How to Write a Book Proposal: Part I: Comps

This is the first in a series of posts I intend to write over the coming weeks about how to write a book proposal. Given that I have worked for a major publishing house for the past seven years and that my job entails reading and vetting dozens of them on a weekly basis, I feel qualified to write this post, and, if you're an aspiring author, I hope you find it useful. If you're not an aspiring author, maybe you'll find it interesting. 

A quick disclaimer: the How to Write a Book Proposal series will not consist of step-by-step instructions on how to write a book proposal from start to finish. If you Google "how to write a book proposal," you will find dozens of websites with info on how to do just that. If you're looking for deeper information, check out one of the many books on the subject. 

Rather than giving you the soup-to-nuts skinny on writing a great proposal, I'm writing this series to talk about some of the things I, personally, pay attention to when reading a new submission. 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? I don't do that (because we all make mistakes), but I do judge you harshly if your proposal does, or fails to do, certain things. I also laugh about you to my colleagues, but you will never know this because when I reject something (most often via your agent), I send a polite note saying I'm passing because "I don't feel this is a good fit for my list" or "I felt the subject was too narrow to attract a wide audience." These are, generally, my true reasons for passing on something, but they certainly don't let on that I spent a good 15 minutes reading portions of your proposal out loud to my assistant in order to entertain us both during a mid-afternoon energy slump.

Okay, to be fair, if your idea is fantastic or I love your writing style or you have a huge built-in audience who will trip over themselves to be first in line to buy your book, I would never pass on your project simply because the proposal did something that irked me. But, if you want to be safe, you will read what follows, take it to heart, and remember it when you get to writing. Okay, here we go.

In our first installment, we'll be discussing...


Otherwise known as "Competition/Comparisons." In this section, you list books that are similar to your own. Generally, an author will list 4-5 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:

  1. It makes the editor's job easier
  2. If you do it correctly, it shows the editor you know your audience, understand the market, and have done your homework

First, let me explain #1. A good comps section makes my job easier because part of any editor's job is convincing her publisher (and, if she is able to acquire the book, her publicity, subrights 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 their 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 they 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, which I can't, for the life of me, determine is serious or ironic. So stop it. There is definitely a book like yours out there. 

Remember, publishers are businesses. Yes, they are often run by English majors who got into the business because they loved books (that is a stereotype, but it is often true), but we also have to feed ourselves. 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 me a favor: include a good comps section.

Now, #2. What does it mean to do a comp section correctly? It means a few things.

  • It includes books that are actually similar to yours
  • It doesn't only include 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 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. If you're writing a book proposal, you're likely familiar with the concept of an advance. For those who aren't, look it up, but for the sake of context, an advance is a sum of money a publisher pays an author in exchange for the rights to publish his or her book. An 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 a publisher offers an advance, they have to figure out how much they think the book is worth, which brings us back to comps.

Like I said, it's impossible to know exactly how much any book is worth before it is published. I have no idea how much Scribner paid for the rights to publish Angela's Ashes, but I'm sure it was a lot less than the book was actually worth considering how well it sold. On the other hand, there are countless books that receive high advances--sometimes millions of dollars--and don't end up being worth that much at all. It's a crapshoot.

The reason you should not comp your book to a huge bestseller is because it's 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 4-5 comps that have sold reasonably well and are genuinely similar to your book than to list a bunch of huge bestsellers. We go back to the first two reasons why a comp list is useful: it helps the editor and it shows you know your market.

If I have a book I want to buy and can point to a handful of books that have sold reasonably well--say between 30,000-50,000 copies--I am in good shape. That is a nice number of copies for a book to sell, so I can tell my publisher there are similar books that have sold well but they have not sold so well that they aren't useful in helping me determine how much I should spend on the advance. This number will allow me to justify spending a fair amount of money on the book, but not so much that my publisher will, say, "No way!"

So, what does a good comp section look 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 Kite Runner and The Client because they 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. 

Okay, so what should that misguided business author have done? Let's say Mr. Business Author is writing a book on running a small business. He should only include comps that are about that very thing. Some good comps he might mention are Small Giants by Bo Burlingham or The Pumpkin Plan by Mike Michalowicz or Built to Sell by John Warrillow. [Full disclosure: all of 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 only calling these to attention 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. 

If you're writing that memoir of growing up poor in Ireland, and really can't stop yourself from mentioning Angela's Ashes, though, I still wouldn't recommend listing it in the comps section. Idea-driven non-fiction is very different from fiction or literary/narrative non-fiction, 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. The only 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. McCourt described life in Ireland in the 1930s, but 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, except for this: read them. Before you set out to write a book, familiarize yourself with the other books out there. This will not only ensure  you have a good comps section, it will make your book better because you will know what a successful book looks like. Also, an author--especially a non-fiction one--is expected to be an expert on his or her chosen subject. A good comps section will illustrate that you actually 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.