How to Pick the Right Comp Titles (for Science-Fiction and Fantasy)

For many of us, comp titles are one of the hardest parts of pitching. You’re trying to find titles that:

  1. Match aesthetically with your MS
  2. Match thematically with your MS
  3. Are popular enough that the agent has heard of them 
  4. Aren’t so popular that you look like you don’t know what you’re doing 

And that’s hard. So I’m going to break this down into two parts: 

  • The Great List of Swamps, wherein I go through all the things you shouldn’t do with comp titles. 
  • The Little List of Lights, where I talk about the rationale behind making good comp choices. 

But before we begin, the most important thing to remember: 

Rule #0: any rule mentioned in this article may be broken, but breaking it must be motivated. If you’re going to break a rule, as why, and if there isn’t a better choice that doesn’t break it. I want you to imagine yourself defending your position to me, and see whether you still feel okay with your pick at the end. 

Rule #0 Corollary: you have 2 comp titles. You may freely break the rules on one of them, but may god help you if you break them on both. 

The Great List of Swamps

This list is in descending order, from the gravest sins to the most minor. The closer to the top something is, the more you need to check in with Rule #0. Numbers 1 and 2 are the gravest sins, only to be broken in times of emergency; everything else is to be used with discretion. 

#1: Popular Nerd Franchises 

This is easily the most common sin; pitch parties and submission inboxes are lousy with these. If you pick something super popular that everybody knows, then you’re not actually giving much information about your title, because everybody else is picking it, and picking it for different reasons. “This is about teenage wizards” = Harry Potter, “this is set in a magic school” = Harry Potter, “this has an allegory for fascism” = Harry Potter, “the author initially seems progressive but is actually a massive TERF dipshit” = Harry Potter etc etc. 

What counts as a popular nerd franchise? Well if you have to ask “is x a popular nerd franchise” then the answer is probably yes, but here’s an incomplete list of the worst offenders: 

  • Harry Potter
  • Game of Thrones
  • The Lord of the Rings
  • Doctor Who 
  • Marvel/DC
  • Sherlock
  • Supernatural
  • Anything with “Joss Whedon” within 100 feet of it 

There are exceptions to this: if you’re hugely into the X-Men and think some specific arc or writer’s take on a character really does reflect something thematically and aesthetically about your title, then it’s worth a shot pitching that at certain agents—Connor Goldsmith, for example, is a huge X-Men fan and will probably know what you’re talking about. ORIGIN: THE TRUE STORY OF WOLVERINE = acceptable rule break here, but just X-MEN is too big and too broad, and is pretty much meaningless. 

#2: Video Games, Movies, and TV

I love video games. Love ‘em too much, probably. The number of Steam games I have with four-digit playtimes is quite frankly embarrassing. I expect somebody is going to call me a snob and say I hate these mediums because I’m some awful book dude, but it’s not that at all. 

I don’t expect anybody to read books. It’s 2020, I’ve seen the stats. Many of the smartest people I know barely read novels any more, and that’s fine. BUT, if you want to write books, you’re expected to read them. And if your comp titles aren’t books, then it looks like you don’t read enough. You’re less likely to recognise literary cliche or know how to produce good prose, and you’re just generally less likely to understand the medium you’re working in. It’s like rocking up to a ska band and saying “Hand me that trombone, my dude in checkered Chucks; I can paint the fuck outta fruit.” The issue isn’t that you’re a bad artist or an invalid artist, it’s that you’re in the wrong fucking room.

Especially if there’s a novel that’s a better comp, seeing this makes me think you just don’t know books. 

#3: Any books that got a major TV or movie adaptation  

Same as above, except it can kinda come off like you’re trying to stealth it, like you’re the kid who watched the movie before giving his book report. 

#4: Comics

This gets its own section, because it tends to be less problematic than the other mediums—there’s more crossover in skills required, and a lot of literary folks are huge comic nerds (see: Connor Goldsmith—one of the best agents in the business—talking about X-Men for 90 minutes and barely slowing down). Still, comics work differently: the addition of images totally changes the way stories are told, and folks coming at you from solely comics are often super strong in some areas but struggle in other core competencies.

It’s that same thing as games/movies/tv: if a novel comp exists, using a non-novel comp makes me wonder whether you’re reading enough. Comics are definitely a lesser sin, but they can trigger a little alarm. If I see a solid comics comp, my gut says “great dialogue and plotting, workmanlike prose”. There are worse things for a publisher’s gut to say, but it’s important to be aware of. Use comic comps in moderation, but make sure there’s at least one prose fiction comp.

#5: Nonfiction

Controversial one here, and further down the list for good reason. Honestly, I really like seeing a nonfiction comp: it tells me you read widely and you’ve done research. Nothing is a worse morass of cliches than SFF by somebody who only reads SFF, and nonfiction prose is often just as lively as fiction. Still, two nonfiction (and no fiction) is troubling, and raises the same question: do you read this genre? Do you know what people are doing? Or are you just some snobby boomer dude rolling in trying to fix a genre he barely understands? This gets its own special rule: absolutely use nonfiction, but make sure the other comp is SF/F.

#6: Shit the Agent hasn’t heard of 

And here’s your devil’s choice: too popular (like Harry Potter) and you’re dead meat. Not popular enough, and the agent will shrug and pass on. I’ll say this though: agents tend to read a lot of books and know the industry, and it’s much harder to go too small than go too big. If it got a deal with a US or UK publishing house, they’ve probably heard of it; by the standards of obscurity, Perdido Street Station or Ambergris or whatever you’ve earmarked as something weird they don’t know is fuckin Justin Bieber.

Also, they’re more likely to have read in their genre: every SF/F agent has read Gideon the Ninth at this point, but I can’t guarantee they’ll have read Killers of the Flower Moon. They don’t need to have read it (just be aware of it), but you take a bigger risk if you step outside their genre. 

#7: Anything Old

Right now the bottom, and can work in your favour if you pick the right titles, but still worth talking about. If you pitch me with THE NIGHT LANDS X THE MUSIC OF ERICH ZANN I’m going to think a lot better of you than the millionth HARRY POTTER X FIREFLY guy, but I might wonder whether you’re aware of the modern market and how it has changed. SF/F doesn’t look or read anything like it did as little as 20 years ago, and while throwbacks have their place, we got rid of some stuff for a reason—the trends that lasted tend to be the ones that sold as well today as they did in the 70s, and the ones that didn’t have been rightfully left in the dustbin. 

There’s a reason this is down the bottom of the swampy list: it can be a problem, but it doesn’t have to be. Like comics and nonfiction, I love seeing that you’ve read older texts, I just want evidence that you don’t only read older texts

The Little List of Lights

#1: You are looking for aesthetic matches. The Dawnhounds has a kinda fungal dieselpunk/1910s/Southeast Asian vibe that I didn’t think existed in a lot of places, but beta readers compared it a lot to Ambergris, Leviathan, and Borne—’biopunk’ wasn’t quite right since that tends to lean more towards sci-fi like The Windup Girl, but the mushroom-y-ness seems to be what a lot of readers picked up on and I came to realise it was a major draw, and what a lot of people took away. 

#2: You are looking for thematic matches. The Dawnhounds is about queer found family coming together to fight back against colonialism, and about hope in the face of absolute darkness, also the universally-acknowledged fact that all cops are bastards. That was harder, especially at the time*. Hope is pretty universal, but I admit I hit a wall looking for the others. I went away and caught up on my reading list, and, well, see what I ended up going with. 

(*I sort of regret that I stopped pitching in August, because in September Gideon the Ninth came out and blew down the walls and we’re all still trying to figure out what the fuck to do about it. It’s dark but it’s also funny, it’s about queer people but it refuses to let them die pretty, it’s about staring down the void and managing to eke out a draw. It is also—and this was a problem during pitching, because Americans told me it would never sell—unapologetically Kiwi at times in its prose. Now that Gideon has made it to the New York Times while including the line “absolutely chocka with ghosts” intact, maybe there’s room for a bit more Kiwi-ness in SF/F. But that’s neither here nor there—it’s just something I’m gonna have to die mad about. Gideon was a perfect thematic comp title for The Dawnhounds and it came out like two weeks too late.)

#3: you want to show that you actually read SF/F. A lot of my early pitches using eXistenZ and other Cronenberg titles as comps, and I think they did more harm than good. They weren’t accurate enough to justify stepping outside of prose fiction. I wanted to get across the malleability of bodies and the genemod stuff, but something like Lilith’s Brood would’ve both been more accurate and also better-illustrated where I was coming from. 

For The Dawnhounds, I ended up going with: THE TRAITOR BARU CORMORANT X BORNE

Putting It All Together

“So what do good comp picks look like, smartass?” 

I’m glad you asked. The following books don’t exist, I’m just sorta riffing, but here’s the sort of comps that might stand out at a pitch party. 

Murder, romance and intrigue at a school for teenage necromancers. GIDEON THE NINTH X WITCHMARK

A witch journeys over a beautiful and broken land, to save a son who doesn’t deserve it. FIFTH SEASON X SHADOW OF THE TORTURER  

A traumatised WW1 veteran must hunt down his ex-boyfriend, now a vampire, through the streets of 1920s Paris. AMBERLOUGH X THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY

And here are the sort of comps that will be totally ignored:

In the far future, a man must save the universe from aliens. FIREFLY X ALIENS

A Brave Knight Must Fight Against Zombies. AMC’S THE WALKING DEAD X THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF FIVE ARMIES 

Good Wizards on dragons fight against Bad Wizards on dragons for the fate of the world. HARRY POTTER X GAME OF THRONES

And that’s us for now, but before I go: The Dawnhounds is currently eligible for the 2020 Sir Julius Vogel Awards. They’re being held at WorldCon and getting on the shortlist would be the biggest publicity boost I could possibly get. It’s free, it’ll take you 2 minutes, and it would be absolutely huge for me. If you read my book and loved it, please consider dropping me a nomination for Best Novel here.

If you somehow got here without reading my debut novel, you can get yourself a copy here.

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