Is there a writer trying to describe her novel who hasn't been urged by an agent (or editor or friend) to just tell them what it's like? What other stories do they know that are like this one? It's hard enough to do when the comparison is for a friend whose tastes and experience we're familiar with. But imagine doing the same thing for an agent who wants to know how he/she is going to sell it to an editor, who wants to know how to sell it to a marketing team, who want to know hot to sell it to a book seller who just wants to know what shelf to put it on.
It's enough to make Juliet rip Romeo's brains out. Fortunately, panelists at the 2016 Writers' League of Texas conference -- Frank Campbell of a Texas Barnes and Noble store, Brian Contine of The Lit Pub, agent Elizabeth Winick Rubinstein, and Clay Smith of Kirkus Reviews -- were on hand to help a room full of authors through the process of finding and using comparison titles.
"Comparisons are important so publishers can know how to market (the book)," Rubinstein said, "but I don't think comp titles are as important as the genre. They should touch on the genre, but without crossing too many genre barriers. We want to know you've thought through this, that you know what audience you're searching for."
She, for instance, successfully pitched a book described as "upmarket women's fiction and Weird Sisters."
So genre, plus a comparable book, or possibly two books with obvious genre matches. The genre identification also helps at the book seller's end. "We've only got a finite amount of shelf space," Campbell said, "so knowing the genre helps it fit somewhere in the store."
And the comparable book or books should be ones that have sold well, and fairly contemporary. But what exactly does "comparable" mean. What about comparisons using classic literature, an audience member asked.
"I'm with using something from Shakespeare but also having something more contemporary," Rubinstein said. Even, perhaps, comparisons to films and TV shows.
But, Contine cautioned, "Don't lie!" So with a pitch such as "Romeo and Juliet meet the Walking Dead" pitch (known as an elevator pitch), a writer is promising both a love story and zombies. (Just don't ask me what genre shelf that would go on.)
And we need to be aware that our cherished comparisons may change as the book advances through the stages of publication, review, and sale, Contine warned.
As Smith noted, "Our (Kirkus) critics suggest 'this book is like' three or four similar titles. Comps are very useful in the business, but it's bad for the reader to know your elevator pitch. The comp is an 'inside' thing. What the reader sees is the blurb," that is, the recommendations from other authors on the book jacket.
And how to get those blurbs, remembering that we're asking busy authors to take time to read an advance copy of our work and hoping they'll like it enough to write a recommendation?
The best way, Rubinstein said, is for authors to make a personal connection with the people they're seeking blurbs from. Personal connections such as conferences, book signings, writing groups, reviewing.
Campbell, at the end of the publishing and marketing process, had a take similar to Smith's. "Where (bookstores) can make a difference is having a knowledgeable staff" who can tell customers that if they like books with one type of character, for instance, they'll probably like others with similar characters. "The bookstore is going to be the best advocate for giving recommendations."
Also, once a book has reached the advanced reader copy stage, "ARCs are great if you can get somebody to read them and fall in love with them," Campbell said.
Even somebody other than an author we're hoping to get a cover blurb from.
Offered an ARC of the Da Vinci Code, "A thriller that was its own kind of thriller," Campbell said, "I didn't think it was that well written, but damn it, I couldn't stop turning the pages."
Which led, of course, to all those bookstore staff recommendations. The rest is history.
(Next Tuesday, how to interpret what agents mean when they say____)