Making the Incomparable Comparable: How Literary Agents Utilize Comp Titles

I find the process of choosing comparative (comp) titles and authors intrinsically tricky; ultimately, what you are trying to do is tell the world that this book is fresh, it’s unique, and this author has something really special—just look at all these other books and authors that are really similar. It’s a veritable balancing act between contributing something new to an existing market while also filling a hole in that same market.
The truth of the matter is, comp titles and authors are an integral part of the publishing process from start to finish. They come into play before an author’s work is acquired, not just as part of the marketing process. When a prospective author pitches their book to a literary agent, the author should be doing some of the same work that a press would do later when trying to put together a marketing package that will best promote said book.
Andrea Bachofen, who is part of the Digital Publishing Development group for Penguin Random House, wrote an excellent article concerning comp titles. In the article entitled “Comp Titles—An Elevator Pitch for Your Book,” she writes, “While our publishing teams often add additional comp titles during the publishing process, it is immensely valuable for them to understand what comp titles you suggest, so you can align your expectations about framing and positioning early in the process.”
An author should be familiar with current trends as well as tropes and stereotypes that are best avoided when trying to forge a path to the finish line of publication and author stardom. Realistically, most authors who are pitching their book to a literary agent for the first time probably aren’t going to know all there is to know about their respective genre, and that is where the agent comes into play.
Literary agents usually specialize in one or more genres, but they often focus their energies on a field they have a personal interest in. For example, Portland State’s own DongWon Song—who is an instructor and literary agent—specializes in science fiction, YA fantasy, and middle grade fiction (he also accepts nonfiction writing about food). The submission guidelines for literary agents can change, however, so it’s always a good idea to review the website of the agent you are thinking of pitching to before you submit.
So let’s say that your work is accepted by a literary agent, and after a couple rounds of developmental editing, your agent says it’s time to start pitching your work to some publishers. Your agent is going to use every bit of knowledge and know-how to come up with key comp titles and authors to give publishers an idea of what they can expect. This is especially important for first-time authors, as they aren’t likely to be well-known in the industry, and publishers like to have an idea of what they’re getting into before acquiring a project. The research you do before submitting is absolutely integral, as it provides a platform that your agent will add to and perfect.
The use of comps by agents and publishers may seem very similar, but there are some key differences. Literary agents are pitching to prospective publishers; they are hoping to make a sale with the raw material of the book using preliminary research that establishes a current hole in the market and where this work fits within the genre. Publishers, on the other hand, are using comp titles later in the process when it comes time to pitch to potential retailers, blurbers, and other possible reviewers for publicity purposes. Ultimately, comps are fundamental during every stage of the process, from pitch to publication.