It Turns Out the Industry Values Whiteness
January 23, 2019 7:54 AM   Subscribe

Comps reveal a great deal about the diversity of publishing and the experience of people of color within it. These data should give us pause about any self-congratulatory “strides.” Comp titles show us which books and which authors publishers most value; they become a target at which editors, agents, and aspiring authors aim. The dearth of writers of color as frequent and influential comps — both within and across genres — shows that writers of color still do not enjoy a broad influence behind the scenes. They don’t seem to be shaping acquisitions decisions at a high level. Even best-selling novels by writers of color are highly unlikely to change the decisions that publishers make about which books to acquire and by whom. "Comping White" by Laura B. McGrath in the LARB
posted by chavenet (10 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
In case you're wondering what "comps" are, from the article:
Comps, short for “comparable” or “comparative” titles, are the basis of all acquisitions. By predicting profits and losses, comps help editors determine if they should acquire a book or not. Comps are a sort of gatekeeper, determining what — and who — gets access to the marketplace.
posted by smcameron at 7:56 AM on January 23 [8 favorites]

In case you're wondering what "comps" are, from the article

I was still a little confused honestly, but I pieced it together: For every new book listed in the publishers' catalogs, there will be a number of comps listed. An example given is Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. When it was initially acquired, it was compared to other books about mothers of teenagers and missing girls, like The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani, Bent Road by Lori Roy, and Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight.

By analyzing these comps, the author is able to discover the types of books the publishing industry wants new books to be like. It's a great and telling analysis. Thanks for the post.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:18 AM on January 23 [5 favorites]

This analysis seems backward. Comps are used to persuade people (agents-->editors, editors-->publicity&marketing, publishing company-->bookseller, booksellers-->readers) of a new book's greatness and blockbuster potential.

The problem is that in the past most bestselling books have been by white authors. So it seems more of a GOOD thing that new books by non-white authors are being compared to the strongest selling books that they overlap with in topic/style/substance, not just in the ethnic identity of the author.

The Celeste Ng book example is the perfect example of this, and it seems to undermine the point of the article. If Ng's book were just been comped to Joy Luck Club everyone would be up in arms that she was being put in the "Chinese family stories" ghetto.
posted by PhineasGage at 8:34 AM on January 23 [1 favorite]

The Celeste Ng book example is the perfect example of this, and it seems to undermine the point of the article.

The article makes it quite explicit that Celeste Ng, N. K. Jemisin and the other authors of color represented in the top comps are clearly exceptions to the overall rule, exceptions created because their books were so excellent (In Jemisin's case winning three Hugos for one trilogy) that they were able to break through the prevailing bias against authors of color.
posted by Rock Steady at 10:40 AM on January 23 [4 favorites]

Celeste Ng herself does not agree with the author of the article.
Ng has written extensively about her experience as a Chinese-American woman in publishing, including an essay entitled "Why I Don’t Want to Be the Next Amy Tan." Ng argues that the comparisons made between authors of the same race imply "that we’re all telling the same story,” which is “first and foremost A Story About Being Chinese, not stories about families, love, loss, or universal human experience."
Comps are explicitly an effort to SELL MORE BOOKS. So which should it be: compare works by first-time POC authors to others of the same ethnic background, a ghettoization that Ng herself explicitly opposes, or compare them as having similar interest and therefore potential as the bestselling titles in the broader, (and sadly thus-far) 'whiter' market, which the author of this article opposes?
posted by PhineasGage at 10:57 AM on January 23 [1 favorite]

I'm a little puzzled about Jemisin -- 100,000 Kingdoms was not her breakout work, and she published 5 books before The Fifth Season which was. I grant that comps starting in 2013 could not include any of the Broken Earth books.

Anyways, overall, it's interesting (and unsurprising).
posted by jeather at 1:52 PM on January 23

Comps are also used by agents to sell the book to the publisher in the first place, and by writers who are querying agents.
posted by quaking fajita at 3:17 PM on January 23 [2 favorites]

Yeah but I do know agents who will laugh forever if you try to comp yourself to NK Jemisin or Celeste Ng or whatever. It's bad form, you're not supposed to comp to Major Breakout Hit or Huge Star Author, and it shows a lack of research about how to query. This is a different kind of advertising from comps that publishers put on the books.
posted by jeather at 7:10 AM on January 24

I just flipped through the first few pages of a couple of publishers catalogs and found several comp titles by writers of color. The idea that no one is using Jesmyn Ward's books as comps is ridiculous. Maybe from the agent -> publisher side, but this does not hold up on the publisher -> customer (wholesaler or retailer) side.

I'm....not sure why I'm defending this because of course the publishing industry is extremely white and definitely needs changing. But this is a weird argument to make.
posted by lyssabee at 4:40 PM on January 24 [1 favorite]

No, Jesmyn Ward's not in the top 225 most comped books, not that "no one is using her". That argument is weird, but it's not being made by that article.
posted by jeather at 7:02 AM on January 25

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