There are many guides to writing query letters that claim you should always mention one or two books that are good comparison titles for your manuscript. I don’t quite agree. I ignore most of the comp titles I see in query letters for two reasons: the titles are blockbuster books (like Harry Potter or Gone Girl) that no one can really hold a candle to or I’ve never heard of the books so the comparison means nothing to me on a personal level. If you really want to include comp titles, here are three ways to make them work with your query letter:
Focus on style or tone—not plot. Telling me that the plot of your book is similar to a plot of another book is dangerous. I don’t want to read something that I’ve read before. Using your comp titles as a way to explain the style or tone of your book helps me understand the direction you’re coming from… and it allows your plot to stand on its own.
Include a television show as a comp title instead of a book. These are the comp titles that work best for me. I’m going to be interested if you tell me your protagonist has similar characteristics to one of my favourite TV show characters. You won’t run the risk of making your book sound like an already-published book—because you’re not even talking about a book. Agents are interested in all sorts of media (not just TV), and those interests can tell you a lot about what we look for in great storytelling.
Don’t depend on comp titles to sell your book. Even if you brainstorm for days to think of the best possible comp titles, there’s no guarantee that the agent you’re querying will be familiar with the book(s). Sometimes comp titles are a nice addition—if agents know the titles. Assume that they don’t and write the best pitch you possibly can. It should be just as strong without the comp titles.
Rarely has a comp title made me more interested in a manuscript, and on those few times when it did it was because the writer just happened to mention one of my favourite things—like Wall-E, or About a Boy, or Dawson’s Creek. Then again, I don’t speak for all literary agents, and some of them absolutely love comp titles no matter what! Comp titles I’m unfamiliar with don’t lessen a query’s value in any way, but they also don’t add anything to the pitch. Go forward and choose your comp titles carefully!