“Count Tolstoy,” the marketing director said, “your book’s pretty good, but we need a couple of comp titles.”
“Listen, tovarich. Who wants to read a brick called War and Peace if they don’t know what other book it’s exactly like?”
In disgust, Tolstoy threw his arms toward the sky and vowed never to write again, thus depriving the world of Anna Karenina.
Okay, fine, that didn’t happen. But most authors have a similarly miserable conversation with their publishers nowadays. True, it’s not miserable for all writers. There are those who are taken with a particular bestselling author and choose to emulate that person and their work. In those cases, the comp is part of the very DNA of the new book. All power to them.
For the rest of us, however, the insistence on comps is the outcome of the triumph of the marketing department over editorial. (Just to be clear: I love my marketing team. If I have more kids, I’m naming them after you.)
For some reason, the creative folks in marketing (and I mean that sincerely—their job is to be creative) have been persuaded that readers and bookstore managers are so dim-witted that if we can’t tell them this new book is exactly like a book they loved, no one will want to read it.
Even in this information-overloaded space we inhabit, I have more faith in readers and bookstores than that.
Perhaps it’s the result of the decline of physical stores and the triumph of online purchasing and e-books: no longer do readers hold a prospective purchase in their hands, decide if it feels good enough to spend time with, read the back cover and, if still intrigued, turn to the first page to see if they like the author’s style and whether this might just be the book for them. The comp titles might be a shortcut for decision-making, but they are a significant downgrade from what so many of us love about buying a book.
My complaint likely falls into a long line of authors’ kvetching. Perhaps, sometime in the past century, authors bristled when publishers started splashing copy on the back of book jackets, reducing their 120,000-word masterpieces into a hundred words of enthusiastic jacketdom. Or perhaps the same happened later with the arrival of The Blurb.
Comp titles are a particular problem for those of us who write cross-genre fiction and for those who did not model their style or plot or subject matter on anyone else. And that’s exactly where I found myself a few months ago. Marketing was ramping up for the second of my Jen Lu mystery series.
The Last Resort (Crooked Lane, Jan. 2023) is set in Washington, D.C., in 2034. Half of it is narrated by Det. Jen Lu’s “partner” Chandler, a biocomputer implanted in her brain. Must be sci-fi, right? No, it has the vibe of a police procedural mystery—although, then again, there’s a rich near-future tradition in science fiction.
Climate change is hitting hard and inequality is busting what’s left of social cohesion. Must be a grim, dystopian book, right? Hunger Games, anyone? Nope, it’s fun to read and, most importantly, it’s optimistic about the capacity of humans to create a better future.
It aims to be page-turning entertainment yet is animated by serious political and social themes: the climate crisis, the role of the oil and gas industries, violence against women. Okay, I get it, we’re going for Greta Thunberg meets Margaret Atwood? I’m honored to be compared to both in terms of themes and politics, but no, the tone is incredibly different and this definitely is fiction.
I don’t underestimate the challenges to either publishers or booksellers when we cross genres or set out to write a book that hasn’t been written before. But isn’t that at least one of the things authors should aspire to? Isn’t the unleashing of the creative imagination and then wrangling our scribbles into a tight plot with interesting characters a worthwhile goal?
I tried to say all this to my smart marketing director. But even over the phone, I could sense her very capable brain was trying to work through an algorithm that kept turning back on itself. It just would not compute.
We left it at that.
Like everyone else, I’ll have to click on Amazon or Bookshop.org, IndieBound or Barnes & Noble to discover what they finally decided.