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How to Write a Book Proposal That Doesn’t Suck, Part I: Comps

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Brooke Carey

You know how some employers say that they throw out resumes with spelling errors on them because it indicates the job applicant lacks attention to detail? As Gotham Ghostwriter’s Chief Matchmaking Officer and a former editor at a major publishing house for more than eight years, I judge you equally harshly if your book proposal does, or fails to do, certain things. And I know I’m not the only book professional who feels this way.

One such critical area is a book proposal’s competing works (aka “comps”) section. In this part of the proposal, you list books that are similar to your own. Generally, an author will list four to five similar books and include the publication information (title, author, year published, publisher, ISBN) and a paragraph explaining what that book is about and why it is a good comparison to yours. This is a section you should always include in your book proposal, for two very important reasons.

Reason #1: It Makes a Prospective Editor’s Job Easier

Part of any editor’s job is convincing her publisher (and, if she is able to acquire the book, her publicity, subsidiary rights, and sales departments) that there are people out there who like to read books like this. If the editor can say, with a straight face, that this new book is similar to other successful books that have been published, it is easier to convince those around her that they should pay attention.

I know every author likes to think that his or her book is different — that it’s special, that there’s no book quite like this one. If that’s true, which it rarely is, it generally means no one wants to read it. If people did, someone would have written it already.

There is a book on the market called The Idiot’s Guide to Submarines. There is also a book called Crafting with Cat Hair, and I can’t, for the life of me, determine whether it is serious or ironic. So stop it. There is definitely a book like yours out there. Remember, publishers are businesses. Yes, English majors who got into the business because they loved books frequently run things (that is a stereotype, but it is also often true). However, they also have to feed themselves. There is no real way to know if a book will sell or not sell, but one indicator that a book has a chance of selling is the fact that books like it have sold in the past. Do yourself and all editors a favor: Include a good comps section.

Reason #2: If You Do It Correctly, It Shows the Editor You’ve Done Your Homework

A great comps section accomplishes two critical things:

  • It includes books that are actually similar to yours

  • It doesn’t include only books that were major, category-busting bestsellers

The first item should be obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people cannot seem to do this basic thing. If you’re writing a memoir about your mother’s depression, you should not comp it to Angela’s Ashes. Yes, they are both memoirs, but that is not the point.

If, however, you’re writing a book about growing up poor in Ireland…you still may not comp it to Angela’s Ashes.

“Wait! But WHY?” you ask. “Because,” I say, “Angela’s Ashes was a publishing phenomenon that transformed high school teacher Frank McCourt into a literary sensation.” Comping your book to it is not useful because of the second bullet above.

As I mentioned earlier, part of the editor’s job is to convince her publisher to let her acquire the book. One of the ways she does this is by positioning it within the marketplace to show that there is a potential audience out there for this very book. The second step in this process is figuring out how much to pay for the book.

An author’s advance is determined by a number of things — most dramatically, the number of other publishers interested in publishing the book who compete for the rights by offering higher advances than their competitors. But before publishers offer an advance, they have to figure out how much they think the book is worth, which brings us back to comps.

What many authors don’t realize is that comping your book to a huge bestseller is like saying to the publisher, “I think this book is like Angela’s Ashes, which means I expect it to perform as well as Angela’s Ashes, which means I expect a lot of money for it.” This may not be your intention, but it communicates that you are either delusional or simply don’t read that many books and therefore can’t think of another comp except for the one that everyone already knows.

It is much better to list four to five comps that have sold reasonably well and are genuinely similar to your book than to list a bunch of huge bestsellers that are rare and exceptional breakout hits. If an editor has a book she or he wants to buy and the author has made it easy for the editor to point to a handful of books that have sold reasonably well — say, between 30,000 and 50,000 copies — that’s a situation that is much better for all involved. This number allows the editor to justify spending a fair amount of money on the book, but not so much that the publisher will say, “No way.”

So, What Does a Good Comps Section Look Like?

Before I can tell you what a good comps section looks like, I need to tell you what a sucky comps section looks like. I used to work on business books and got a lot of comp sections that listed books like The Tipping Point, Freakonomics, Predictably Irrational, and Good to Great as comps. This was stupid for a number of reasons. For one, these books are nothing like one another except for the fact that they are often lumped together in the business section. It’s like saying your novel is like The Girl on the Train and Me Before You because those are both fiction. NO!

Also, all of these are huge bestsellers that defied the publisher’s expectations in every imaginable way. So, for all the reasons I already mentioned, they are useless.

So what should that misguided business author have done instead? If Mr. Business is writing a book on running a small business, he should include only comps that are about that very thing. Some good comps might be Small Giants by Bo Burlingham, The Pumpkin Plan by Mike Michalowicz, or Built to Sell by John Warrillow. [Full disclosure: All those books are published by my old employer, and I worked with each of these authors at some point in my time there. I’m calling attention to these only because I know them well. There are dozens of other great books on entrepreneurship out there.]

Mr. Business would also likely include The E-Myth by Michael Gerber, which is pretty much the go-to book on starting your own business, no matter what kind of business it is. It is a business classic and a huge bestseller, so it’s not really useful for my purposes, but I wouldn’t be annoyed if Mr. Business listed it because it is not so far removed from his book and shows that he (or at least his agent) understands the genre. An author is allowed to list one (maybe two) bestsellers if they are truly complementary and if he or she also lists others. Use your judgment.

However, having said that, if you’re writing that memoir about growing up poor in Ireland, I still wouldn’t recommend listing Angela’s Ashes in the comps section. Idea-driven nonfiction is very different from fiction or literary/narrative nonfiction, which is, generally, as much about the quality of the writing as it is about the subject. Comparing yourself to Frank McCourt is a bold move, and you will likely come off as cocky or ignorant. The only potentially acceptable place to mention this comparison is in, perhaps, the overview, where you can say, “My goal is to pick up where Frank McCourt left off with Angela’s Ashes. Whereas McCourt described life in Ireland in the 1930s, in Dirty in Dublin,* I describe growing up on the outskirts of the Irish capital in the punk-fueled haze of the 1980s.”

I would read that book.

I think this about covers everything I have to say about comps. Remember, an author — especially a nonfiction one — is expected to be an expert on his or her chosen subject. A good comps section that shows you’ve done your homework will demonstrate that you know your audience and feel like you can write something they’d be interested in reading.


Next up, Part II: Who Is this Book For?*Feel free to use the title Dirty in Dublin for your Irish memoir. You’re welcome.

A version of this post originally appeared on BrookeCarey.com.

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