Comparable Titles: Why Literary Agents Want Them

Comparable titles, agents love ’em, writers hate ’em.

They are a required part of my submission form, so I’ve seen the gambit of writers attempting to get out of answering the question. Multiple “n/a,” several “I don’t know,” and more than I care to count of “my manuscript has no comparable.” Even had annoyed emails asking why agents ask writers to jump through so many hoops.

There is a staggering amount of advice on how to query agents online, including how to choose your comparable titles. Search “comparable titles query” and multiple posts by successful writers and legitimate agents pop up.

Rather than regurgitate this easily accessible information, I’ll focus on what comps mean to me when considering a submission.

Whittling down submissions is like any other job application process, first the applicant has to meet the bottom line. I developed my submission form to ensure those that queried me already fit the mold of clients I’m looking for. It’s not a perfect system, but it works for the most part. I do have the occasional chuckle at some of the gaffes I’ve seen especially, as mentioned above, with the answers to the comparable titles section. Don’t worry though, there is only one answer to this section that will actually get you an auto-reject. To win this distinction you have to be an author who claims there is no comparable to your book, i.e. your manuscript is totally unique.

Not only is this not true, it’s incredibly egotistical on the part of the author, and that kind of ego is not one I want to work with. Close behind these “one of a kind” types are writers who say they are the next big franchise series, e.g. “My book is the next Harry Potter.” Perhaps it’s not their ego, but they might have the expectation that they will make the kind of money JK Rowlings does. And their agent will be expected to fulfill this dream or die trying under a mountain of anxious and demanding emails.

Answers such as “n/a” or “I don’t know” may not win you any points, but I won’t toss your sub. I will assume however that you are either lazy (not a great first impression) or unknowledgeable about the publishing industry (which makes me wary as I’m looking for long-term clients i.e. understand the time it takes to get published and the professional demands of being an author).

Moving on to authors who actually come up with comp book titles. First, thank you for trying. It is appreciated.

Those of you who use my clients’ work as comps. Clever idea, however be aware that I know these works more intimately than almost anything else on the shelves. I’ve helped edit, revise, flesh out characters, even out pacing, catch plot holes, develop marketing copy, title it and so on and so on. If you’re using one of them as a comp, be damn sure you’ve read it and your manuscript really does compare. Because I sure as hell will. . . and kudos for having the cajones. 

Then there’s the chart-toppers like Divergent and Game of Thrones. These are over-used, and will not give your sub any distinction. I guarantee the past five fantasy submissions used GoT as a comp, so I’ll just glaze over these. Or there’s the old, even out-dated comps like Wicked or The Hobbit. I don’t mind these as much as many agents seem to, it at least shows me the author knows vaguely who their target audience is. What prevents old comps from adding to your submission package is that the odds that I know the editor are slim, and the imprint that first published these books may not be publishing similar books currently or may even be defunct.

Because that’s really why agents want to see comparable titles. If they are good, nay great, comps, then they will give us an instant idea of who and where to send it to. Recent books like The Star-Touched Queen and Certain Dark Things have both been mentioned or reviewed by me online. I know the editors of these books and I know the imprints that published them. If your book is comparable, then you have honed in on the right agent.

Mexico City vampires! Can’t wait to read this. #bookstagram #diadelosmuertos 💀💀💀

A photo posted by Mary C. Moore (@marycmoore) on


Not that I’m expecting you to stalk my social media or have perfect knowledge of what I’ve read recently. But if you write in the genre I represent and you choose comps that are moderately successful titles from the past year or two in that genre, chances are I’ve read them or at least heard of them and so know who published them. (If not, that’s on me.)

In closing, if you use recently published successful books as comps, they can really make your submission stand out of the pile. But if you don’t manage that, it’s okay. I’ll still consider your submission.

7 Comments

  • Joel J. Adamson

    January 16, 2017 at 12:46 pm Reply

    It may be hard for writers to come up with comp titles if they’ve spent two or three years trying to write something totally original. The details that stand out as unique in their work are, to them, unique, and hard to characterise. I often see agents characterising books in rather large-scale ways and I find that really difficult as a writer. Just because my book has a particular kind of protagonist or world, it’s hard to say it’s really comparable in the way I might want it to be.

    It’s tough, but your post makes it a little easier. Thank you.

    • Mary C. Moore

      January 16, 2017 at 11:12 pm Reply

      Writers often stress over comparable titles, because as you said, you worked hard to make your story unique and it’s difficult and unappealing to find a similar already published book. Hopefully what people take away from this post is that agents aren’t looking for an exact comparison. We simply want to see you know your book’s market, i.e. whose going to read it (and by extension which editor/publisher would buy it).

      • Joel J. Adamson

        January 17, 2017 at 6:23 am Reply

        Hi, thanks for the reply. Now I’m really glad I read your blog because it spurred me to do more research on how comps should compare. The book I’m querying now has a 23 year-old queen as the protagonist, so naturally I looked for or thought of other books with young female authority figures. None of the books I had as comps had a similar level of complexity or dark serious tone, subtle magic or erotic spirituality, or a comparable style. I was thinking entirely in terms of plot and aspects of characters. Now I have a much better idea of what’s unique about my book and what comparable titles are.

  • Michael K. Eidson

    January 6, 2017 at 8:16 am Reply

    Mary, I appreciate this post. How to determine comp titles for my WIP is becoming clearer the more I read about why they are wanted. I’d wondered if it would be all right to use YA books as comp titles if my WIP is for adults, and it sounds like the answer is no, because the target audience isn’t right, even though a good number of adults, myself included, read YA novels. What’s your take on that? If you received a submission of adult fantasy and the provided comp titles were YA fantasy, would those comps be of any use to you?

    • Mary C. Moore

      January 8, 2017 at 7:06 am Reply

      It depends on the comp. A YA comp might work if it’s given as “X novel written for an adult audience.” This especially if you have a solid second adult comp. However avoid using more than one YA comp as then you’re getting in the wrong territory.

  • Karen Yakey

    January 5, 2017 at 9:52 am Reply

    Hi Mary, great article and the explanation is appreciated! (I was also tickled by the “Black Books” gifs.) I’ve had my comp list ready, most of all in terms of thematic and tonal similarities, but it’s refreshing to be able to pull back the curtain on the Agent Brain and understand the actual practicality of providing titles that are akin to your own work. Plus, let’s face it: The whole exercise of book comparison basically forces a writer to step back and look objectively at her beloved creation, just as an agent would do, and realize that perhaps she’s down a few more notches on the “uniqueness” scale than she thought. Not a bad thing. You can still be just as passionate about your novel, but I’m guessing that come-to-Jesus moment will help you pitch it better.

    • Mary C. Moore

      January 8, 2017 at 7:08 am Reply

      Love me some Black Books! 😁

      Happy to hear this was useful. Sounds like you’re on the right track.

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