January 28, 2019
What are “comp titles” and how are they keeping publishing white?
by Ryan Harrington
Often, when I’m called upon to advise fledgling writers on how to pitch their books, they’re surprised to hear me say something like “think long and hard about the recent books that your book is similar to.” The truth is that much of this type of thinking goes into a publisher’s launch of a book.
Sure, every book is a unique contribution to humankind’s knowledge of self and world, but getting that book into stores involves being able to demonstrate that “this has worked before.” When a book we’re going to publish has good (and convincing) comps, it is very useful to us.
In an illuminating recent essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Laura B. McGrath calls comp titles “the most important data that no one outside of publishing has ever heard of.”
One can step back and imagine how years and years of this practice would have a homogenizing effect on literary style, cover design, and marketing copy (it does!), but McGrath does one better, stepping way back—with help from Stanford University Literary Lab’s vast digital humanities research capabilities—to show how comp titles work against efforts to diversify authorship in publishing. She finds:
From 2013 to 2019, publishers identified 31,876 comps — about three comp titles for every new title published. I wanted to know which comps get cited most frequently (and, by extension, communicate high value), so I winnowed the list of 30,000-plus comp titles down to the top 50 most frequently used comps. Because many books have been cited as comps the same number of times, this list is actually comprised of 225 titles. I then worked with my undergraduate research assistant, Jonathan Morales, to research the race of each of the authors whose books are listed here.
The majority of these comps — these books used to justify decisions about who gets published — have been written by white authors. Nine books by people of color appear on this list, including N. K. Jemisin’s A Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, We the Animals by Justin Torres, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. Just nine out of 225 books.
That’s a damning figure. It essentially says “of the 225 books that publishing most values, nine are by authors of color.” And it says to a generation of young writers “your book should look like this—which may involve you looking like this, too.” McGrath is right to add that recent efforts to diversify awards ceremonies are a nice, public-facing, bandaid, but we have to take seriously the fact that the book market is rigged against authors of color (and that the market is manmade).
In this way, the book economy sounds an awful lot like the broader economy, and empowering the underdogs is the only way we’ll be able to grow the industry in a way that works for all of us.
Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.