An essential part of a good book proposal is a “book comparisons” section. It’s usually only a few paragraphs or so in which you compare your idea to successful, fairly recent books in the marketplace.
Many writers hate the comparison section.
And no, hate is not too strong a word. For some, the comparison section (or “comps,” as the cool kids call it) ranks near the top of the list, along with Hitler, autoplay videos, and people who “reply all.”
But your comparisons section isn’t just helpful for the agent or editor who will review your proposal; it’s also your friend. Why?
- It clarifies your genre.
The first book proposal I ever wrote was for a multigenre mess of a thing. It never got published. I don’t know for sure if the proposal contained a comparisons section (it was written in an ancient word-processing program called MultiMate, which disappeared with the dinosaurs), but probably not, because comps may have helped me to realize that there was no marketable genre for what I was writing.
- It helps you to define your book’s “special something.”
I often see pitches for books that are so “been there, done that” (much like the phrase been there, done that). I bet that a perspicacious author who took the time to write a comps section for such a book would soon realize that successful books have a much sharper focus, a clearer takeaway, a “special something.”
- It may show you whether your timing is right on—or off.
Suppose you sit down and write a comps section for your awesome book idea (which probably shouldn’t include the word awesome) and see that Max Lucado, John Ortberg, Priscilla Shirer, and Bob Hostetler all have recent books that are very similar. After pondering how Bob Hostetler got into that list, you may well adjust your thinking—or timing. Conversely, you may see that only Bob Hostetler has released a book like that, which could cause you to conclude that either the time is right or that guy (and his publisher) is ahead of his time. Or both.
- It can raise a red flag.
If you start to research and write your comparisons section and struggle to find any successful book that is remotely similar, that could raise a red flag. “There’s nothing out there like it” is usually a bad sign; there may be a number of good reasons there’s nothing similar to your A Christian Guide to Astral Projection.
These are only a few ways that a well-researched and well-written book proposal comparisons section is your friend. I’m sure there are others. What have you learned from writing comparisons sections?
Great post about the comparison section. Another reason to include it is because it is critical for some acquisitions editors to fill out their internal paperwork.
When I acquired books at Howard Books (an imprint of S & S–one of the big five), we had to have the comparison titles, ISBNs, etc. to fill out our internal paperwork to get a contract. If the author didn’t include it–or did a poor job–and we still wanted to offer a contract, then we had to do that comparison work. Without iit, the author is possibly begging for a rejection letter instead of a contract–another reason to do this section with excellence and give it a little extra polish.
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Yes, great point, Terry!
I see my comparison section as a Venn diagram–those overlapping circles of similarity I learned in some long-past math class. It shows how my book is like this book, that one and another one. The part of my book’s circle uncovered by the others is what makes mine unique. If the comps completely cover my content–well, it’s time for a do-over.
Kristen Joy Wilks
I love this way of looking at it, Shirlee, even though I am abysmal at math!
Damon J. Gray
Ditto. That’s a great visual, Shirlee.
love to see a sample
Kristen Joy Wilks
This is great, Bob! Lots of good reasons not to loathe the comps section. I have bumped into quite a few writers who are pulling their hair out over this. Strangely, I have not gained standing ovations and instant hugs for my advice to, “Start a file of similar books when you start writing your story. Read in your genre that whole year and jot down every title that is even remotely similar. Keep reading in your genre as you edit and by the time you have a polished manuscript, you will have some ideas.” Yeah, no one is thrilled to find out that they should have started this two years ago when they have to get the proposal done this week. Weirdly, some writers don’t read in their genre. I write for children (MG and YA … and RomComs but that is a different story) and tons of writers who are seeking a home on the MG or YA shelf don’t read any books, secular or Christian, in these genres. Weird? There aren’t tons of Christian middle grade adventures out there, but there are some, enough to fill a comparable titles page at least. Oooh, I do have a question! How many Christian books vs. general market books should be included do you think? I read about 50/50 Christian books vs. general market and so many of the books that are similar to my MG ms. are actually secular. Should my comparable titles section be half and half, or all Christian titles? I know that they shouldn’t be all general market titles as that will not give the editors sufficient info. Thanks so much!
In general, your comps should be all Christian titles, if you’re marketing to Christian publishers.
And, like you, I don’t get why some people want to write in a genre they don’t read. ‘Tis a puzzlement.
Oh, Bob…section 4, red flag to an impulse-control-challenged bull, and all that…
My new book’s really something,
to take faith-driven world by storm,
and contains just EVERYTHING
to ensure that it becomes the norm;
parents, teachers everywhere,
they’ll wonder how they did without
something so refined and rare,
something big, with so much clout.
Comparison is not much use,
for this is first of its kind,
and once it’s on the loose
it will enlighten every mind,
at home in Christian house and school,
“Believer, Launch Your Inner Mule!”
Damon J. Gray
Bob, it seemeth unto me that the available titles in the Comps section could be sending conflicting messages and I’d love to see you give clarity to this.
Message 1: “This is a hot topic. Go for it.”
Message 2: “This topic is saturated. Do something else.”
Shirlee’s diagram idea seems to address this, but I’m interested in your response as well.
Obviously the comps section should never give the second message. But that’s another reason it’s the writer’s friend, because if the writer in assembling comps starts to get Message #2, it’s an indication that, hmmm, I need to shift a bit. It’s not so much about the topic as the hook, the uniqueness of the book. For example, if I’m writing a book on the TOPIC, “understanding your spouse,” well, that’s gonna look like the market is saturated. But if my hook is, “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus,” boy, howdy, then my comp section can show that there’s puhlenty of room for my approach in the otherwise saturated market.
I second Damon’s question above.
Bob, I would really love to see a list of criteria to consider when choosing comps. What aspects of a book can we consider? Storyline, theme, writing style, storytellling, genre? How many lenses can we look through and what are those lenses? (I think I just asked the same question three different ways.) 🙂
How do we select comp authors based on their level of success (since we’re avoiding the prolific best sellers) and be fairly certain the publisher will also agree the comps are successful?
For contemporary fiction or women’s fiction, is a Christian publisher interested in “clean” general market comps, inspirational comps, or only Christian comps?
I’ve been reading like crazy and building my comp list, but I often question my choices. If I wrote romance, suspense, historical fiction, etc., I think it might be easier to identify comps. Thank you!
As I said to Kristen, above, in general, your comps should be all Christian titles, if you’re marketing to Christian publishers.
But your question, as a whole, underscores that this is an art, not a science. I’ve seen good comps sections that consider any number of aspects, so there’s no hard-and-fast rule. Just keep in mind that the editors’ and publisher’s perspective relates more to why this is clearly the sort of book that has sold and will sell well.
Thank you, Bob. The last sentence is especially clarifying. Much appreciated.
Ann L Coker
What I learned when compiling the comparisons for my proposed book, Journey with Bunyan’s Pilgrim: Since the original book, The Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan, is a classic and been around for a long time: books of research and commentary are numerous; many are dated (although profitable); some are devotional in nature; but I did not find any with a journal aspect like mine. These comparison books provided good research and also confirmed that mine might have that “something special.” However, because of the classic element of Bunyan’s book, my book might not be marketable today.
This is a great post — the comps sections is certainly one I dread. I’ll have to start thinking of it more as a “literature review”: like Shirlee said, something that tells both where my book fits and why it’s not redundant. Time to hit the library (as soon as it’s open again)!
I enjoyed a hearty laugh at your delightful humor about a book titled, A Christian Guide to Astral Projection!
Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D.
Great information Bob. I like the comparison because it shows that there is a market for similar books, so there should be room in the market for mine, as well. For example, I found a lot of books on grief but nothing on my topic: A practical guide to maintaining your household, once you became single. I still think that, with 1.6 million people in America losing their spouses per year, without COVID-19, there is a great market for the book. Unfortunately, no one knows who I am, so it is still unpublished.
Bob – great information as well as your humor which shines through all you write. Astral projection, emoji? Hahahhaha LOL face.
I had to really weed through the books I love and come up with ‘in between thus and who,’ and a movie, “think thus meets that.”
This helped define the genre and what it was all about!
Linda Riggs Mayfield
I revised based on input from a professional editor and three beta readers (all positive), and now I’m preparing proposals for a Christian women’s contemporary novel. After experiencing two great losses, the MC suffers from anxiety and panic attacks. She makes a major life change in a new place to restore her mental health and address her wavering faith in God. She faces unexpectedly challenging obstacles, but also finds adventure, new friends, romance, and renewed faith and health.
Tens of thousands of Americans suffer from anxiety and panic attacks, and numerous Christian books have addressed anxiety recently in non-fiction from unknown self-published authors to others as well-known as Joyce Meyer. But after lengthy searches, I have found no Christian fiction in which the MC’s primary goal is actually addressing anxiety and panic and the guilt Christians feel when we experience them. The closest I found was Carrie Stuart Parks’s popular 2011-17 Gwen Marcey mystery series (which I LOVED) in which the MC struggles with depression and cancer recovery as she solves crimes. I’ve used only the four Parks books as my comps in the proposals (mine also has a professional MC, family challenges, change of setting, wobbly faith, illness recovery, and a little romance), and stated that my book may fill an empty place on the shelves because It addresses a hot topic in both non-fiction and fiction but approaches it in a different way: healing and renewed faith are the MC’s primary goals, not secondary results. Is that valid? How dissimilar can comps be and still make sense? Do I need to just start over and rewrite the plot around a big mystery for my MC to solve instead of finding mental and spiritual health in the context of the plot? I CAN find close comps for that!
Whew! ‘Sorry to ask so many questions at once. The timing of your post was perfect. I don’t want lack of valid comps to result in a “No” from an agent or publisher! Thanks!
I’ve been struggling with the comp section of my proposal for a while now. There are not any books like mine on the market and I’m struggling with what books to compare it to.
Now after reading your blog post, I’m wondering if that means it’s a book I shouldn’t even try and pitch, because wouldn’t there already be a book like it? (Which is a question I’ve asked myself a lot already.) Or maybe I just need to think more outside of the box on what I’m trying to compare it to.
Thanks as always for your informative posts.