful.
Julie: UNCLE! I give up. Back to revisions.  

So, as you can see. It’s pretty tricky to manage this part of the process.  

Readers, how do YOU manage it? How did you decide, or how will you decide what to use as comps in your query letters? Do you have any links to great articles about how to pick comps? Please share!

Photo credits: by Creative Commons License/Samantha Steele's and Speshul Ted's Flickr photostreams.


  1. Ah, very tricky, very tricky indeed. I picked a comp that was most like mine in structure (two timelines, including one distant historical) rather than tone or voice. But to be honest, I don't know if it made much difference including a comp. I left out the comp on half my queries and had the same number of requests. When I'm ready to query for my next, I'll probably only include a comp for agents who specifically ask for it in their guidelines.

    As for your struggle, I think Memory Keeper's Daughter is still an obtainable comp. Successful, but not blockbuster. Your wording sounded good!

  2. I once pitched a manuscript to an agent at a conference and compared my writing to two authors. She responded with: "They don't even write the same." (insert awkward pause here)

    It's so dicey. Makes me want to write: It's like THE HELP but not that good, but better than that one book everybody loved that was horribly written.

    I think Jenna's onto something. Only list a comp if the agent's submission guidelines ask for one.

  3. Julie, I can't wait to read your book. As far as comps go within a query, I suggest not listing any unless asked. I'm going to have to deal with them because I'm currently writing a memoir, but at this point plan to only include them in my book proposal and not in the initial query unless an agent requests I do so.

  4. Good idea on checking out the guidelines and possibly leaving it out altogether, ladies!

    Pamela ... eek! How awkward!

  5. Enjoyed your post. You know, you could think of this task more as positioning your story rather than comparing it: "Fans of gritty worlds like those in X's novels will find the world in my novel appealing." Then you get the comparison without inviting the agent/editor to knee-jerk agree or disagree with it.

  6. Thanks DearEditor, a/k/a Deborah Halverson, writer and editor extraordinaire! So glad you found us. I love your site.

    This is a great suggestion. I'll be thinking about ways I can do that!

  7. Thanks for the great post! I linked to it here:


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