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Compare My Manuscript to a Famous Book—A Writer’s Question

May 16, 2013 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified May 16, 2013

On an blog article about query letters, a reader asked about comparing manuscripts to existing books. I’m guessing that other writers might have the same concern, so I’m giving the topic an article of its own. The question (edited for length and personal details)—

I have been advised by several authors to note in my query, elevator pitch, etc., that my book has been compared to a classic, To kill a Mockingbird.

I do not think that happens because my book is as good as To Kill a Mockingbird, although I know it is well done. Instead, I am sure that I often hear this comparison because I wrote in a first person narrative style in the Southern Gothic genre.

One person recently told me that publishers would think I’m arrogant if I use this comparison. But it does tell the publisher the style in a succinct way. Your opinion will be appreciated.

My answer (also edited, because I simply had to add more)—

I’ve seen the same advice, that you can and maybe should compare your story to a known book for that instant identification. Yet I’ve also seen advice that suggests you shouldn’t, especially not a comparison to classics or bestsellers.

For the elevator pitch, I’d say don’t do it. At least not until you’re asked for more details. The pitch itself should be a line or two that reveals the heart, the main thrust of your story. You’ll no longer be describing just your own story when you make the person you’re pitching to think about another book; at the naming of that other book, you’ve instantly directed attention away from your own.

Anything the agent or editor associates with the other story—bad characters, weak plot, the bad movie version (the good movie version), every other writer who pitched with a comparison to the same book—could come to mind as soon as you mention the other title. There may be good comparisons, of course. But if you’ve only got 10 seconds to pitch and two lines to speak, are you willing to bet you’ll stir up only positive associations?

And if you use another book in your pitch, what exactly do you intend to convey with the mention of it? You could get lucky and the agent or editor might immediately think of Southern gothic (in the case of To Kill a Mockingbird). But she might as easily think oh, a racial story. Or maybe something about law and justice in the south. Or maybe something about a child having her eyes opened to injustice, or honor and integrity in the face of great opposition.

You can’t control another person’s first reactions and if you’ve only got the few seconds of an elevator pitch, wouldn’t you rather speak specifically about your story, about what makes it the unique story that it is, and try to direct your listener’s first images and associations?

For the query letter you might have some leeway since you have more time and more words, but you run the risk of making yourself sound as if you think you’re a writer on par with Harper Lee or some other noted author. Again, you can achieve an instant identification, but is it the right one and is it worth directing the focus away from your manuscript?

You could, of course, choose a book other than a classic, and that is the wise choice if you do want to include such a comparison in a query letter. (And if agent or editor requests a comparison, you’d provide one without question.)

But for most queries and definitely for the elevator pitch, I can’t see that naming another book would be worth directing attention away from your story. You don’t get a whole lotta words or a whole lotta time to describe your unique characters and plot—do you want to give that time and those words to the work of another writer?

And even though you’ve got more words to play with in a query letter, you still don’t have an awful lot. If you need those words to describe character or plot in your query, use them for character or plot.

That said, you may get asked for a comparison or asked about the audience for your story in a follow-up question (in person or in an e-mail)—what other books would your intended audience enjoy or likely have read? At that time you could confidently share a comparison with another book.

Also, there’d be nothing wrong with putting this back on the agent or editor, letting them push for more if they’re interested. They’ve done this thousands and thousands of times—it’s not likely that they’ll turn you down simply because you don’t include a comparison, and they know how to solicit more information, how to ask a simple question. Your duty is to be ready when they ask.

Others might give different advice, but these are my reasons for recommending only your own story at that first contact. There’s plenty of time later to make comparisons.

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As with any communication with agents or editors, check the submission guidelines before you query and before you pitch in person. If an agent or editor has a website, blog, or other means of communicating with writers, do a little research. Some agents and editors may absolutely hate such comparisons, while others will find them useful. If agents or editors hold an opinion at either extreme, they’ll likely let writers know.

My advice here is to err on the side of caution—don’t use the comparison unless you know what images or feelings such a comparison might evoke and don’t use one if there’s any inkling that agent or editor doesn’t like the practice.

Many agents and editors share examples of successful pitches and query letters—take your cues from those.

Do have your comparison ready, however, especially if you’ve got a good one. A comparison to a single book or movie or to the combination of two books or movies—Doctor Dolittle meets King Kong—can create an instant image and identification.

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If anyone with experience—successful or unsuccessful—comparing a manuscript to a published novel cares to share that experience, we’d love to hear it.

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Tags:     Posted in: A Reader Asks...

3 Responses to “Compare My Manuscript to a Famous Book—A Writer’s Question”

  1. I met with an editor from Penguin to discuss one of my manuscripts about three years ago and she very much wanted me to be able to describe it as “XXXX meets XXXX”. i,e, [famous book/movie] meets [famous/book movie]. I really struggled with that because I didn’t feel there was anything out there that really corresponded with what I had written. Interesting that an editor was specifically asking for that kind of comparison… I guess that’s a tool she uses for ‘selling’.

  2. Rebecca, you’ve hit it exactly—agents and editors do need to sell their authors and their manuscripts and this is one tool that helps them do that. Here’s hoping you get many other opportunities to speak with editors about your manuscripts.

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