Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

14.17: It’s Like “Car Talk” meets “Welcome To Nightvale”

Your Hosts: Howard, Mary Robinette, Dan, and DongWon

This episode is about comp titles (comparative titles), which are those things you use to describe your project in terms of other works. We discuss the ones we’ve used (both successfully and unsuccessfully), and the criteria we use to come up with good ones.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Bert Grimm, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Come up with six comp titles—three for existing projects, and three for projects you may want to write. May, in fact, need to write…

Thing of the week: A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Comp titles, or comparative titles, are titles that a book reminds you of. Who is this book for? E.g., a pitch like X in space. Or traditionally two books, with your book in the overlap. Not the sum or combination, but the intersection. Comp titles early in the writing process can help you refine your book. Comp titles can define genre and category. Think about the elemental genres. Comp titles can help identify your audience and target a market. Consider the set dressing and structure when picking your comp titles. Comp titles is not just A meets B, you can say which elements you are referring to. You can also throw in a wrench with a third element to give it a twist. Be aware that readers may not understand the shorthand of comp titles. Use comp titles as the base of longer explanations. Comp titles are a clarifying exercise, to help identify the core elements of your story. Beware the comp titles that have been overused, like Harry Potter.

[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 17.

[Howard] This is Writing Excuses, It’s Like “Car Talk” meets “Welcome To Nightvale.”

[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Dongwon] And we’re not that smart.

[Howard] I’m Howard.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Dongwon] And I’m Dongwon.

[Howard] We are talking about comp-titles. Those things that you cite when you are trying to describe the thing that you’ve created in terms of other people’s stuff. Dongwon is back with us this week. Dongwon, in your line of work, agenting, you use comp-titles kind of a lot.

[Dongwon] Comp titles is how we think about the universe. So, comp titles are, just for clarification, it means comparative title. So any time you’re talking about any given book, what you’re usually doing in the back of your head, if you’re a publishing professional, is automatically coming up with the one to two to three titles that this book reminds you of. Part of the reason you’re doing that is, in publishing, one of the main questions is who is this book for. The way we talk about that is we use other books as a proxy. So if your book is like Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, then that tells you something about who this book is for and, hopefully, how many copies it’s going to sell.

[Dan] Yeah. I just sold… at time of recording, I have just sold a middle grade to Audible, based almost entirely on the pitch, Home Alone in Space.

[Dongwon] Hell, yes.

[Dan] That is working everywhere. The editor’s taking that around the company and says, “Hey, can I get some resources?” “For what?” “Home Alone in Space.” “Yes. Here’s all the money that you need.” So a really good comp title can have incredible value.

[Mary Robinette] That is basically how I sold my first novel. It was Jane Austen with magic. Then I also have Thin Man in Space.

[Dan] Which I’ve wanted to read for so long.

[Dongwon] I will point out that every example of a comp title that we’ve given so far has been one book with an extra element. That is one way to do a comp title. But most traditionally, what you really want to do is have two different books. In the Venn diagram, the overlap between book A and book B is where your book lives. Right? So, the ones that we’ve been giving so far can be really useful just to give a feel for what the book’s going to read like, but it’s not telling enough yet about who this book is for in terms of the audience. That’s sort of an interesting gradation that you’ll see [garbled]

[Howard] The first time I ever had to come up with a comp title for my work, I was making a pitch to a media guy who, of course, never got back to me because that’s the way a lot of these things work at Comic Cons. I described Schlock Mercenary as it’s like Babylon 5 meets Bloom County. Babylon 5, science fiction that pays attention to story, science fiction that remains consistent. Bloom County, comic strip with short serial elements.

[Mary Robinette] So in that, is Schlock Bill the cat?


[Howard] If you pay close attention, both Schlock and Bill the cat have mismatched eyeball sizes.


[Howard] So the answer to your question is not no.


[Howard] My work is not just highly derivative…


[Howard] It is markedly and easily identifiably derivative.

[Dongwon] We all stand on the shoulders of giants.

[Dan] Yeah.

[Mary Robinette] Which is one of the things that I think is interesting about comp titles is that… I find that when I come up with the comp titles early in my process that it also helps me sort of refine what it is that I’m working on. That sometimes it’s like, “Oh, yeah. This is an element out of that Venn diagram.” So as we’re going through this, I kind of want to talk about what we mean by the Venn diagram of where the two books overlap. You’re the one who introduced me to this idea, Dongwon, so I’m going to put you on the spot and make you explain it.

[Dongwon] So the Venn diagram is really useful. I think the way people think a lot about A plus B is they tend to think that it’s the combination, it’s the full territory defined by book A plus book B. That’s the wrong way to think about it. What you’re doing is, you’re looking at the narrow overlap between those two books. One of the reasons this is really useful in pitching, for example, is it does a lot of the work to define genre and what category your book is before you start telling people the details of your book. So if you start saying that it’s Star Wars meets Jurassic Park, then you already know that this is for someone who likes dinosaurs and laser swords, right? It’s not… The combination of those two things, it’s you’re putting the laser swords into a park full of dinosaurs or something to that effect.

[Howard] It’s also worth calling back to our… Oh, was it Season 11, Elemental Genres? Calling back to the Elemental Genres. Let’s talk about Star Wars and Jurassic Park. It will not always reverse engineer this way, but if you are talking about Jurassic Park because there are cool monsters and it is a horror story in which there is a sense of wonder, and you’re talking about Star Wars because Campbellian monomyth and swords. Then, if those are the elements in your story, Star Wars meets Jurassic Park is a great way to say which elemental genres you are using. But it could also be dogfighting spaceships meets biological technology that hasn’t actually gone wrong…

[Dongwon] I’m now picturing raptors learning how to use X-wings. It’s a really delightful image.

[Mary Robinette] I would totally agree the heck out of that.

[Dongwon] There you go.

[Dan] Now Mary mentioned, Mary Robinette mentioned earlier the… That it’s often a very good idea to come up with this comp title, this comparison early in your process. One of the reasons that that can help is it can help you identify your audience and it can help you target your market a little better. I sold my YA cyberpunk to the editor, to the publisher, using “This is Veronica Mars meets Bladerunner.” Which is great, but he’s my age. It very quickly became obvious as we started figuring out how to market this in the YA market that when we sold this six years ago, there were no good well-known cyberpunk properties for teenagers. We tried everything we could think of. Today it would be easy. Because we have… There’s a new Bladerunner movie that’s been very recent, there’s all these other cyberpunk things that are popping up. We’ve… I use it now, I usually pitch it as Overwatch. But six years ago, if I’d taken the time to think about it, I could have identified maybe… Maybe there isn’t a slot in the market for this. Which is what turned out to be. It was a very poor seller because the market… I was maybe two or three years before the market was ready.

[Dongwon] And yet… Sorry.

[Howard] I just… I wanted to pause for a moment for a book of the week, because that sounded like a nice point to transition. Except Dongwon had a thought and I didn’t want to step on it.


[Dongwon] I’ll say my thought really quick. Dan has stumbled on, I think, one of the reasons why publishing can be a very conservative business sometimes. It’s one of the flaws in the system. It’s how we think about things, but it’s one of the issues is if there isn’t a prior example that’s been successful, it’s very hard to do something that is very new and very different from what has come before. Now there will be breakout moments when that thing happens, and you get to do this big new thing. But often times, there are a number of books that preceded it that didn’t get traction. Often, when somebody says, “Oh, this is a brand-new genre,” that’s not actually true. That work has been happening, it just hasn’t been selling particularly well.

[Howard] Well, that’s kind of a down note to talk about a book that we want to [inaudible]

[laughter, yeah]

[Dan] A positive spin on that particular thought is that my kind of tepid reaction to cyberpunk actually paved the way for the new Blade Runner movie to be a big success.

[Chuckles exactly]

[Dan] That’s where I’m going to go with this.

[Dongwon] You provided a lovely steppingstone.

[Howard] Who’s talking about Arkady Martine’s book?

[Dongwon] I believe that is me. So, our book of the week is Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire. It’s a brand-new space opera that’s just out from Tor Books. The comp titles that I’m using for this book would be that it is John McQuarrrie meets Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. It is a political murder mystery set in the heart of a future massive galaxy-spanning empire. A young diplomat is sent to the heart of this empire because her predecessor, she discovers, has been murdered. She needs to prevent her tiny nation from being annexed by this empire. It’s a really wonderful fraught political thriller full of massive world building and a very sort of complex view of how people interact and how empires work which is where the Ann Leckie part comes in. It’s a wonderful read, and I hope you all enjoy it very much.

[Howard] Outstanding. That was A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine?

[Dongwon] Yeah.

[Howard] Available now?

[Dongwon] It should be available now.

[Howard] Should be. Because we record these things in advance…


[Howard] And our listeners never get tired of us talking about this weird time travel thing that we do.

[Mary Robinette] Actually, according to some of our listeners, they really do get tired of it.


[Dan] Will cut all this out.


[Dongwon] It is absolutely available now.

[Mary Robinette] Yes. So one thing that I wanted to kind of circle back to about when we’re talking about the comp titles and how to pick one is that there’s kind of two things that you’re looking at. One is the set dressing of the thing. The other is the structure of the thing. So the set dressing are things like Jurassic Park, if we think of Jurassic Park and the set dressing of that, we think of dinosaurs, we think of a park. But the structure of Jurassic Park is thriller and horror. So when you’re picking your comp titles, I think it’s imp… I think that it’s worthwhile making sure that you’re trying to find a comp title that has both axes in alignment with what you’re picking. Otherwise, if you’re like, it’s like Jurassic Park, but it’s all gentle and soft. Unless your other comp title brings the gentle and soft into it, you’re going to wind up sending a false message [garbled]

[Howard] It’s like Jurassic Park meets Gummi Bears.


[Mary Robinette] Then I think people… But see…

[Dan] Ooo, yeah.

[Dongwon] Then your raptors are just bouncing around the park. That’s [unsettling, upsetting]

[Dan] I’m digging that.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah, but that…

[Howard] That sounds just delicious.

[Mary Robinette] That could be like the Stay Puffed Marshmallow Man version of…

[Dan] Yeah.

[Mary Robinette] [garbled] rampaging Gummi bears.

[Dongwon] One thing to point out when talking about comp titles is you don’t have to just say it’s like A Meets B, right? You can say different things about it, right? So you can say it’s the voice of A and the world building of B. Or you can say it’s the plot of this meets this set dressing element. An example I just gave for the Arkady Martine, John McQuarrie is providing the elemental genre, it’s a thriller, it’s a political thriller. Then Ancillary Justice is providing voice and setting, more than anything else. One I talk about a lot is Marina Lostetter’s Noumenon, which is… I talk about it as an Arthur C. Clarke big idea story as told by Octavia Butler. So it gives you this is old school big idea science-fiction, but told with this contemporary voice that has a cultural focus.

[Dan] Yeah. Another thing you can do is add a third element to throw in a twist. My Partials series, we marketed that as this is The Stand meets Battlestar Galactica, starring Hermione Granger. That third element can kind of be the wrench that helps the other two twist around.

[Dongwon] Dan is very good at this game. I’ll point that out.


[Howard] I’d like to take a moment and leash this just a little bit. Because in my experience, I’m excited to hear if it’s at all universal, the comp title tool does not work well with large bodies of readers. If I go to the customer and tell them this is like Star Wars meets Jurassic Park, they do not have necessarily the vocabulary, the syntax, to know that I’m not saying the nostalgia you have from Star Wars and the nostalgia you have from Jurassic Park, you’re going to get both of those in this book. When I’ve seen people try and pitch their books in that way, often hand selling, it feels fraught. Whereas if you’re having a conversation with an agent or a publisher or an editor or a bookseller, they speak that language and they know exactly what you’re doing.

[Mary Robinette] I think that you’re right that if you do a shorthand, if you just toss it out just as those two comp titles to the average reader, they don’t have the insider shorthand. But I also think that if you use those as the basis of a longer sentence, that it is very, very useful. It’s one of the things that… With the… The way I talk about Calculating Stars to readers is I say, “So, it’s 1952. Slam an asteroid into the Earth, kicking off the space race very early when women are still computers. So it’s kind of like Hidden Figures meets Deep Impact.” They’re like, “Oh! Oh, sign me up for that.”

[Howard] See, that is a… For me, that is a perfect pitch. Except not… Perfect pitch has a different…


[Howard] It is an outstanding elevator pitch for a book because it goes very, very quickly, and at the end, you have planted a hook. That, for me, is one of the most important parts about these comp titles is that it’s supposed to give you a bunch of information, but also invite you to ask a question. Which is, Hidden Figures meets Deep Impact, how bad does it get?

[Mary Robinette] Well, the other thing is that I’m also focusing… Using that initial sentence, I am telling the reader which parts of the comp titles to focus on. So I do… It’s like you have to decide what is important and why you picked that comp title, and then set it up when you’re talking to a reader.

[Dongwon] Also, the comp titles are really a clarifying exercise. It helps you to focus on what are the core elements of your story that you want to be telling to other people about the book that you’ve written. So, once you have your comp titles in mind, all of your copy, your longer pitch, that can descend from that. So even if you don’t end up using the actual comparative titles when you’re talking to a reader, if you meet them on the street or in a bookshop or whatever it is, you still have in your head the target audience in mind that is shaped by those overlapping properties.

[Howard] Dongwon, I think that’s a great place to phase into our homework, except Dan’s telling me he wants to say something.

[Dan] There’s one important thing I want to point out before we leave comp titles.

[Howard] Go.

[Dan] Which is in line with thinking about your audience. Especially when you are pitching this, when you are presenting this to an agent or an editor, keep in mind that they have already heard four bazillion of these. So don’t use the really obvious ones. Don’t use Star Wars, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones. Because they’ve seen those so many times.

[Dongwon] Well, the thing I want to add to that, just a little bit of clarification about why those are bad, is because the comp title’s a proxy for the audience. So if you say Harry Potter, what you’re saying is my book is for every human who’s ever existed on the planet.


[Dongwon] That’s not useful information. It made plot wise be correct or it may have elements that are correct. So you can cherry pick an element, you can say starring Hermoine Granger just because that’s good shorthand for a character. But you can’t use Harry Potter as a comp because it doesn’t tell me anything useful. You’re only… Your Venn diagram is a circle of the human population.

[Howard] I think that that’s probably the places in which I’ve seen the hand selling fail. Because if you tell me it’s Harry Potter meets Jurassic Park, I don’t believe you.


[Howard] That’s not the result that you wanted.

[Howard] We have homework.

[Mary Robinette] Your homework is to come up with six comp titles. Now, what I’m going to recommend is that you take some work in progress and you come up with three comp titles that are from works in progress, and that you come up with three additional ones that are for work that you have not written but you just think would be a cool combination. Literally, the Thin Man in Space, which we have just sold to Tor at the time of this recording, that began as a comp title. I had the comp title before I had anything else. So, six comp titles. Three for existing works to help you clarify what you’re working on, and three as an initial brainstorming for something that you might want to write.

[Howard] Once you’ve got those three that you might want to write… [Garbled may be planted]

[Dongwon] [garbled]

[Howard] It may be time to write it.

[Mary Robinette] In fact, you may be out of excuses. Now go write.