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Book Appraisals: Picking Comps – Part 1


Most of us, as writers, are not that skilled at the beginning-to-end process of selling things.  We aren’t trained marketers or promoters; most of us haven’t gone door-to-door selling encyclopedias (although some of us have sold Girl Scout Cookies and other items, back in the day). 

Getting your marketing in place before you start selling your books means you can promote very quickly.

Selling things isn’t just banging on someone’s door with a fundraising form for a band trip.  Someone has to figure out what to sell, who they’re selling it to, and what that thing will do for the customer, then translate that into packaging, ads, marketing text, and even the forms the customer fills out to make their orders.

Books are no different, either for traditionally published or indie authors.  Roughly speaking, here’s the process:

  • You decide to be an author.
  • You write books.
  • You sell, or help sell, those books.
Let’s say you’ve completed a book. 
What next?

You need to figure out what story you’re selling, who you’re selling it to, what that story will do for the reader, and translate all that into covers, ads, book descriptions, newsletters, and so on.

If you are an indie writer, this process is essential; no marketing means no sales! 

If you are a traditionally published writer, this process seems like it’s not your problem, but it really is—you will be expected to help sell your book, once it’s published.  Even before it’s published, you will need to understand what you’re selling in order to write a query letter and synopsis. 

Why are query letters and synopses so hard? 

Because they involved understanding how to market your book.

In other words, whether you’re an indie or are traditionally published, understanding marketing will help you sell books.

Marketing vs. Promotion

Marketing is the invisible process of getting your book ready to sell.  Once your book goes on sale, the efforts that you put toward selling your book are no longer marketing, but promotion.  Marketing = finding your market.  Promotion = making people within that market aware of your book.

Getting your marketing in place before you start selling your books means you can promote very quickly.  You will be able to respond quickly to opportunities as they arise.  Marketing is like having your house in good repair and staged and ready to show for possible buyers, and listed for sale.

Promotion is showing your house, or holding an open house.  That open house may look like what sells your house—but without the hours of repair work, cleaning, and staging, your house isn’t as likely to sell as quickly or for as much, if at all.

First the marketing.  Then the promoting.

(Unless you discover from your promoting that your marketing is flawed.  Then you can switch back to marketing mode.)

Where to Start with Marketing

You’ve decided to do some marketing. 

Now what?

Some people start with the marketing research.  Other people write the book first and then do the marketing research.  I recommend the latter; markets change in popularity but passion gives a project legs (in other words, the ability to build an audience over time).

But, in either case, the first step remains the same:  find out what you’re selling.

How do you find out what you’re selling?

The same way a real estate appraiser finds out the value of a house: they find multiple comps, or comparable examples of houses in your neighborhood that have been sold recently.

To sell a house, find several other houses nearby that sold well.  To sell a book, find more books.

Your story has a genre.  That is the “city” that your story lives in.  Your story has a subgenre.  That is the “neighborhood” that your story lives in.  Your genre and subgenre are where you should start to look.

Finding Your Story’s Neighborhood

Let’s say that your story is a domestic suspense novel.  Your “city” is mystery/crime/suspense; your “neighborhood” is domestic suspense.

As an example, let’s look on the Amazon bestseller lists and find their term for a domestic suspense novel.  (It might not be the same term across distributors, and you might have multiple options.)

Let’s start out with the Amazon Mystery, Thriller, & Suspense list. 

The subcategories (on the left side) are:  Mystery; Thrillers & Suspense; and Writing.  Our domestic suspense example probably “lives” in Thrillers & Suspense rather than Mystery or Writing, so let’s go there.

If we look down the list of subcategories under Thrillers & Suspense, we find one called Domestic.  Let’s click that.  We are now in a good “neighborhood” for a domestic suspense story.

A note for indie publishers:  make sure you’re looking through the Kindle/ebook lists, rather than print (print often has separate lists).  Print skews toward traditional and small-press publishers, and may not give you a full range of good comps.

Finding Your Story’s Comp Books

What makes a good comp book?

This will be affected by whether you’re selling an indie book or are putting together a query letter for a traditionally published project.  Indie books should draw from a mix of indie, small press, and traditional sources; traditionally published projects should go for just traditional sources.  Small press books should lean toward a mix of small-press books and traditionally published books.

In general:

  • Comp books should have been published within the last 2-3 years.
  • Comp books should at least be in the same subgenre.  If they have the same type of plot or setting, even better!
  • Comp books must have the same overall audience:  children’s, middle-grade, YA, adult, etc.  Don’t use a YA domestic suspense title as a comp for an adult domestic suspense book!
  • Comp books should have a reasonable amount of success, but not be flops or bestsellers for traditional and small-press publishers.  Indie publishers can go after the bestsellers as comps, if they like. Agents and editors are often annoyed by a comparison to a really famous book.

A note: don’t worry about name recognition on your comps.  Book pitches should feature books that people recognize easily; comps should be books that sell reasonably well (name recognition not necessary).

Part 2 posts tomorrow.

DeAnna KnipplingDeAnna Knippling has two minor superpowers: speed-reading and babble. She types at over 10,000 words per minute and can make things up even faster than that. Her first job was hunting snipe for her father at twenty-five cents per head, with which she paid her way through college; her latest job involves a non-disclosure agreement, a dozen hitmen, a ballerina, a snowblower, three very small robots, and a disposable dictator in South America. Her cover job is that of freelance writer, editor, and designer living in Littleton, Colorado, with her husband, daughter, cat, more than one cupboard full of various condiments, and many shelves full of the very best books. She has her own indie small press,, and her website is

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