Monday, July 27, 2009

Monday Mailbag: Comp Titles

I asked, and you answered. You all had great ideas for what I can blog about, and I'm happy to report I've written posts on (most) of them and have thrown them in the hopper to post as the week unfolds. This is because I'll be on vacation this week (today through Friday). Don't panic, now—unlike some people who leave their blogs with (admittedly very competent) sitters while they volunteer their time to help others, I'll be around all week, answering questions and making sure the blog behaves. Do you smell that? That's commitment.

Now, one of the questions that came up last week pertained to comp titles. What are they, how do they work, and how much control do you have over them?

A comp title—short for "comparative title," sometimes just called a "comp"—is a title used as a predictive tool to help ballpark expected sales on a new title. Publishing houses invariably try to pick their own titles as comp titles, since they generally solicit POS (point-of-sale, i.e. through the register) data from their accounts that are more accurate than BookScan's. If the title is by an author who's previously published with the house, the author's previous title is often used; if not, a title similar in format, publishing season, and content is used. Houses also want to pick comps that are relatively recent, as it's unlikely POS data will be available for a book that was published in, say, 1989 (or even as recently as 2000).

Some definitions:

Format: There are several, but the three most relevant to adult (i.e. non-children's) book sales are hardcover (also called hardback or cloth), trade paperback (also called quality paperback), and mass market (sometimes just called paperback). The title being sold and the comp title will always match in format, since different formats behave very differently when it comes to sales numbers. This is chiefly because their price points are so different: hardcovers are in the $20 - $40 range, trade paperbacks are in the $10 - $15 range, and mass markets are usually in the $4 - $8 range.

Season: The publishing season is the time of year when the book comes out. At my house, there are three: spring, summer, and fall. A title will always match its comp title in season, especially for blockbuster authors like Danielle Steel who publish two or three book per year. The ramp-up to the holiday season in the fall makes for a very different sales climate than in the spring, so using a fall book as a comp to a spring title is apples to oranges, even if they're the same genre and by the same author.

Content: Here I really mean "genre," but "content" is more all-encompassing, I think. If your title is literary fiction, it will be comped to literary fiction; if it's a non-fiction book about mortgage-backed securities, it will be comped to a title dealing with as similar a topic as possible.

Who picks the comps?

Oftentimes it's the title manager, although it's occasionally the individual sales rep. Title managers do exactly what you'd imagine they do: manage a list of titles. Among their many duties is selecting comp titles for upcoming releases, using the following criteria (of most to least importance, in my opinion):

1. Author, if the author has published extensively; if not, then
2. Genre
3. Format (tie)
3. Season (tie)
5. How recent the comp title is

Occasionally (though not often) the sales rep will disagree with the title manager's opinion and select another title as a comp, either as a supplement to the chosen comp or as a replacement. This could be due to the comp being a special, limited-edition run of a title (in which case the rep will list sales data for the standard edition in addition to the data for the limited-edition) or its being too old to produce reliable sales data (in which case the rep will replace the comp with a newer one).

How much impact do the comp title's sales data have on my title?

A decent amount; the buyer to whom the rep is selling will see the comp sales data and use them as a rough metric for his or her initial buy. The sales kits I prepare list the initial buy, first twelve weeks' sales, life-to-date sales, and market share (listed as a percentage and compared to the account's main competitor) for the comp title at the account being sold to. An example of what a buyer might see:

Title: Ezekiel Black: Curse of the Manpire
ISBN: 9780123456789
Author: Constantine J. Delgado
Genre: Paranormal Amish Bromance
On-sale: 2/9/2010

Comp title: Ezekiel Black: Amish Brometheus
ISBN: 9780987654321
Author: Constantine J. Delgado
Genre: Paranormal Amish Bromance
On-sale: 2/24/2009

Initial buy: 2,200
12-week sales: 1,044
LTD: 1,745
Market share: YOU—12.6%; COMPETITOR A—17.9%

Now, Amish Brometheus currently has 79.3% sell-through (great!) but had lower sell-through (around 50%) in early sales. Due to the current economic climate, maybe the buyer only wants to take 1,800 copies of Curse of the Manpire. The rep tells the buyer, however, that Competitor A clearly outsold them on Brometheus and has taken a strong position on Curse of the Manpire; the buyer will have to up his buy in order to remain competetive. He's not convinced. The rep then lists marketing and publicity, including a six-city author tour, a spot on Good Morning America, and mentions that the author has a very widely-read blog with a loyal fan base. The buyer reconsiders and, after much haggling, decides to up his buy to 2,500, but no more. The rep, knowing that Competitor A took 4,000 copies, may continue to ply at the buyer even after the initial order has been set and entered in all the computers, up to a few weeks before on-sale. He may secure, if he's lucky, some endcaps or in-section face-outs for a couple of weeks after on-sale, say for $1,000 total (i.e. co-op).

Try as he might, though, the rep won't be able to significantly increase buy unless sales blow up, in which case this will be mentioned to the buyer the following year when it's time to sell Ezekiel Black: Darkest Before Brawn.

In a nutshell: comp sales data weigh in heavily on an account buyer's decision on an initial buy. You want the best comp available.

How do I get the best comp available?

Well, as I've said, this is largely up to the title manager and sales rep, and to be honest, they do a pretty bang-up job of it. However, if you're particularly worried, you can always ask your agent to check and find out what title(s) your book is being comped to (if you've published a book in the same genre before, chances are it's your own). If you're so inclined, you can check the BookScan numbers for a thumbnail sketch of sales (or check your royalty statements/ask your agent & editor if the comp is one of your books). Most of the time, you'll find the comp is appropriate.

Read that again, though: appropriate. Not "mega awesome." Appropriate. Potentially even worse than having a weak comp for an otherwise good book, which is likely to disappear off the shelves and incur reorders regardless, an overly strong comp (Boy Wizard and the Perilous Journey, for instance) can induce too large a buy on the account's end, meaning massive returns. Your sell-through suffers as your return rates soar, and this will be reported to both the publisher and the accounts. Pushing for an inappropriate, though seemingly excellent, comp is pretty much shooting yourself in the foot.

Good news: it's unlikely the house will really listen to your request for a different comp anyway, so the odds of you shooting yourself in the foot are next to nothing.

Bad news: in the extremely unlikely event the house has picked a disastrous comp, there's not a whole lot you can do about that, either. But I do encourage you to ask your agent to check into it if you're worried about it.

7 comments:

  1. Paranormal Amish Bromance? You're my hero.

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  2. I SO want to read those books!!

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  3. Ezekiel Black: A Knife in the Bark.

    Ezekiel Black: Stark enough to kill.

    Ezekiel Black: When Death comes Smocking

    hahaha. I love this funny but informative post. Thanks for the inside look at comps.

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  4. Eric, your blogs are ridiculously helpful and interesting. I read a ton of writing blogs from agents, editors, you name it, but yours is tops in my favorites (sorry Nathan, you've been dismantled).

    Regards
    Leigh in Singapore

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  5. I'm with Meg :)

    Paranormal Amish Bromance...

    Brilliant.

    Thanks very much for the info and the laughs.

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  6. About span--do title managers take into account a particular year/selling climate? For example, from your post, I gather that fall would ordinarily be a span with strong sales, but last fall was a disaster in the book selling world. Titles that came out in September thru December 2008 and beyond suffered as bookstores scrambled for credit during the crunch. They cancelled orders and sent back midlist and debut books, without even stocking them in some cases, to get credit to stock more surefire sellers in the form of bestsellers. If you compare the fall span of 2008 to previous years, well, it's going to look bad for the 2008 authors. And if you're trying to set a 2009 order based only on a debut that came out in the fall of 2008, that looks really bad for the author, too. Is an author in this situation doomed?

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  7. I take pride in the fact that my books comp to nothing, not even my other books.

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