(In)Comparable Titles

In my search to learn how to write the perfect query letter, I’ve discovered contradictory opinions on the use of “comp titles,” those nifty X meets Y descriptions of one’s manuscripts. Some agents love them. Others cringe every time they read X meets Y.

For awhile, I was torn.

On the one hand, if I tell you my book is Jane Austen meets Agatha Christie (It isn’t!), I’ll have set you up to expect a clever Brit with a splash of romance and a slice of murder. If you’re into either or both of those authors, I’ll have piqued your interest.

On the other hand, if I don’t deliver a good dose of Austen and Christie… well, it wouldn’t be fun for either of us, would it? Readers don’t want cheap knockoffs, and writers don’t want to discover the hard way that their work isn’t all they think it is. So maybe steering clear of comp titles is best for everyone involved.

My manuscript could easily claim two well-known and much-loved comp titles. (I repeat, NOT Austen and Christie!) While each work is unique in itself, enough similarities exist between my work on these unnamed comp titles that I could justify using the comp titles to communicate a sense of the tone and theme of my novel. I have, dare I admit it, been so bold as to list comp titles in speaking and writing of my manuscript. It’s a quick, easy, and effective way to give a broad sense of my story.

But I’m pretty sure I’m done with comp titles.

I don’t know how it happened, but I realized this week that my characters are incomparable. That may sound dreadfully conceited, but please hear me out. I don’t mean that my characters are better than those in my comp titles. I simply mean that my characters aren’t anyone but who they are, and as such, do not need to be compared to other characters, least of all by me. To use the parent-child analogy writers like so much, you wouldn’t say, “Oh, you liked Suzie’s child? Then you’re going to love my kid!” My job isn’t to offer my characters up as a consolation prize to readers mourning the end of their journeys with someone else’s characters, but to offer them as new, exciting, unique traveling companions who will take the reader deep into beautiful, unexplored lands. To do otherwise, to suggest that books are like drugstore perfumes, easily mimicked and offered for a lesser price, cheapens both my work and the work of those who have gone before me. I can’t recreate the genius of my comp titles, nor should I suggest that my work doesn’t deserve its own place on the shelf and in the hearts of readers.

I’ve spent so much time with these characters, getting to know them inside and out, and they’ve allowed me to watch them grow and develop, lose and triumph. In short, we’ve been through a lot together, and in the weird ways of a writer and her characters, I love them dearly. I owe them a reputation of their own, not a hitched ride on someone else’s coattail. So out of respect for who they are and who I hope they will become, I’m leaning very heavily toward ditching the comp titles.

What about you? What are your thoughts on comp titles?

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2 thoughts on “(In)Comparable Titles

  1. Indeed. I’ve been hearing this about the X meets Y elevator pitches, too. I have a novel that initially I was plugging as Jonny Quest meets Tom Swift meets Kim Possible, which is apt, but which also falls a bit short. Methinks it’s an okay way to go if you’re making an ACTUAL elevator pitch–or, like at some of the conferences I go to, making a nine-minute pitch–but not the right tone to set for a query letter. In those, I just try to lay out the characters, their relationships, and the general plot line so that the agent/whoever will have something to draw them into the work itself. Although, heck, I’ve been hearing from some agents/editors (especially the latter for short story markets) that they don’t even read the cover letters. They just read whatever excerpt they’ve requested for the submission packet (or the whole manuscript, for shorts).

    • I haven’t entirely abandoned the X meets Y pitch, as it IS a quick, easy way to describe the story. I probably would use it for on-the-spot description, but I’d rather not rely on other works to promote mine.

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