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Typically, a writer includes one or two recent titles that are similar in some fashion to the story they are telling, in their query letter.

I'd like any advice for finding good comparative titles.

Specifically: Is it best to focus on theme, or story structure, or character types, some other item? Would it be all right (or a bad idea) to reference an old title 'brought up to the 21st century' sort of thing?

(a) I've browsed titles at the book store but it seems hard to really know if the books are good comps without reading them cover to cover. (b) I've not been trying to emulate popular works. (c) I've heard that critique groups may be able to provide ideas about comparative titles.

Imagine comping The Martian. What does that mean? Will the agent expect something like Castaway? Or something like Lost in Space? Or something like MacGyver? Castaway and MacGyver are very different, both are similar to The Martian, and neither is set on a another planet.

To ask another way: What is the key feature of story that one should hold in mind, when identifying comparative titles?

Any suggestions appreciated, I believe this is on topic, because finding an agent is part of the path between writing and publishing.

Edit: I found my comparative titles by literally picking up every new title in the genre at the library and identifying aspects of new stories that are present in my own. I recommend this approach to anyone struggling with comps. It takes less than an hour.

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The idea is that you show that you know the "field" you are working in. That you understand the market you are writing for and the context in which your work will be read.

Publishers don't simply publish well-written books. They publish books for which they believe there is a market. Many well-written books get rejected because there currently is no market for them. Publishers (and agents) like authors to show that they understand this and to show where in the market their work fits.

Publishers (and agents) also expect authors to not randomly submit their work, but only to publishing houses (and agencies) where they fit in. For that, you have to understand the "profile" they have, and that profile lies in the authors they have under contract and the market segment these authors belong to. Not every fantasy novel is the same, and many, especially smaller publishing houses, have a certain "taste". It is this taste that your choice of comparative titles must reflect.

So if you want to include comparative titles in your query letter, there is no way around familiarizing yourself with the current "state of your genre" in general and with the publishing line of the agency or publisher you sumit to.

Begin with their authors and expand from there. You don't have to read each and every book, but you have to understand why the publisher has chosen the books he has – and once you sit in their office and talk to them, you will want to have read at least some of the more important works.

In short, show that you are a writer. A writer is someone who reads

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    All of this, plus: If you didn't know what the comparables were before you began, don't try to retrofit them afterwards. All you will do is set up false expectations. The agent or editor will be expecting something like the comparables and when they realize it's not, chances are they put it down regardless of it's merits. – user16226 Apr 24 '18 at 16:31
  • This sounds as though you are saying either 1. write to the market that exists (=profit) or 2. if I have a dream agency identified, I might do well to comp the books they had a hand in promoting. (Neither of which feels like organic storytelling, by the way. :-) ) The first of these would kill any enjoyment I have in the process, but the second is a strategy I could adopt without losing any sleep. – DPT Apr 24 '18 at 18:06
  • @DPT I am not talking about your writing. I am talking about your query letter. You can write what you like and still be aware of where you stand in the market (or in tradtion, if you like that word better). Whether you bend yourself to the market or not is an entirely different matter. – user29032 Apr 24 '18 at 18:26
  • I do like the word tradition better. – DPT Apr 24 '18 at 18:30
  • @DPT I find it telling that the example you choose (in the edit to your question) are movies. Let us think of the novel The Martian and where it stands. So what is it? It is near future hard SF with a strong psychological perspective. Of course the basic plot compares to all the Robinsonades from Defoe to Disney, but the contemporary field the book stands in are the novels of Kim Stanley Robinson, Robert Charles Wilson – or Arthur C. Clarke, if you wanted to name one of the starting points of the tradition of hard science explorer-engineer. – user29032 Apr 24 '18 at 19:00

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