Monday, April 05, 2010

Making Comparisons

It’s not at all uncommon for authors to compare their work to that of others. In fact, it’s not uncommon for agents to do the same thing. In a quick search of Publishers Marketplace I found the following comparisons:

pitched as in the tradition of Raymond Carver and Lorrie Moore
pitched as in the spirit of Alain de Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life or Richard Holmes's The Age of Wonders
pitched as a James Bond-meets-The Da Vinci Code political crime thriller
pitched as in the tradition of Kate DiCamillo
pitched as in the tradition of Robert Ludlum and Dan Brown
pitched as a Pete McCarthy-meets-Nick Hornby travelogue
pitched as Infinite Jest with Silence of the Lambs
pitched as Sebastian Faulks's Birdsong meets Diana Gabaldon's Outlander
pitched as Dexter meets The Silence of the Lambs for teens

Now, my guess is that while some of these samples will appeal to you, others will turn you off. Maybe you’ve never been a fan of Robert Ludlum or you despised Infinite Jest. Whatever the reason, that’s the trick with using comparisons and why I caution you to be careful when doing so. Just as a comparison can give an agent or editor a very quick and easy idea of what your book is, it can turn them off or, worse, make it more confusing.

For example, I have no idea what Twilight meets Blue’s Clues would even be. Who would be the audience and how would a book like that work? And yes, this example is based on an actual pitch I received.

If you choose to do comparisons, take a look at Publishers Marketplace to get an idea for what works. Comparisons are used to show who an audience might be and work best if you’re using bestselling names, current or recent bestselling names, and not old or obscure references. They also work best if you have some idea that they are books or authors that will appeal to the agent you’re trying to pitch.



Kimber Li said...

Hmm, I just figured you picked a published novel most like yours, which you've *actually read*, preferably one which hasn't been done to death. So, I wrote, "It's most like PEEPS by Scott Westerfeld, but with less scientific detail and a lot more romance." I left off that sentence completely for agents who didn't openly confess to liking Science Fiction. I knew it'd be a turn-off and just hoped the characters and their relationships would snag 'em.

If I'd used what actually inspired my story...well...I know no one would have gotten it at all.

TITANIC meets the X-FILES!


No, I still haven't figured out how my imagination put those two together. Must've been a Nyquil overdose.

Unknown said...

Thank you Jessica, that was a very helpful post.

RC Writer Girl said...

Twilight meets Blues Clues? Hmm. A kids title with a blue vampire dog? Something aimed at your 3- and 4-year-olds who want a little more bite in their books, perhaps.

Jude said...

Great advice. Thanks!

ryan field said...

I once compared one of the books I wrote with my real name to one I wrote with my pen name (no one knows the pen name) in a pitch. That didn't work either :))

Stina said...

Blue's Clues and Twilight? That's just too funny!

The whole comparison thing is tricky. I landed a request from an agent because she loved three of the books/authors I mentioned. But I wasn't comparing my book to them, just to elements of them.

Patty Blount said...

Titanic meets The X-Files? Now, see, that really appeals to me!

Kimber Li said...

No way, Patty!


My subconscious mind still has not let me on that one.

Anonymous said...

Interesting that you chose this topic today because I was perusing the PM agent list a couple days ago and noticing the frequency of those statements. Though I can understand why they put those statements there, and appreciate your POV on it, I couldn't help but think I don't want my books to be like anyone else's. I want to be that writer whose work is about to jolt the agent back to life while they're sitting mired down in manuscripts wondering whether they should drink that Red Bull sample left for them at the front counter. Instead, they reach for the next manuscript...and it's mine!'s good to have goals.

Your blogs are a wealth of info. Thanks for also keeping past entries available.


Kristin Laughtin said...

Thanks for the suggestion. Anytime I near the end of one manuscript, I start thinking that I need to figure out comp titles so I can have them for future reference. Like Kimber An, though, many of my inspirations seem to be rather random, and sometimes have little resemblance to the final book. There's also the fear of comparing myself to some Major Author without making it clear that I see similarities in certain elements (versus thinking I'll automatically be bigger than Major Author). It'll definitely help me to look at the examples in PW and figure out how it's done, even for books I can more easily compare to others.

Wendy Qualls said...

Are these absolutely necessary to the "elevator pitch" (25-words-or-less description of the book)? My writing seems to be similar to, oh, just about everything I read :-) (I have the same pacing as this author uses, but the same type of heroine as this other author favors, and the same complexity of plot as a third author tends to have . . .)

I'm really afraid if I start saying "It's like [contemporary romance author] with a [historical romance author] feel", agents and editors will assume I have no clue what I'm doing. Or that my book is so bad you can't tell.

Kimber Li said...

"There's also the fear of comparing myself to some Major Author without making it clear that I see similarities in certain elements (versus thinking I'll automatically be bigger than Major Author)."

Me too also maybe.

And I worry the agent's mind will start down that comparison's track and not *SEE* my individual story for what it is. Like if I say, "It's TITANIC meets the X-FILES," she might go, "Okay, I get the redhead, but where's the boat?"

I had that trouble with critique partners.

Unknown said...

I think if you can make a simple and effective comparison, it's a reasonable way to suggest who your audience may be. However, if the idea bends your mind into little knots, and your comparisons don't work, there's no harm in leaving them out.

Better to not compare at all than to compare badly. :-)

Sheila Deeth said...

Thanks. It would feel kind of odd to pitch as being "like..." but you show where it doesn't make sense and how to make it make sense.

Anonymous said...

Hmn. I was under the impression that it was best to compare your novel not so much to give an idea of your style, but to prove that novels with similar themes or genres are still doing well in the market place. Is this wrong?

Kate said...

Hi Jessica! I've also read in a few places that comparing your novel to other published works is iffy at best, and comparing it to best sellers/classic novels is suicide. Are there two schools of thought on this?

Unknown said...

@ Kate

It's sort of a mixed bag. If you make a good clear comparison to a novel that's selling well, it may help your query along. The trick is in how you compare.

Example: My novel will be the next Harry Potter.

Vague, and suggests the author may have delusions of grandeur. (Btw, this is why you shouldn't compare to classics and blockbusters unless you do it very carefully. It's too easy to sound like you think you're all that.)

Example: Readers who enjoy the dark magic and danger of Harry Potter may also enjoy this book.

This is a bit more realistic, as the author isn't promising big success, just identifying a possible readership. If and when you do compare, you want to reference a book that the agent will recognize. Comparisons to obscure books no one has ever heard of won't do any good.

The problem is that many if not most writers don't know how to compare effectively, and so end up shooting themselves (and their query) in the foot--which is why you see some agents advising us not to compare at all.

Does that help? :-)