Discover more from The Manuscript Works Newsletter
What the heck are comps?
Hello Manuscript Workers,
First, some news:
I’m offering an online workshop on August 10, 2022, called Write an Outstanding Book Proposal. It’s a 90-minute presentation that will cover how scholarly publishers decide whether to put a book under contract, the key components of the scholarly book proposal and why they’re there, common mistakes that prospective authors make, and concrete tips to make your proposal stand out. There will be opportunities to ask questions directly during the presentation.
This workshop is intended for anyone who is planning to submit a book proposal to a university press or other academic publisher. You can be a first-time author or a repeat author who is looking to take more control of the process this time around. You can have a draft you’re ready to polish or be trying to psych yourself up to starting one.
The workshop will be held live via Zoom on Wednesday, August 10, 2022 at 10am PDT. Registrants will be provided with a recording and supplementary handouts. You can register even if you don't plan to attend live. You will then get lifetime access to the recording and materials.
The suggested fee is $50, but there are other options available for those with different budgets. If you are able to pay the $50 fee, that helps the most to sustain my business and offer additional workshops in the future. I am planning several new free ones for the fall.
Moving on! I thought that while we’re in thinking-about-book-proposals mode, it might be helpful to use today’s newsletter to demystify the part of the book proposal that scholars tend to find most confusing. (I’ve worked with hundreds of scholars on their book proposal drafts, so this is an empirical observation.)
This component of the proposal goes by different names, but in the publishing industry it’s known as “the comps” or “comparable and competing titles.”
Here are a few examples of how different scholarly publishers communicate what they’re looking for in their proposal submission guidelines:
Cambridge UP: “An explanation of how [your book] relates to other publications on the topic that have been published recently whether by Cambridge or by other publishers”
Yale UP: “A comparison of your book to others in the field currently on the market, how your book differs from the current offerings, and what place your book will have in the market”
Princeton UP: “Please list a few of the books with which your book is comparable, including title, author, publisher, and year of publication. Include a brief statement outlining how your book differs”
University of Chicago Press: “An account of your book’s relationship to comparable or competing works”
University of California Press: “Describe existing books in this field and discuss their strengths and weaknesses”
University of Michigan Press: “Similar or competing books in the field”
Routledge: “Competing and related titles (including pros and cons vs your book)”
Oxford UP: “Relation to existing literature in the subject area, distinguishing what makes your work unique in relation to existing literature in the subject area”
Maybe these instructions make intuitive sense to people who work in publishing, but they tend not to to scholarly authors. This is because when scholars see “discuss your book in relation to other books in the literature,” they assume they are being asked for a familiar type of writing: a literature review.
In a typical literature review, you delve into the theoretical frameworks and research findings in your field that have paved the way for your own thinking and research contribution. The works you cite may go back decades or centuries. They may be by people who are very differently positioned than yourself in terms of field or career stage. And you may go into pretty specific detail about the nuances of the work and how yours builds on or departs from it.
While some of the people reading your book proposal may care about these nuances of past scholarship, a conventional literature review is not the most effective way to pitch your book to a publisher when they ask you to discuss your work in relation to other books.
What all of these publishers are getting at—but only some of them say explicitly—is that they are trying to get a handle on the potential market for the book you’re proposing. In other words, they want to understand who is most likely to buy your book today (or a couple years from now) and which aspects of your book are most likely to appeal to those readers when making a purchasing decision. They ask you for a list of “comparable and competing works” as an indirect way of establishing that.
Because of this, you’ll make the strongest case for your book’s marketability if you focus on a few things in your comps:
Books, not other types of publications. People discover and access journal articles in different ways than they do books. They expect different things from them. Other books will the closest points of comparison in the eyes of scholarly book publishers.
Recent books. Books where the people who bought them are still alive and conducting research and purchasing current books in the field. Books where the conditions of marketing and distribution were as similar as possible to the ones your book will be facing. Not foundational works in your field from decades ago.
Similar publishers to the one you’re pitching. Different types of presses have different types of marketing and distribution, so if you’re pitching a university press, you’d want to establish a realistic market for your book by listing mostly other university press books. Likewise if you’re pitching a trade press or a commercial academic press.
Broad descriptions of the existing books’ appeal to audiences. Highlight the ways in which your general topic, approach, and field/subfield are comparable or complementary to recent books. Books are not generally marketed on the basis of their theoretical nuances, so you don’t need to get into those here. I find that it helps to think about how you decide which new books to read. You might take the specific argument or intervention of the book into consideration when deciding whether to cite it in your work, but when deciding which books to read or buy in the first place, you’re probably not being that specific. So you don’t need to be that specific in your proposal.
Also keep in mind that many of the people who evaluate book proposals to decide whether a project is a good investment for the publisher are not expert-level scholars themselves. You’ll want your discussions of other books and your own to make sense to people who are not steeped in your literatures.
Understanding that this part of the proposal is concerned primarily with the market should also help you see that you don’t have to slam the other books or say that no other books like yours exist at all. You’ll make a better case for your book if you can show how it is similar to and provides an important addition to books that have already been well-received by your target readers.
I hope this helps clear up some of the confusion you may be feeling when you encounter this item in a publisher’s submission guidelines.
If you found this newsletter helpful, you’ll really like Chapter 3 in The Book Proposal Book, which has additional tips on how to tackle the comps section, including what to do if you can’t figure out any comps for your project. The book also has examples of successful comps discussions that you can use as inspiration.
The other chapters address all the other elements of the proposal, leaving no mystery unsolved (I hope).
Have specific questions about comps or other aspects of the book proposal that you want answers to? Come through for the workshop on August 10! Hope to see you there.
Thanks for reading Manuscript Works Newsletter! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.