Chip MacGregor

May 30, 2012

How do I use Comparative Titles in my Proposal?


Someone wrote to ask, “Why are you calling it a ‘competitive titles’ works section, when we used to call it a ‘comparative works’ section?” My answer: Either works. The goal is simply that the author is trying to help the publisher see that MY book is like HIS book, or that MY book appeals to the same audience as HER book. So you’re comparing titles, in order to give your proposal some context in the mind of the acquisitions editor.

 With that in mind, let me suggest some traps to avoid:

Don’t pick a book that has sold more than 250,000 copies. Ifyou’ve writing a juvie book and compare it to Harry Potter, you’re going to look stupid (“Rowling sold a bazillion copies, so I can too!”). Anything that has sold that many copies isn’t a competitor, it’s a conqueror. Ignore it and use something else.

Don’t pick a book that has sold twelve copies. That suggests to the editor that “nobody cares about this topic.” Hey, Solomon once told us the writing of books is endless. So if there has never been a successful book on the United States Parrot Importation Act, there’s probably a reason.

Don’t ignore the obvious successes. If you’re doing a military historical novel on the Battle of Gettysburg, it would be pretty dumb to leave off Michael Shaara’s Killer Angels. That sends the message to the editor that you don’t really know your field.

Don’t make snarky comments about other books. I often see that, and it’s annoying to have some unpublished wannabe send me something that says, “THIS book was successful, but it’s not nearly as good as mine,” or “THIS book sold 100,000 copies, but the author does a poor job with dialogue.” A comparative analysis section isn’t a review of everything on the market — it’s simply a vehicle for helping the editor know how to position your particular title. 

Don’t guess about facts if you use one of the publisher’s own books. In other words, if you’re going to send something to Little, Brown, and you want to use Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian as a comparable title, make sure you have all your facts correct. Because you’ll look like a bonehead if you state the book came out in 2002, the author’s name was “Kosovo,” and sales were 50,000. (All of those facts are wrong.)

Don’t be afraid to use a publisher’s own titles. If you have a suspense novel that you’re trying to sell to Thomas & Mercer, by all means reference their Vince Zandri titles. (Vince writes in the genre and has sold more than a boatload of e-books to thriller readers.) It will immediately help them understand the audience for your project.

Again, the goal here is to help a publisher get a frame of reference for your book. It’s a way of stating, “My book is similar to these five titles, that have all seen success in the marketplace. There is clearly interest in this type of book, and your house has done well with this genre in the past.” You’re basically making the editor’s job easy for him or her. It won’t be the deciding factor in whether or not they publish your book (for that I suggest you come up with a good story and some great writing), but it helps move your proposal along. One less reason for them to say no.

And let me finish this with a true story: A young writer sends me a fairly well done YA fantasy proposal, and his competitive titles are The Lord of the Rings and The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. When I suggest to him that he might want to change to something a little less iconic, he replies, “Actually, my books are MUCH BETTER than those two titles — but they’re the only ones that come close to my work.” Gag.


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  • Okay, here’s another question for you, Chip. Rather than focusing on particular books, wouldn’t it be more pragmatic to gather statistics on the genre? Honestly, the series (romantic drama/comedy) that I am in the process of writing could be unique–do I really have to sift through tons of books to try to find something that is similar? If I had to describe the series, I would say the stories have the psychology/emotional depth similar to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, but they take place in today’s world among families who are loosely connected to each other. I’m really not trying to be difficult–I just want to be a wise steward of my time. 

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Statistics on a genre? No. Sorry. A publisher isn’t going to contract a legal thriller because “legal thrillers are hot.” They’re going to contract a book because they LIKE it. So yes, you dig through the genre to find some comparables, in order to give the editor context for your book. (And an aside: I would not compare my book to PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. Too big, too old, too iconic. I’d stick with some of the P&P knock-offs of recent vintage, or choose other books that show some similarities to the genre. Saying “My book is a lot like Jane Austen’s novel” seems a bit overdone, I think. One man’s opinion.)

    • Okay–since I’ve been teaching British Literature, Jane Austen is in my frame of reference, much more than contemporary novels. And, I have found that there are a lot of readers who adore her books. However, my stories are contemporary, and really the only similarity is in the focus on the “psychology” and “emotional depth” of the story. In other words, my characters are not in any physical danger, but do they have to work through some significant predicaments before everything works out. And watching them work things out will pull at the heart strings of the readers. Thanks for being patient with me. Two more days of school and then my actual writing will begin!

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