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.