The Thief of Joy: Stop Comparing, Read… Write!

Josie Lynn  
Trad publishers require aspiring authors to provide "comps". This blog article (originally from my author site, digs under the surface of what's really going on…

Today I saw a thread from a publishing editor on Twitter, that talked about “comps” or “comparable authors”. Comps, it would seem, are a vital tool in the world of book publishing:

  • If you are an author submitting your manuscript to a publishing house, you need them to brief your potential publisher about who you are “like”.
  • If you are a bookseller, comps tell you where to shelve the book for optimum sales.

Which is all well and good so far. I can understand the purpose of Comps as a kind of shorthand for time-poor publishing insiders, as an information tool. Although I can imagine some interesting pitches…

“Dear Mr Warne, I hope you like my new book The Tale of Benjamin Bunny. It’s comparable with Watership Down and Donny Darko, because they’re all about rabbits. Best wishes, Beatrix.”

“Dear Bookseller, please display my Fifty Shades books in the DIY section alongside the Family Handyman’s Complete Do It Yourself Manual, because my two lead characters, Christian and Anastasia, are really skilled with cable ties and masking tape. Thanks, EL James”

I know that’s facetious. But I struggle with the contention made in the thread, that “everyone is like someone else”, and that there is nothing original in the world of writing, and that if a writer doesn’t know who they’re comparable to, then they haven’t read widely enough. Who did Jane Austen compare herself to? Chaucer? The writer of the Epic of Gilgamesh? Even more than this, I’m profoundly worried about the “rule” that Comps should only be made with books launched by mainstream houses (no indie authors, thank you very much!) in the last three years. Let’s try that one on for size…

Julia Quinn, author of the Bridgerton books which have been popularised on TV. A sexed-up Jane Austen, who was writing over 200 years ago… um, no. Because who the hell would know who Jane Austen was?

JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series. A kind of Enid Blyton’s school series meets Terry Pratchett’s Discworld meets Tolkein. Except Blyton was 1950s, Pratchett 1980s and Tolkein 1930s, and who in their right mind would read such a trio of geriatric fossils? Nope, nope and nope.

What worries me more than anything about this trend, this ignorant, reductionist, silly, closed-minded trend, is the fork-tongued message writers are being given, which seems to me to be this:

“You need to read lots of books, but only books that have been written in the last three years, and only books that have been released by a traditional publisher.”

So let’s unpick the messages in the sub-text:

  • Nothing older than three years is of value;
  • Nothing published outside the rigid genres set by the publishing houses is of value;
  • Nothing original is of value.

I’m tempted to add a fourth:

  • The chances of any of us publishing your work are overwhelmingly low, but let’s see if we can’t get you to spend a load of money buying books from us anyway.

Now, I’m no activist. I’m a petite, polite, mild-mannered Englishwoman in her fifties. But this pisses me off. Because I am a reader (I’ve been doing it most of my life), and I know a few things. Like, how many good books were published before 2019. Books I have loved, books I have disliked, books that have educated me and brought me joy. Books that have comforted me and enriched my life. Books it would be an honour to compare my own writing to. So my little revolution starts here.

I’m going to aspire to the best books I have ever read. The books that have changed my life. The books that are my best friends. And (whisper it) they’re all older than three…

I would love it if you joined me.

19+ Comments


Well said!

Nov-20 at 00:20


I too get frustrated with the comp thing. I do understand that it’s important for authors to read what’s selling now, as we’re writing for modern readers. Gotta have our finger on the pulse and all that. But I’m writing in a subgenre at the moment that will have me comping books that are multiple decades old. And I can do nothing to change that.

I think what I hate most about the comp thing, more than anything outlined here, is having to compare myself to better and more successful writers than me. I’ve said it before, but it’s almost as cringy as if dating sites asked you to comp your looks to famous celebrities. Cause yeah, standing in the shadow of some bombshell babe is totally going to make me look great in comparison! In the same vein, telling a publisher that I could hold a candle to the likes of Tolkien or F. Scott Fitzgerald or whoever just feels… intimidating. And fake.

Nov-20 at 00:29


Sorry to rain on the parade, but—

If you can’t compare your book to a book published by a traditional publisher, why would they accept your book? A bakery doesn’t sell pineapples.

If you can’t find a relevant, contemporary book to compare your book to, are you reading enough books in your genre? Do you really think your book is so unique that there’s nothing else like it? If so, then it probably isn’t publishable. Dairy Queen doesn’t serve onion icecream.

Books like Harry Potter are rare exceptions. If you think that’s what you’ve got, by all means, set yourself apart. Rowling got a lot of rejections. Be prepared for a long walk to get where you want to be. Publishing is a business, and businesses don’t like risk.

Jane Austen had plenty of contemporaries to compare herself to. She’s one of the few that we still read and remember—it doesn’t mean she was alone.

If you compare your work strictly to vintage authors like Austen, or Tolkien, or Dickens, don’t expect publishers to take an interest. Why? For the simple reason that they don’t publish books that are comparable to those authors. Walk into a bookstore and find a book that actually reads like Jane Austen. No, Bridgerton doesn’t qualify, not even close. This is like trying to get a record label interested in your pastiche of 17th century chamber music. It’s already been done by the greatest to ever do it.

Publishers love originality. But even original works have comparisons, and being able to make comps is proof that you are well-read and knowledgeable.

But besides all of that—not every agent or publisher even cares about comps. There’s no rule that you have to put comps in your query letter. And if your query is good enough, you might get away with a comp that is supposedly bad. Like comping your book to, say, the TV Show “Scream Queens” and George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Who knows? The business isn’t as tyrannical as you portray it to be. You just need one person to get interested at first. Maybe you query an agent who dreams about representing the modern-day Lawrence Sterne.

I don’t agree that comps are a blanket requirement, and I have to say, this blog post pushes that narrative a bit just on its own. “Down with comps!” Well, not everyone does comp…

But if you are writing in contemporary genre, and querying traditionally, a good comp could be the difference. Avoid it at your peril…

Nov-20 at 01:13


Being extremely new to this world of book publishing and writing, I had no idea about this practice. Since all this information is so brand new to me, I don’t have any useful insights. But I’m glad to know about this at the very least so I am just posting a comment here, to show my appreciation.

Nov-20 at 04:42


I enjoyed this post and agree with a lot of it.

From what I’ve heard comps are often asked for, but perhaps more within the past 10 years, rather than three. Personally, I’d view it even looser than that. I see no problem with comparing against an older work, providing you say why you are doing so. Why not say your book is set in a world similar to Tolkien with similar plotline to Jane Austein (now, there’s an idea :rofl:)

For one of my own comps I sneakily got round it by comparing my work to the Young Sherlock Holmes series. This is a modern work, but is obviously connecting my work to a nineteenth century work. But of course here’s the problem with comps that are new, rather than using classics: the agent might not have heard of them, so they are meaningless to them. Thankfully with this comp, the title tells you what it is like.

Nov-20 at 08:34


Now this is a scary bit after everything I have done over the past four years. I think my work is a cross between Janet Grey and Garth NIx. Garth Nix is more contemporary, but Janet Grey’s work is over seventy years old.

Nov-20 at 09:45


From what I read some years back, you can get away with one of your comps being a, sill popular, older novel as long as your other comps are more contemporary.

I guess that’s where researching the agent comes in, if you can comp from something they’ve shown interest in then even better. If your comps aren’t things they’re likely to have read, maybe they’re not the best agent for you.

Nov-20 at 10:35


I’m glad to hear this. Its not that I object to rewriting my book, but I love the Janet Grey bit. Its the motivation for much of the characters’ behaviour.

This is somewhat strange though. Wouldn’t it be in the agent’s best interest to have a look at the comp if the story is good? I’m not even sure what the point of the comp is. Just because two books have the same genre, theme, setting or background doesn’t mean they are equally good. I am not saying I disagree (I don’t have enough knowledge on this topic to know either way), I am just saying I don’t understand why the comp matters.

Nov-20 at 11:45


I’m not and why is that bad? I prefer the classics. Are they interested in my erudition and library or in my writing?

I did pick a couple of comps, which do not quite comply with the guidelines mentioned above (one of them was Romeo and Juliet, and the agent I spoke to had no problem with that). This is not to say I wrote another R&J, of course, but there are clear plot references.
My second, 10-years old comp had plot similarities, but the agent said she expected a similar style. I’m not going to read 400 moderately successful modern novels to find something that probably compares.

I understand comps are yet another shortcut to tell the agent about the book. Not all of them seem to care about comps that much. IMO, comps are pretty secondary to other considerations.

Nov-20 at 12:18


I can’t agree with this blog post at all. It boils down to those points:

  • Nothing older than three years is of value;
  • Nothing published outside the rigid genres set by the publishing houses is of value;
  • Nothing original is of value.

If you know books published in the last few years, it means you’re up to date with your reading, things that are popular, and you basically know what’s what. If your story is a “Shakespearean tale of woe”, well, that’s great, but contemporary readers don’t want to read more Shakespeare, and if they do, they read… Shakespeare. Publishing books is a business, so the agents have to go with the trends. If I, a fantasy writer, will go and say: my book is similar to Joe’s Abercrobie “First Law” Trilogy, but with a sprinkle of epic world-building from Brandon Sanderson, they will immediately know what I’m talking about. They will mull over whether they are willing to give a mix like that a chance, because that’s what they were looking for at the moment, and that is way simpler.

The rigid genres are also a way to simplify things for the readers. Readers, in general, like to read stories within predetermined parameters. It’s not a secret people like things that are familiar to them, so going overboard with both originality and genre-bending means the sales might tank. As an avid fantasy and science fiction reader, I can say there were some attempts to introduce new stuff in the last few decades, for example a genre called New Weird, but most of those books quite simply tanked, because they were weird. Changes occur at a glacial pace in the book industry, which is why a fresh take on a well-established genre or theme will almost always sell better than something experimental and crazy. Just for the record, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter isn’t as original as people think. It uses well-known motifs from numerous stories. There was even talk about some plagiarized stuff, but it died down, along with the money pouring into the “Wizard World”. It was simply a well told story.

  • The chances of any of us publishing your work are overwhelmingly low, but let’s see if we can’t get you to spend a load of money buying books from us anyway.

This strikes me as weird, because of two words: public libraries. Even in my backwater country the libraries are quite decently stocked, and they have many new titles. Sometimes, there’s a waiting list, but it’s not like you can’t wait a month or two to lend a book for free. I’ve been to American libraries, and they were well beyond what we have here, so I reckon it’s the same in UK.

Nov-20 at 12:25


Hey, is it okay to say that I write like George R. R. Martin, but without the 40+ years of experience?

Nov-20 at 12:48


But comps aren’t meant for this. You can say your story might appeal to George R. R. Martin’s readers, because you use multiple POVs in an epic fantasy story spanning decades. That’s not the same.

Nov-20 at 13:06


I was just being silly. :slight_smile:

Nov-20 at 13:08


As understand it, the comp is like saying “if you liked X then you’ll like this”, so it’s in your interests for the agent to know some/most of your comps. If they like your book without the comps then that’s great, but the comp is part of your sails pitch so there’s little point in it if the agent doesn’t know what they are.
Would it at all sway a you decision to check out a book if I said, “it’s a similar style to Rick Burrows’ Alan Wake” (a book I’m guessing you had no idea existed)?

Based on what I’ve heard, the Comp is both a way of seeing where you would place your book, and how much research you have done into your the current state of the market your trying to get into.

Nov-20 at 13:08


Ok, I understand.

So I guess this means a writer should see the comp as an opportunity rather than a hindrance.

And Shotgun said if you read enough, there is a comp for you. I think what he says has considerable truth to it, because I just realised that Sophie Cleverly, a contemporary writer, has recently published The Scarlet and Ivy series, which is very similar to Janet Grey’s work. Its not quite the same, but its close enough for a comparison.

Nov-20 at 13:31


[[Who did Jane Austen compare herself to? Chaucer? ]]

Pretty much every writer can be compared to SOMEONE.

You could compare Jane Austen to Charlotte Brontë or George Elliot.

You could compare Chaucer to the Pearl poet, Langland, and Mandeville.

I accept this is just part of the marketing game, and sometimes it gets silly, but that’s marketing.

And there is no requirement for anyone to take part in the comp game. If you don’t want to compare your work to anyone else, just don’t.

You just have to accept that if you choose not to play the comp game, it may reduce your chances of landing an agent, getting a traditional publisher, or getting readers.

I tend to look at this stuff very practically: (1) What am I trying to accomplish? (2) What is the most effectively and efficient route to point 1. If coming up with comps for my work will help me accomplish a goal (get an agent, get a publisher, get readers), I simply view that task as a necessary part of the job.

Nov-20 at 18:05


That used to be the publisher’s job. I guess you can cater to their urge to put it off onto you, but how does that reflect on the effort they’ll put into what they still think is their job?

Nov-20 at 18:30


Publishers aren’t looking for classics, that’s all. There is absolutely nothing wrong with writing a book inspired by classic literature that you love. Just that in business terms, there’s not a lot of appetite in the market for stuff like that. You basically admit it yourself—you prefer the classics. If someone like you doesn’t buy modern novels, who is going to buy your book?

I think people look at this stuff on a much too personal level, which is only natural. But a publisher looks at trends and statistics, sales numbers, projections. Virtually every successful author reads a ton of books in their genre, so if—for instance—an author pitches them a YA book while admitting they don’t read YA, the publisher might just reject it without a second thought because the numbers don’t line up. Frankly, it’s baffling to me when people think they can write modern, marketable literature without reading it, and a lot of it. Whenever I read interviews with successful authors, they inevitably mention the hours spent every day reading books, not purely for enjoyment, but for research, for technique and style.

Romeo & Juliet is a special case for a comp, because the story is an extremely basic and popular one that has modern adaptations. You could also just say “star-crossed lovers” and get your point across. But it says nothing about what kind of book you’ve written.

Nov-20 at 18:50


Thanks, Josie for the humorous blog post. I struggle to find a good comp title in my genre of women’s fiction. The category ranges widely from romance (nope, not like mine), to cozy mystery (again, not a good comparison). I’m still searching and found your 3 points very helpful (timeframe, traditionally published, and where it fits on the bookshelf). I agree those parameters are a marketing tactic but also think the comp requirement shows the publisher right away that the author has researched the shelf position as well as demonstrated they read enough to somewhat validate abilities. I’ve found several books that I could comp, but they fail to meet all 3 points.

Nov-20 at 20:54
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