How To Find Your Comp Authors

Comp authors can be tricky, and nailing that down for yourself is increasingly important these days, especially when it comes to ads. Writers tend to tie themselves into knots over this but there is a very simple way to cut through all the noise and help determine your true comp authors.

Comp Authors Explained

Let’s start with the basics before scaling up the complexity and getting deeper into marketing concerns.

“Comp author” is publishing shorthand for “comparable author.” You might also hear people these days in indieworld using it in phrases like “know your comps,” or “target your comp authors.” Or you might come across the phrase “comp title” more frequently in traditional publishing.

The phrase was originally used by publishing professionals as shorthand to describe a given author’s voice in marketing communications and sales pitches. For example, an agent might shop your book to a publisher describing your sizzling romantic suspense as “EL James meets Lisa Jackson,” and the acquiring editor will know right away that she’s in for a dark, twisty story where the sex isn’t just open door – the windows are probably open too.

The same trick is used in marketing where readers might be told a hot new debut is like “Malcom Gladwell meets Chuck Tingle,” and they will instantly know they are in for a profound rethinking of the societal impact of unicorn butt cops on beach patrol.

This kind of triangulation really does work, which explains its ubiquity. It was a piece of advice handed out to querying authors the last time I bothered an agent (i.e. about 10 years ago) and I believe it’s still considered best practice today. Although newbie authors are warned to adopt a different tone than marketers; instead of “The best thriller since Gone Girl,” our hypothetical agent-seeker is usually advised to use the much more demure formulation of, “May appeal to fans of David Eddings and Raymond E. Feist.”

This is something that newbie authors struggle with. But don’t worry newbs: salty old pros can struggle with it too. And coming up with comp authors is even more important for indie authors today than for the fretting queryer.

Comp authors are used by indies to inform decisions on presentation: covers, pricing, blurbs, taglines, and marketing copy generally. But these days they have a much more important role in addition to all of that: ads.

Targeting comp authors is one of the most rewarding strategies with Facebook and Amazon Ads, and pretty much the only workable approach with BookBub Ads. Not having a good sense of your true comp authors can end up getting very expensive, very quickly. It’s also one big missed opportunity, because if you can nail down good comps, you are halfway to advertising success.

The first step to homing in on your comps is overcoming an internal block – one equally shared by newbies and pros. I think this goes back to the crucible that many of us were forged in, that aforementioned query process, and the attendant (well-meant) warnings not to get too big for our boots.

Many authors can be reluctant to compare themselves to giants of the genre, or anyone with outsized success. Others can be hesitant to compare themselves to anyone at all, having a very strong sense of what makes their voice, and that of other authors, utterly unique. And then at the other end of the scale, some authors can be absolutely instinctual about how they approach the craft of writing and might simply not have any idea who writes in a similar fashion.

Reframing The Concept of Comp Authors

Here’s the rub: it’s not about voice. It’s not even about who you write like. It’s about who you share an audience with. This simple reframing of what a comp author is – at least in a marketing sense – can be liberating.

It’s no longer about comparing yourself to Elin Hilderbrand or Brandon Sanderson or Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Instead, it reframes the question from the reader’s perspective: what other authors do my readers enjoy?

Instantly, this can unlock something inside your head. I don’t have to worry that I’m putting myself on the same level as an author who has sold over 100 million books, or who is critically acclaimed, I can simply say that Ken Follett and Bernard Cornwell are comp authors because my readers also enjoy their work. Which means that the audiences of Ken Follett and Bernard Cornwell may be fruitful targets for my ads.

This reframing is so crucial that it bears repeating: a comp author is someone who you share an audience with. Your Inner Artist may object to this reformulation, but she is not to be trusted when it comes to marketing. Remember, at least when it comes to marketing, a comp author is not a writer with a similar voice or style or level of success, but one you share an audience with.

It really is that simple and adopting this approach should expand your comp author list significantly.

(Note: almost any aspect of marketing can benefit from adopting the reader’s perspective, and I’ve written a whole book on the topic called Strangers to Superfans: A Marketing Guide to the Reader Journey, if you want to get deeper into that.)

Building Your Comp Authors: Also Boughts

Now that you have thrown off the shackles and are ready to welcome more comp authors into your marketing life, where should you go looking for prospects? Amazon’s Also Boughts are a good place to start, as it’s a relatively pure reflection of what other books people are buying along with yours.

A couple of things to keep in mind though: various things can skew your Also Boughts.

  • If you were too scattergun in your marketing, your Also Boughts might be scrambled.
  • If you just had a free run (or big 99¢ promo) which was promoted heavily on reader sites, your Also Boughts might reflect – at least for now – the other books that were free/99¢ and similarly promoted around the same time.
  • If you are a big name in your genre, then your books might be relentlessly targeted by heavy spenders on Amazon Ads, which can reorder your Also Boughts quite significantly and render them not very reflective of organic reader sentiment – which is what you are looking for.
  • Oh, and if you have sold little to date, then this data puddle won’t be reflective of anything meaningful. Indeed, Also Boughts usually don’t even begin displaying on your books until you have reached 50 sales.

Those caveats aside, Also Boughts are generally a very useful source of comp authors, and should be your first part of call. Indeed, you can end up with a very complete list just from this one step.

And many of the above skewing factors can be side-stepped by either checking the Also Boughts of your books a little deeper into your series (the Also Boughts on Book 4 should be much more reflective of what your core fans like to read rather than that more broadly flogged Book 1), or by perusing your Author Also Boughts – i.e. the list on your Amazon Author Page – as these are kind of aggregate Also Boughts across your entire catalogue.

Don’t forget one thing: you can go more than one step deep here. For example, if you write cozies and are 100% sure that you share an audience with Betty Rowlands and that she is a very solid comp author for you, then you can check out her Also Boughts and consider whether someone like Faith Martin would work for you too – even if that name don’t appear very prominently in your own Also Boughts. Just don’t go too many steps removed from your own work and its primary Also Boughts.

Building Your Comp Authors: Other Sources

What if one of the above caveats does describe you? What if you haven’t really started selling yet, or if you are Mr. Big Cheese in your genre and relentless targeted by big spending advertisers? What if your Also Boughts, for whatever reason, aren’t delivering enough good comp authors?

There are a number of other potential sources for comp authors. You should have at least some sense of your work and where it fits in the marketplace, and sincerely hope you are having conversations with your readers in one form or another which will give you a sense of what else they enjoy.

Seriously, don’t dismiss that step. This information is gold and you are getting it straight from the source. You can ask your readers what they are currently reading, what their favorite book this year was, which authors are an insta-buy for them. Facebook is a good place to ask questions like this. Email is even better, because all that organic two-way communication improves your deliverability and open rates, and develops an actual relationship with your readers too, which in turn will improve engagement.

However, if you want more solid, aggregate data, Facebook Audience Insights can be eye-opening.

Although recent privacy scandals have led to Facebook quietly axing a lot of the data in this tool, there is still enough left to be very useful for our purposes. Facebook Audience Insights allows you to look at your Facebook Page and see what other pages your audience likes, and what interests they collectively have. Not only that, but you can perform the same exercise for any other Page on Facebook, and also for any custom audience you have developed, such as your list or website visitors.

And, of course, any previous adventures in advertising will have generated a short list of winners for you (and probably a much longer list of losers!). On that note…

Using Comps In Advertising

Having gone through all this trouble to generate a list of comp authors, you think the universe would do you a solid and just let you roll out ads to all of them and see what happens. Unfortunately, the universe is an asshole.

Facebook, Amazon, and BookBub Ads are all very different platforms, with their own unique quirks. You can’t simply take one approach to all these ad venues, and so it goes with comp authors.

Here’s the bad news: you need to develop a separate list of comp authors for each venue. Which sucks, I know, but there’s a flipside. Most people don’t bother, so it’s a huge competitive advantage if you take the trouble.

About those quirks. In my personal experience, Amazon Ads seems to handle the broadest comp author list, and BookBub Ads really requires you to drill down to the tightest comp authors on that list.

Facebook Ads are a bit weird in that you can directly target some authors, but not others, and it’s not always dependent on how many Likes they have or how famous they are in meatspace either. And that can vary hugely by genre – coverage is much patchier in some genres than others. On the plus side, Facebook Ads can handle giant trad authors as comps like no other platform. And if you can identify one of those, you have your own golden goose.

BookBub Ads don’t handle those giant trad authors well at all, but if you can get a short list of medium sized indies working for you there, that’s often all you need. This platform probably has more unique quirks than any other, but if you learn to embrace those instead of fighting against them, that’s half the battle. When it comes to comp authors in particular, definitely don’t make the mistake of targeting anyone without testing – even if it’s a solid comp author that is a money printing machine for you at other ad venues.

(I also have a book called BookBub Ads Expert: A Marketing Guide To Author Discovery which covers how to use the platform in comprehensive detail, including a huge chunk on testing, and developing BookBub-specific comp authors. And if you want a free intro to the approach, I also have a short, free email-based course at Reedsy.)

While I am much more fond of spending my ad money at Facebook or BookBub, Amazon Ads is probably the best venue to do some initial testing of comp authors – particularly for those who are completely lost and have no real hard data yet on which authors work for them. This comes down to the different ways the platforms charge you.

Despite popular misconceptions, Facebook charges by impressions. Always. Even if you select the option to be charged for link clinks or video views or conversions or whatever, Facebook just takes the impression cost and converts it to your preferred metric – it always comes back to impressions in the end. In more prosaic terms, this means you will pay for your ads whether someone clicks on them or not.

(And if you want to get deeper into Facebook Ads sign up to my free marketing newsletter. You’ll get access to all the episodes you missed too in my brand new, subscriber-exclusive Email Archive.)

Bookbub gives you the choice of CPC or CPM – paying for clicks or impressions. However, as anyone who has read BookBub Ads Expert will know, I strongly, strongly recommend using CPM in almost every instance. Which means you will also be paying to show your ads there, whether someone clicks on them or not.

Amazon Ads, however, is all about clicks. You can display your ad to thousands and thousands of people, and if no one clicks on it, then you won’t pay anything at all, which makes it a good candidate for this kind of early-stage, scattergun, test advertising – even if I move the action elsewhere when I want to spend real money.

Go Forth And Multiply

It’s baked into most of us to be a little gun shy when it comes to comp authors, but I’m going to keep repeating this until it sticks: a comp author is someone you share an audience with.

Keep telling yourself that until it becomes reflexive and start building a broader list of possible comp authors. Farm those Also Boughts, pull in data from any other source you can, and be comprehensive. You can winnow the list down later, and tailor it to each ad platform as you go. Just remember to test any author before throwing down real money.

Above all, be hard-nosed and results-driven in your approach.

David Gaughran

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time spent outside. He writes novels under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership with his books, blogs, workshops, and courses, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.