Wednesday, August 24, 2016

My Book's Kinda Like...but not Really

A popular post from February 2010. 

By Josi S. Kilpack

Do you write JUST like Dan Brown? Is your next book the NEXT Harry Potter? If so, my condolences. We already have Dan Brown and Harry Potter, and no one needs a replacement. However, when you get the phase of querying agents/editors you need to help them identify who you are and what you write, which is where comparisons come in. But there is a right way and a wrong way to make those comparisons.

Wrong:
  • I write exactly like Shannon Hale.
  • My book is better than Lovely Bones.
  • My book will outsell Twilight.
  • Have you ever wished you'd published John Grisham's first novel? Well here's your chance to do even better!

Saying things like that sounds a little like Vincini in Princess Bride, and we all know how that ended:

"Have You Ever Heard of Plato? Aristotle? Socrates? Morons!"

But agents/editors DO want comparisons, they need to know how you measure yourself against other books, and the books you choose says a lot about what you write, who your target audience is, and whether or not you are paying attention to your competition. Which brings us to the other Wrong way of facilitating comparisons:

  • My book is like nothing you've ever read before.
  • My book is a fresh new genre.
  • There's nothing like this on the market

Now, there are some books that really are unlike anything else out there, now and then someone does make up a new genre--but even THEY have something to compare to. Twilight was new to many of us, but vampire books have been around for a long time. The Firm was also unique, but there had been other books that used law as the backdrop to the story. Shannon Hale's adapted fairy tales were new and different, but they are based on fairy tales which have been around for a very long time.

Never mind that when you say you're "As good as...", or "The next..." you come across as arrogant and, probably, deluded. You are NOT Stephenie Meyer. You might write as well she does, and you might tell a similar story, but you are NOT her because you haven't sold 18 million books.

Is that horse dead, yet? Good, then we can continue.

In Real Estate, appraisers use other homes around you to estimate the value of your home when they work up an appraisal. Your home might be worth two million dollars...in Beverly Hills, but it's not in Beverly Hills. If homes similar to yours are selling for $300K, asking for 2 million will not get you the result you're looking for. Book comparisons are similar; you are pointing out the 'value' and 'market' and 'genre' of your book by comparing it to other books in the neighborhood.

The other benefit of comparisons is that it reflects your market saavy. You need to know the market you want to publish in, which is why when writers say "There's nothing like this in the market" industry people roll their eyes. There probably is something out there, similar in some way, you just haven't done your research. Agents/editors want to know that YOU know your market and your potential competition--comparisons show them that you understand this.

So, how do you compare the right way. Understanding why comparisons are important is the first step. Knowing your overall market is the next. The third step is finding the right comparisons. People (including me in this post) tend to go with very popular books most people are familiar with. This isn't bad thing, but keep in mind the people you are querying know that John Grisham isn't the only legal thriller writer out there, and Harry isn't the only kid with a wand. As you learn your market, look for books that might not be on the NY Times Bestseller list but have really good reviews. Look for books that might not have caught the spotlight in America, but sold well in foreign markets. Not only does this set you apart in that you're not the 39th writer that week comparing yourself to Angels and Demons, but it shows that you have really learned your market and that selling 400 million copies isn't your only goal; you also appreciate the power of good writing, and good reviews. Agents/editors know about the mid-list books out there, so you'll impress them in that fact that you're paying attention on a deeper level than most. And it's often in these mid-list layers where you'll find the best comparisons to your book anyway, better helping the agent/editor get a feel for what your book is about. NEVER say your book is "Just like" any other book, because if it's "Just like" another book, then why would they want to publish another one?

To find comparisons go to Amazon.com or your local library and peruse books by genre, ask a librarian, check out reader lists, or even google "Middle grade apocalyptic fantasy novel" and see what comes up. Be sure to read the books you choose to compare yours to. It would not do well for you to say your book was similar to a book is had nothing in common with. But don't overwhelm yourself. You should be able to find a couple books or writers that will work well for you--you don't want more than a few comparisons anyway because YOUR book is the focus.

In summary, the key to comparisons are:

  • "My book is similar to...
  • "but different in that...
  • Read the books you are comparing yourself to.
  • Be professional.
  • Be humble yet confident.

Happy writing!


7 comments:

Krista said...

Very informative post. Thank you! I once sent in a query where the publisher had specifically asked for "books that could be compared to yours", and "how yours is different from these." That was the first time I had come across this, but it was a good exercise.

Melissa J. Cunningham said...

Great post, Josi and really good advice.

atsiko said...

A very informative post. I would remind people that submission guidelines come first, though. Make sure that comp titles are not dis-allowed for the specific agent you are querying. I've seen a lot of agents saying they don't want comp titles, although there are just as many saying they do.

This might also be of interest. Pretty similar points, but with a bit more about publishers/marketing and how to know if the book sold well.

Nisa said...

Great post. I've actually been trying to do this comparison for my own novel over the last couple of weeks. I think I've finally found a good mix. Thanks for your thoughts!

Amber Lynae said...

This is very wise. one of those post every querying author should read

Kimberly said...

Wow, this is fabulous advice Josi. It's not something I've ever given much thought to, but I found myself nodding along as I read this post. A lot of common sense here.

L.T. Elliot said...

Humility goes a long way. =]

BTW, I probably shouldn't have laughed as much as I did (because it's a serious topic) but you wrote this so funny!