It goes without saying that when agents, editors, publicists, marketeers and sales people have a book to get in the hands of readers, they use every means they can to ensure it is published well.
Unfortunately, to “publish well” has increasingly become a hopelessly standardized process, one in which every actor involved in the publishing process, according to the size of their respective companies, has to tick certain boxes in order to avoid savage retaliations from their fellow agents, editors, publicists, marketeers and sales people.
One of these boxes, which a Bookseller article pointed out this week, comes labelled “comparative titles”, i.e. those already-successful published titles to which a new book is compared when being pitched.
I am not sure when the habit of using comp titles became such a thing, nor why. I like to imagine that it started when an editor went to pitch a very quirky book to their publisher, and their publisher did not have time to read it so they asked the editor what it was like, and the editor said: “it is unlike anything that has been done before”. And the publisher said: “Let’s leave it, then. If no one has done it before, there is surely a reason why”. So from then on the editor learnt how to compare their picks to successful things which had been published in the past.
So now - and I am talking in particular about fiction and literary fiction - whenever any woman writes a good book, somewhere an agent or an editor has to ask themselves if the book is similar to Sally Rooney’s book, or to Ottessa Moshfegh’s, or to a combination of both (oh, Sally Rooney and Ottessa Moshfegh’s countless dreaded love children) in order to secure a certain level of attention and backing; or on the contrary, if they choose the more dangerous route of not comparing it to Sally Rooney’s books, risking that it might appear like a book of no commercial appeal.
So every female author ends up being "the new Sally Rooney” (usually, “with a twist”). It is assumed that an author can become successful if they are comparable to another successful author.
Interestingly enough, the very same formula, “the new Sally Rooney”, can be used to describe, as well as a new author considered similar to Sally Rooney, a new book by Sally Rooney, as if Sally Rooney wasn’t an author, a person, but simply a brand. As if she was her book.
Even if done with the best intentions, ultimately this does not seem particularly respectful towards the “new Sally Rooney”. Nor to Sally Rooney herself.
Don’t get me wrong, we also do it.
There is an extensive philosophical tradition about the epistemological advantages of proceeding from similar to similar, about the virtues of deduction. The first of which is maintaining control via the exercise of the most reassuring logical principle, the principle of non-contradiction. This tradition has clearly become one of the pillars of modern marketing. And of course, comp titles have become a crucial part of online marketing, and perhaps this has solidified their use, due to the huge role they play in the positioning of a book in terms of metadata.
The problem with this system is that it makes things very straightforward for most of us and accelerates the process of “publishing well”, and yet it also makes it much more difficult for new things to emerge. And if they do, they manage to only if disguised as things which already exist. The problem with proceeding from similar to similar is that it intrinsically prevents disruption, and a certain level of disruption is what in my opinion can keep an industry healthy, as well as flexible.
I recently thought I was being very bold when I suggested to a colleague that they get rid of a couple of comp titles in the offer letter for a book we really cared about. There was nothing wrong with the comp titles – nor with the book itself, which could perfectly sit on the same shelf as the comp titles. I could see how my colleague’s intention was to show confidence and knowledge to the agents so that we could secure the deal. But I also knew that when it came to pitching the book to the trade, we would want to position the book as something entirely original. I’ll let you know how that goes, as I might repent.
Ultimately, as everyone says, authors are at the core of what we do. We are responsible for them and to them. Literature exists to be shared and our role is to always find new ways to share it. And so of course we do need our marketing strategies.
And yet, in this increasingly competitive market we seem only to be able to find reasons for optimism in existing structures, looking inwards, aiming to constant financial growth, chasing bigger and bigger numbers following the traditional rules of economics. We don’t allow ourselves to trust in new routes, and anything which is original becomes threatening, or just plain unattractive.
What if instead we started exploring unknown territories?
Everyone here is very familiar with the traditional methods of publishing and how, in order to obtain sufficient support, editors are often compelled to acquire titles similar to notable titles, or agents are encouraged to only sign authors with “potential” to be similar to someone else. The problem with comp-titles starts at the acquisitions level and it goes all the way to marketing, publicity, sales, metadata. But hat if we learnt to trust each other’s intuitions more, to allow some cognitive dissonance in the process of publishing?
The limitations of Twitter’s character count may be behind such regrettable phrases as ’the New Sally Rooney’, and other such linguistic tics and stock phrases, but is it not time we were a little more creative? We are all in a creative industry after all.
P.S. Sorry, Sally, your ears must be burning.
Eva Ferri is the publisher of Europa Editions UK and Edizioni E/O in Italy. She lives between Rome and London.